This is my first bi-weekly column for the Arab Awakening section at openDemocracy.net. You can find the original here, and I strongly suggest taking a look at the excellent articles from my fellow columnists here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/this-weeks-window-on-middle-east-may-21-2012. I’ll be posting my columns on Lebanonsense after they go up there, and will hopefully still have time to update this blog with other thoughts and photos as I go.
Last week clashes erupted across Tripoli, North Lebanon, killing nine and wounding over 50 more ↑ . At the time of writing the fighting has abated, with the army presiding over a fragile peace, but some fear these hostilities are a sign of Lebanon’s infection by the violence in neighbouring Syria and consequent descent into conflict.
When I went through Tripoli as the initial protest was just starting up, Sunni Islamists were beginning a sit-in on Tripoli’s al Nour square, blocking the main road through the city. They were demonstrating for the release of Shadi al-Mawlawi, an activist who had purportedly been lured by security services under false pretences ↑ and arrested for association with a terrorist group.
Road-blocking protests are common here, and it is often possible to tell whether there are problems in Tripoli by the increased traffic diverted through the road outside my workplace northeast of the city. This protest, however, unravelled into a series of fire-fights centred on the pro-Assad Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen, and the opposing Sunni community of Bab al-Tabbaneh. These two districts, separated appropriately enough by ‘Syria Street’, have a Montague and Capulet-esque history of violence between them, and such clashes are treated by locals as a fact of life. Nevertheless, the increased intensity, duration and spread of the fighting this time are cause for concern.
International media have tended to frame this as ‘spill-over’ from Syria ↑ . The civil conflict there certainly has an impact here, and the two communities justify their fighting with reference to events unfolding across the border. Nevertheless the story in Tripoli is more complex than simple metastasization of Syria’s violence. North Lebanon is home to a majority-Sunni population who suffered considerably under the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005. Animosity and resentment therefore existed toward the Syrian-associated Alawites long before the uprising across the border. But a more important root to the current violence is the poverty blighting these communities. It is no secret that Tripoli is neglected in terms of investment, education, public services and employment compared to Beirut. Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are not just the centre of ideological animosity, but also among the most deprived communities in Lebanon, with approximately 20% of men ↑ there being unemployed.
Ideological difference, competitive victimhood, cramped geography and socioeconomic deprivation make for a dangerous mix, and many here see the fighters as pawns of higher political powers seeking to secure their influence in Lebanon ahead of next year’s elections. Of those I have spoken to, some regard al-Mawlawi’s arrest as intentional provocation by pro-Assad interests seeking to goad Lebanon towards supporting the regime, and its associates in Lebanon, by fomenting strife in the north. Others suggest that the protesting Salafists were awaiting an excuse for a show of strength, and al-Mawlawi’s arrest provided just such an opportunity. Whoever is seen as the main agitator, people fear that increasing brinksmanship is a sign that both groups perceive zero-hour as fast approaching, and that wider conflict is unavoidable.
Lebanon’s population has almost incalculable variation – and polarisation – along religious, political and community lines. Tripoli is a microcosm of that, and the stark economic and social realities for many living here make these divisions all the more salient. The chances of Lebanon-wide conflict remain low, restrained by the still-fresh memories of the destruction of the civil war. Nevertheless Syria’s turmoil will continue to cause ripples, as disenfranchised and frustrated communities frame their distress in terms of political grievances. If Tripoli is to avoid spiralling into further chaos, efforts must be made to understand and deal with underlying issues, rather than dismissing the violence as an unavoidable side-effect of Syria’s internal strife.