Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli: The Latest in a Long History of Pain

Rana Dimassi (left) and her son Alaa (right) hold a picture of Fawwaz Fouad al-Samman in Tripoli on May 3, 2020. (Michal Kranz)

Sitting in her apartment in the Sehat al-Daftar neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest and poorest city, Rana Dimassi was unable to hold back tears.

“I want what is right, they killed him and I want his rights,” Dimassi, whose 26-year-old son Fawwaz Fouad al-Samman died after being shot by the Lebanese Army on April 27 during a night of riots in the city. “Would the commander of the army accept the killing of his son?”

Dimassi told me her son had not been involved in the destruction of banks and military vehicles that night had prompted the army to fire live ammunition, tear gas, and rubber bullets at demonstrators. In fact, the night he died was the first night he had attended demonstrations in Tripoli — in the past he had only come down to distribute food and financial support to people in the city’s central square.

Nevertheless, his death became a message — and for the next 48 hours, Tripoli saw riots that were fiercer than anything the city had experienced in years. Not only did security forces continue to use rubber bullets and live ammunition against the rioters, but tanks and armored vehicles were deployed as well.

Yet his heavy-handed response, which Human Rights Watch labeled an unjustifiable and excessive use of force, was emblematic of exactly the type of mistreatment Tripoli had been subjected to for years. The initial cause of the riots on April 27 was not only Lebanon’s most recent economic crisis, which has hit Tripoli harder than anywhere else. Rather, it was also the culmination of decades of abuse, during which Tripolitans had suffered a vicious cycle of poverty, disenfranchisement, and exclusion, and had found themselves pitted against each other for cynical political purposes by Lebanon’s political elite. It was no surprise then that al-Samman’s killing struck a nerve — the people of Tripoli had had enough, and they’d had enough for a very long time.

“That’s the class clash in Lebanon,” Nina Najjar, a native of Tripoli, told me at a protest in front of Lebanon’s Central Bank in Beirut on May 1. “The poorer the population, the more they are treated with violence. So because Tripoli is poor the way they handle the protestors is way worse than they way they do it here in Beirut. The army goes with full force, they shoot rubber bullets directly at people, they aim directly at people.”

Formerly a prosperous port city, Tripoli’s fortunes declined steadily over the last several decades, leaving it a poverty-stricken afterthought in the eyes of Lebanon’s ruling elites following Lebanon’s Civil War. In truth, while the war ended in Lebanon in 1990, it continued in Tripoli’s neighborhoods — an on-and-off conflict raged between the Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tabbaneh areas until a peace deal was signed in 2015. While the conflict has been framed in sectarian terms — one neighborhood was majority Sunni while the other was majority Alawi — at the core of the battles was poverty. Local sectarian political leaders exploited the desperation of residents, handed young men guns, and paid them to fight against their neighbors, while others directed mosque bombings and other terrorist acts in the city.

Years later, military vehicles remain a regular sight in the city’s streets, and Tripoli has become widely associated with terrorism — some Lebanese have even referred to it as “Lebanon’s Kandahar.”

“Tripoli is also a place that has been victimized in a lot of ways,” Nadim el Kak, a researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy studies, told me. “A lot of stereotypes about the region, associating a lot of the protestors with terrorists and other extremist groups, when in reality these are people who are facing some of the worst living conditions in the country.”

Today, more than half of Tripoli’s people live under the poverty line, and some analysts expect that number to rise further, if it hasn’t done so already. Although the city had previously been seen as a base of support for former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party, the party has done remarkably little for Tripoli. Years of underinvestment, political neglect, and rampant income inequality between the city’s poor and its elite, which includes one of Lebanon’s richest men, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, have eroded any remaining trust in most of Lebanon’s politicians.

Yet alongside the righteous anger that has resulted from Tripoli’s recent past, residents maintain a fierce pride in their city and community. Nowhere else in Lebanon are Ramadan festivities more boisterous or the protests more vibrant — there is a reason Tripoli was named “the bride of the revolution” during the first months of Lebanon’s mass demonstrations last year. After decades of mistreatment by local politicians, people tore down their portraits which had long gazed down at Tripoli’s streets, and have confronted their leaders right on the doorsteps of their lavish urban residences.

A protest against poor living conditions in Tripoli in August 2018. Activists in Tripoli had long voiced a similar set of demands to the ones that later become the foundation of Lebanon’s October 2019 Revolution. (Michal Kranz)

Despite the darkness that clouds their social and economic life, Tripolitans have developed a more resilient spirit than most. They have never hesitated to demand their basic rights to life, dignity, and security — and have now showed all of Lebanon that they are not afraid to seize these rights themselves. Although the riots have ceased for the moment, the demonstrations have not, and peaceful protest actions have continued into this week.

When asked if he would return to the protests after al-Samman’s death, his brother Alaa did not hesitate.

“Of course,” he said, sitting next to his mother. “If Fawwaz’s blood doesn’t go, then who will?”

Freelance writer/reporter constantly in transit. Middle East & Eastern Europe | National Security | Foreign Affairs

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