Sects and the city

Nadine Elali





Tripoli’s fighters are pawns in a regional game April 11, 2013 An anti-Syrian regime dynamic is also driving the violence in Tripoli. Salafists and other Islamist groups, which have had relatively small pools of supporters in the past, have now been emboldened by funding from Gulf sources and are mobilizing in support of Syria’s anti-Assad rebels.

Abu Mohammad, a resident of Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh, told NOW that schools, mosques, and religious centers where Sunni scholars teach have mushroomed around Tripoli. Militant groups use these centers to recruit and Abu Mohammad says they pay recruits decent money through obscure charities. “An important part of this money we hear of is coming from Qatar. They are donating money, paying salaries, and funding religious schools and radio stations that lean towards Salafism,” he says.

Eager to maintain an image of ‘good faith’ as a principal of the Sunni community, Miqati has also been financing Islamist groups and well-known clerics in Tripoli. Future bloc’s former MP Mustafa Alloush spoke to NOW of monthly endowments being distributed by Miqati’s mediators to key Islamist figures.
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“Salafi Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, Imam of the Taqwa mosque in Bab al-Tabbaneh is one of them,” he says, “and he receives financial assistance worth $20,000 USD per month.” Al-Rafei is known for his pro-Syrian revolution stances, and Allouch believes that he enjoys impressive popular support and Miqati is interested in having him on his side.

Alloush confidently claims that Bab al-Tabbaneh gunmen get their money and weapons from Lebanese political leaders, Miqati included. “Some of the brand-new machine guns found in Bab al-Tabbaneh cost $8,000 USD,” he stressed. “Who in an area of such poverty could afford to buy such weapons?

”Last summer, Prime Minister Najib Miqati slammed allegations that he is arming Salafist movements in the northern city of Tripoli, saying that such accusations are politically motivated.

A security official who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity says that Miqati gains additional electoral points with Tripoli’s residents due to “aid services” his office provides for impoverished residents. Some of these “aid services” come as direct money payments to fighters, he adds. According to the official, the major leading fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh are Saad Masri and Houssam Sabbagh. Masri, he adds, receives a $30,000 USD monthly salary.

In his official statements, PM Miqati acknowledged that a “large part” of the Tripoli unrest is a consequence of the war in Syria

MP Mouein Merehbi confirms the above and explains to NOW that security institutions are protecting fighters on both sides. He tells NOW that when Sunni and Alawite gunmen from both neighborhoods are captured, they are freed instantaneously.

“The Lebanese government could end all violence in Tripoli if it wanted to,” Merhebi stresses, “disarming these groups would take no time at all and would not cost lives if both sides agree to disarm simultaneously. But neither party wants to shut the other down.”
and warned of the increase of weapons in the city, yet he has taken no action towards controlling the arms flow. His reactions to the violence focused on the role the Lebanese Army played in ending the conflict and in curbing attempts of establishing an extra-governmental emirate.

Abou Mohamad, who is also a Bab al-Tabbaneh fighter, tells NOW that it was Masri, one of Miqati’s men, who publicly declared Salafist fighter Houssam Sabbagh the ‘Emir of Tripoli’ in front of hundreds of other fighters and that segments of the Lebanese army protect them.
The fighters, he believes, are pawns in a larger game which serves the interest of all those involved. On one hand, Hezbollah sees that their Sunni fighters’ very existence fits Assad’s narrative that extremists from the ‘Emirate of Tripoli’ are sending ‘terrorists’ across the border to fight the regime. On the another hand, Miqati sees a chance to expand his popularity by mobilizing them.

Former Tripoli MP Mosbah al-Ahdab points out that Miqati supports Islamist groups with the intention to outbid his opponents and to undermine the popularity of his political rivals; he wants to gain votes and to stress to the
Arab countries his influence over the Sunni Street. Miqati’s intentions, he says, also “transcend the Lebanese borders.” He explains that by pointing to the possibility of onset chaos, Miqati “conveniently frightens the international community and draws on the attention of Arab countries that will ultimately see in him a guarantee for stability.”

Miqati’s relations with Arab countries turned sour when he agreed to become the prime minister of a Hezbollah-backed government that rose to power after a coup to the Arab-sponsored Doha agreement government led by Saad Hariri. Miqati is aware that these
1: A video of the Bab al Tabbaneh fighters during the December 2012 clashes in Tripoli. (NOW)

2: Ziad Allouki, Saad al-Masri, Houssam al-Sabbagh and Amer Arish during protests in Tripoli (
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The above information has been collected from politicians, security officials, fighters, Salafi sheikhs, and informants in Tripoli. The statistics are from a workshop on urban poverty based on a soon-to-be-released study by ESCWA. The history of events is collected from newswires crosschecked with veterans.
Najib Mikati
relations will not improve as long as he heads a government which has become a flashpoint of discontent among Arab countries. Therefore he is extending an arm to the Sunni street, seen as supporters of the revolution. “His resignation was a convenient way to break free from Syria,” Ahdab explained.

“But Miqati now holds the key to almost all fighters that surround the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen. The question is, what does he plan to do with them and how does he plan to protect them now that he’s no longer in government,” closed Ahdab.
In Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, sectarian warfare has become entrenched as a way of life. Every few weeks, armed clashes erupt between Sunni Muslims in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and Alawites on the hilltop of Jabal Mohsen. With the absence of a real political initiative to contain the crisis, clashes are expected to continue as the conflict in Syria worsens.

Different political parties are believed to be investing in the rifts so as to steer events towards a course that would better serve their goals. Syria and Hezbollah are backing the Alawite fighters while Sunni politicians and Gulf sources are backing the Sunnis to mobilize their support. As fighters on both sides become pawns in a larger regional game, former Prime Minister Najib Miqati is believed to be extending an arm to the Sunni street seen as supporters of the revolution.

Since the outbreak of hostilities in Syria between the Assad regime and opposition forces, the war has spilled over into Lebanon. Sunnis in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood support the rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen stand loyally by him. It is fitting that the street which forms one of the major frontlines between both is called Syria Street.

This division dates back to the early 1980s when the Syrian Army attacked Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh during the Lebanese Civil War. Since then, the fighting between residents has been directly related to Syrian affairs. Both neighborhoods being among Tripoli’s poorest and most densely populated areas, the high number of unemployed men also means a glut of ready and willing fighters each time the clashes erupt.
  • delbert.abiabdallah

    it is a very sad sad country when going to a public school is a barometer of being poor.

    July 15, 2013

  • christopher.nassar

    Great argumented article with statistical analysis ... Hope that anyone can change anything

    April 18, 2013

  • minmaken

    Sure it's a great job done (really), but 3an jad, all Sunni islamists fighters in Tripoli are "affiliated" to Miqati ? What about Future movement ? Just a few "shifting affiliations" from time to time ? I might miss something but a quick look at your charts casts doubts about, let's say the least, completeness of the data. Probably due to sources...

    April 15, 2013

  • Youssef El Baba

    interesting point of view, It's probable that a panoply of political and regional interests are at play. I tend to believe that everyone has a piece in the cake, as you do. But you should've cited references for us to check to back up your claims. Politician's statement lack integrity and honesty, you cannot rely on them as real evidence - but you did consult many and that's good, you didn't rely on a single one - however fighter's testimonials on the other hand are much more valuable, as you might have recognized. The solution in tripoli can only be viable if it relies on disarming everyone, the ADP and the fanatic salafists just as importantly. The core of the problem in Lebanon is that each one of us relies on his supposed "religious identity" to position himself politically, it's stupid if you come to think about it, because that means no one is actually reflecting on anything. Christians are simply sticking to their ardent view of their superiority - a good part of them at least - and muslims too in the same manner see themselves as morally superior and regard others as "infidels" who should be converted, didn't anyone ask himself the question: what if I was born in a family of the other camp ? People, you have to recognize there is no such thing as the "christian's rights in Lebanon" or as any others "sect's rights" for that matter. Belonging to a religion might be your business, but it entitles you to no particular "rights". When the Lebanese start grasping that, and slowly realize the viability of a secular system, that's when any real change might happen. Until then, Lebanon will stay the battleground of the middle east, and the whole world to say the truth, as David Hirst puts it.

    April 13, 2013

  • bernadette.daou

    Finally a very good reporting on tripoli! great job!!

    April 13, 2013

  • nazih

    Interesting report. Good job Nadine. One comment: Syrian Occupation to Tripoli did not start on 1991 or even on 1982. Parts of Tripoli and all Major villages surrounding (in Akkar and Koura) was under effective occupation since 1976.

    April 12, 2013

  • rooftop

    interesting and well researched...

    April 11, 2013