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"Tripoli Is Crying": Lebanon's Second City Is On the Brink of Battle

Conflicts between those who support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and those who back the rebels in Syria are always on the verge of breaking out, and tensions are particularly high in the aftermath of an August terrorist attack.

by Martin Armstrong
13 November 2013, 5:00pm

The al-Taqwa mosque the day after it was bombed.

About 200 yards from Tripoli's al-Taqwa mosque, Alan Dakkoud welcomed a customer into his small café. Regulars sipped on small cups of thick Turkish coffee, discussing whether residents of the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood would hold a demonstration in support of the Arab Democratic Party (ADP) in Tripoli's main square—something they had been warned not to do by the government.

Both the ADP and the residents of Jabal Mohsen ascribe to the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam practiced by besieged Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who they support. Next to Jabal Mohsen is the majority Sunni, anti-Assad neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh. Violent clashes between supporters of the two sides of the Syrian conflict have become routine since the civil war broke out two and a half years ago, but a tenuous truce has been maintained for the last few months. Now, however, reports linking the ADP and the Syrian government to two car bombs detonated on August 23 outside Sunni mosques—including al-Taqwa, where sheikhs vocal in their opposition to the Syrian regime were holding Friday prayers—have threatened to bring tensions in Lebanon's second city to breaking point.

The land between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. Photo by Alex Potter

The actions and rhetoric of the ADP camp since the bombings have hardly served to alleviate those tensions. Ali Eid, the leader of the ADP, has defied a court summons from Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces in connection to the bombings—he became involved in the case in after Ahmad Mohamad Ali, his driver and bodyguard, told authorities he helped a suspect in the bombings flee to Syria on Eid's orders. So far, Eid has yet to respond to the allegations and appears to be committed to defying the police. “The Information Branch [of the Internal Security Force] has made the [shedding of] Alawite blood permissible, therefore the [shedding] of their blood by us is also permissible,” his son Rifaat Eid said in a press conference.

Between serving customers in his Bab al-Tabbaneh café, Dakkoud told me that he'd emigrated to Australia in 1979 during the early years of the Lebanese civil war, three years after Syria began occupying his country, where they held a military presence until 2006. Dakkoud eventually returned to Tripoli in the mid-90s, and it's a decision that he appears to regret. "Eid is no good," he said in a surprisingly thick Australian accent. "People like him enflame the situation. But the problem is also the Lebanese army—their tanks are everywhere but they don’t stop the violence."

Confidence in the Lebanese state is limited in Tripoli, particularly in Bab al-Tabbaneh, where residents believe the Shia militant group Hezbollah have the government in the palm of their hand. After the August bombings, the neighborhood's Salafist leaders began to implement their own security measures, and Lebanese security forces noting an increase of more radical anti-Assad groups in the city, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

Armed men on the roof of the al-Taqwa mosque.

Through the windows of Dakkoud's café, I began to see people congregate outside the al-Taqwa mosque for Friday prayers. A convoy of six Lebanese army tanks grumbled to a halt nearby, but the surrounding rooftops and the mosque itself were being patrolled by privately-employed security guards in military fatigues, all holding AK-47s and sporting Salafist beards.

Volunteers from the almost satirically named Utopia—a campaign pressuring the Lebanese government to bring the August bombers to justice—hassled passersby to sign a petition in support of their cause.

"We want 100,000 signatures to pressure the government to speed up the legal process," said Shadi Nashabi, the campaign’s leader. "The Internal Security Forces have said that members of the ADP are associated with this terrorist act, and we are seeking justice. We know that Hezbollah and the Syrian government are pushing the government not to make these decisions. If the government don’t take action, then people here will take matters into their own hands."

And there's no reason to doubt Nashabi's claims; Tripoli's residents are well accustomed to vigilante modes of justice. Grudges are passed down through generations on the streets of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, and endemic unemployment means many join militias young in the absence of other opportunities.

Ahmad Jashir (left) and a friend.

Another Utopia campaigner, 17-year-old Ahmad Jashir, boasted of taking up arms against his neighbors in Jabal Mohsen. "I have many friends fighting, and many have been killed," he said. "Without the state's support, we must defend ourselves. If Jabal Mohsen comes down to [demonstrate for the ADP] today with 100 people, then 100 will be killed; if they come with 1,000, then 1,000 will be killed."

As midday prayers ended, the congregation spilled out onto streets around al-Taqwa, many of them heading over to the tables set up by the Utopia campaigners to sign their petition. Among the signees was Bassam Qanaan, a 33-year-old hospitality worker. Qanaan was injured in the Taqwa bombing in August and one of his friends was was killed. Over 20 years ago, during the Syrian army's occupation, his father was shot dead by a Syrian sniper while patrolling Tripoli's Mar Maroun Street.

"When I was young—when my father was still alive—I had friends who were Alawite. Even after he died, we tried to maintain this friendship, but now such things are almost impossible," Qanaan sighed. "People from both Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen have lost loved ones. People with nothing have been forced to move away."

Despite signing the Utopia petition, Qanaan was pessimistic about those responsible for his friend's death ever being punished: "I don’t think we will get our justice for these bombings," he said, "because the purveyors of justice are with the ADP."

Haissam Hamzi.

Across town, next to the city's port, Haissam Hamzi sat on a plastic chair outside the Salam mosque, the other place of worship targeted in the August bombings. Behind him, laborers on scaffolding continued ploughing away at the mosque's ongoing restoration. Like the kids I met outside al-Taqwa, Hamzi—the personal driver of Bilal Baroudi, the sheikh who'd been conducting Salam's Friday prayers at the time of the explosion—is also a seasoned fighter.

"I have been fighting against Jabal Mohsen for 35 years," he said, shrugging. "When my sons came of age, they fought too. The Alawites will not come down to protest today, but I don't see an end to this conflict. Tripoli is crying."

Hamzi’s prediction proved right: the Alawite supporters of the ADP and residents of Jabal Mohsen didn't end up demonstrating in Tripoli's main square.

Yesterday, Ali Eid's lawyer requested that the charges against his client be dropped. He also requested that Ali, the driver, be released. If Eid successfully avoids appearing in court—an outcome, if local rumors are to be believed, that would most likely be facilitated by pressure from the Syrian regime in league with Hezbollah—Tripoli's Sunni residents are sure to feel an increased sense of estrangement from their government.

And the hostility is already beginning to break through the cracks. Yesterday, Saad Ghieh, a pro-Assad sheikh who was arrested in August for concealing information relating to the twin car bombs, was shot dead by unknown gunmen outside his home in Tripoli's al-Bahsa district. Increased security measures have been planned in the southern city of Nabatiyeh for this Thursday's Ashura—a memorial of the martyr Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad and the third Shia imam—amid fears of retributive action

Now,all we can do is wait to see whether Utopia's wish is granted and Ali Eid is made to appear before a court of law. If so, the truce between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh might continue until the next tinderbox is lit; if not, it may be a pill too bitter for some of Tripoli's residents to swallow.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @scotinbeirut

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