The city that didn't know where to start

Tripoli’s revolving stalemate

Alex Simon

Nothing is wrong with tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and a wellspring of economic potential. And yet—demonstrably—everything is wrong with it. It is a place with all the components for success, and where nothing seems to work. Tripoli bursts with robust infrastructure, a rich commercial history, billions of dollars in local private wealth, and cultural assets that rival any city in the Arab world. For decades, though, Tripoli’s promise has gone unfulfilled, and today’s city is renowned above all for the scale of its poverty and the rounds of street violence that have periodically rocked its streets even since the end of Lebanon’s civil war.

The explanation for this paradox lies more in the city’s environment than the city itself, with dynamics at the national, regional and even global levels all seeming to stack up, insurmountably, against Lebanon’s northern capital. In terms of security, the past two years have brought a period of tentative calm, yet the toxic politics and economic stagnation that have long underpinned the city’s woes remain untreated. For the moment, Tripoli is suspended in an awkward state of limbo, with nobody quite certain when or how the city will emerge from its long downward spiral.

From commercial powerhouse to cul-de-sac

Tripoletans are generally quick to dive into their city’s bygone greatness, conjuring images of the maritime trade that made the city rich long before Beirut became the Paris of the Middle East, the city’s orchards and olive groves, its famed soap and woodworking industries, the romanticized cosmopolitanism of the pre-war years. The history, indeed, is palpable. Tripoli’s hulking citadel is as impressive as any in the region; it overlooks a sprawling, labyrinthine old market unrivaled in Lebanon, which at one point opens onto the 13th century Mansouri Mosque. In the main square sits a clock tower gifted to the city by the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid more than a century ago, when Tripoli was a mighty provincial capital in an empire encapsulating most of today’s Arab world and parts of Eastern Europe.

Equally palpable, though, is Tripoli’s advanced state of decline. The old city is one of Lebanon’s most concentrated centers of urban poverty, and swathes of buildings are scarred by bullets. At any given moment since 2014, the citadel has been occupied by soldiers keeping the peace, who seem to outnumber tourists—on a good day—at least twofold. Perhaps the best metaphor for the city lies in its ruined train station, which has been out of use since the early days of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, and which now sits idle and overgrown, a graveyard for the rusted skeletons of trains that once linked Tripoli’s port with markets in Beirut, Syria and beyond.

It’s difficult to say precisely when this shift took place. The most obvious inflection point was the start of Lebanon’s civil war and, more specifically, the Syrian occupation that began in 1976 and dragged on for 29 years. As a majority Sunni city with a growing strain of indigenous Islamist militancy, Tripoli suffered some of the Syrians’ cruelest predations at a time when then-President Hafez al-Assad was engaged in the brutal suppression of Syria’s own Muslim Brotherhood.

The war didn’t ruin Tripoli’s port; China did

Even before the war, though, global dynamics seemed to be working against Tripoli. The demise of the Ottoman Empire and the advent of modern Lebanon dealt an irreversible blow to the city’s erstwhile economic primacy; through the mid-20th century Beirut would rise as the center of political and economic power, with Tripoli marginalized as a result. In the 1970s, Syria began to develop its own port of Tartous, which gradually ate into Tripoli’s role linking central Syria with the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, while the growth of industry benefited the city to an extent, technology and globalization were—as always—a double-edged sword, with cheap goods and declining trade costs eroding Tripoli’s advantage as both a manufacturing and import-export hub. As one Tripoletan economist put it, “The war didn’t ruin Tripoli’s port; China did.”

By the civil war’s end, a city once known for its economic heft and cosmopolitanism had begun to close in on itself, straining under occupation and riven by violence that through the 1980s had pitted a confusing array of Sunni factions—including Palestinian groups, leftist militias, and the jihadist Tawheed movement—against one another and against Syrian-backed militias from the Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen.

Tripoli’s economic potential was eviscerated not so much by the violence itself, but rather by the exodus of educated professionals and a merchant upper class that had long formed the city’s commercial backbone, leaving behind a broken city inhabited largely by rural migrants and the urban poor. The damage wrought by capital flight was compounded by the city’s growing isolation not only from the city’s hinterland in Syria, but also from Beirut, as the railway that once linked Lebanon’s first and second cities had been dismantled during the war.

While peacetime brought solutions to some of Lebanon’s problems, Tripoli’s were left to fester. Then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri threw himself and his real estate ambitions into reconstruction, but with an overwhelming bias toward the capital. Against this backdrop, the end of Syrian occupation in 2005 created a vacuum that—instead of prompting a re-envisioning of Tripoli’s economic role—inaugurated a period of even greater disorder. Guns and money flowed from foreign benefactors—mostly in the Gulf—through national-level elites and into the hands of local sheikhs and militiamen, who in turn fought, sometimes violently, for their share of Tripoli’s poorest neighborhoods. Put differently, and despite billions poured into the reconstruction of Beirut, the lion’s share of post-war financing for Tripoli came in the form of weapons and militant patronage.

The lion’s share of post-war financing came in the form of weapons and militant patronage

Tripoli, therefore, was in dire condition long before 2011, when the Syrian uprising and its shockwaves plunged the city into fresh turmoil. On the one hand, the Syrian conflict spawned intense polarization between Lebanese partisans and opponents of the Syrian regime; this was acutely felt in Tripoli, where Alawite militias from Jabal Mohsen engaged in periodic clashes with Sunni factions from the neighboring Bab al-Tabbaneh. Meanwhile, some 70,000 Syrian refugees have flowed into a city with a metropolitan population of roughly 500,000, many of them settling in impoverished areas where basic services and housing markets were already stretched.

A final, subtler but no less important consequence of the Syrian crisis has been to fuel the sense of persecution that was already simmering in the city. The Syrian uprising sparked intense solidarity on the streets of Tripoli, which holds closer historic ties to Homs and Hama than to Beirut, and still nurses bitter memories of the regime in Damascus. “Of course Tripoli was going to stand with the Syrian people,” reflected an academic; “Syria is part of us.” Unsurprisingly, then, the brutality into which Syria has descended would sow profound feelings of disempowerment and injustice. As Assad rained barrel bombs down on rebellious areas, Hezbollah crossed over in force from Lebanon to aid in the fight. Tripoli’s Sunnis, meanwhile, were left to watch the carnage, with the general understanding that a Sunni who joins the ranks of the opposition will either die in Syria or be arrested on terror charges upon return.

Tripoli’s hydra-headed identity crisis

After decades in decline, Tripoli today finds itself in the throes of a multilayered identity crisis, in which the city’s economic, political and social malaise all flow into and reinforce one another. Tripoletans often describe their city as existing in a state of chaos; just as frequently, they note the impossibility of pinning down precisely what the city needs, because—in short—“Tripoli needs everything.”

An echo-chamber gone silent

At the heart of Tripoli’s woes lies the fact that the city has long ago lost any sense of economic direction. As a wealthy Tripoletan businessman and politician put it (from his office in Beirut), “any leadership role that Tripoli once had in Northern Lebanon is gone. We are behind in everything.” Industry is a distant memory haunting empty hangars, and Beirut has largely monopolized maritime trade. The route south to the capital is choked with traffic, while the road east to Syria and the Gulf has been largely closed off by war. Tourism to the city’s coast and rich cultural landmarks holds significant promise, but—for the moment—the city’s reputation for violence makes this a non-starter.

Poverty levels, meanwhile, are typically estimated around 50 percent. With the city as stagnant as it is, more than a dozen private universities churn out graduates whose fondest ambition is often relocation to Beirut or overseas; the city’s poorest rarely make it that far, with many dropping out of school and pursuing work in an informal economy estimated—anecdotally—at 70 percent of the city’s total commercial activity. Others will emigrate through informal channels, pursuing (on a much smaller scale) the same dangerous, desperate maritime routes as those fleeing the crisis in Syria.

From this grim environment flows the lifeblood of the city’s militia industry. While Western and Lebanese narratives often cast Tripoli as a bastion of Salafi-jihadi sympathies, the prevailing dynamics are far less romantic. In times of peace, local political bosses buy electoral clout in poor neighborhoods by bankrolling second-rate prayer leaders, who tend to peddle extreme views as a means of tapping into their constituencies’ simmering frustration. In times of violence, impoverished youth are swept up into the service of warlords—known popularly as “Axis Leaders”—that leverage national (and international) patronage networks to pay a salary. Among the city’s poorest, a hand-out of a few hundred dollars can easily be enough to put one’s life on the line.

Radical proclivities appear to be more symptom than disease

To be sure, identity politics and religious fundamentalism have a role to play, and jihadist groups have irrefutably found pockets of support in recent years and in decades past. As is generally the case, however, radical proclivities appear to be more symptom than disease. A Tripoletan representative of the mainstream Jamaa Islamiya (Lebanon’s Muslim Brotherhood franchise) put it well: “it’s very easy to mobilize people in this magnetic environment.”

The social dimension of Tripoli’s identity crisis goes deeper. Religiously, the city—or at least parts of it—has indeed been drifting toward greater conservatism, not least due to the cottage industry of sheikhs with a penchant for outbidding one another in their hardline rhetoric. While the city’s religious sphere is theoretically regulated by the official government body Dar al-Fatwa, the latter’s actual influence is tenuous at best, leaving a fractious space in which sheikhs compete for the loyalty of youth in search of something to grasp onto. “The people who turn to extremism are religious,” explained an academic, “but theirs is a popular, simple form of piety. This brand of Islam generally is new to Tripoli—it’s alien and it’s superficial.”

And the divisions don’t stop there. The chasm between rich and poor is stark, with Tripoli simultaneously home to some of the poorest in Lebanon and to numerous millionaire businessmen. So, too, is the gap between “native” Tripoletans and the rural (and Syrian) migrants whom they see as having laid claim to, and thus transformed, the cosmopolitan city of old. “We walk in the street and we don’t know the faces, we don’t know the city any more,” said a resident. “Mistrust,” lamented another observer, “has been spreading like the plague.”

Another dimension of Tripoli’s disarray is political. While factionalism and gridlock define politics Lebanon-wide, the scene in Tripoli is particularly messy. As Lebanon’s largest Sunni-majority urban center and a place where no one political grouping enjoys clear preeminence, Tripoli serves as the staging ground for intense competition between the country’s various Sunni political bosses. The corrosive effects of this competition are widespread, ranging from street violence between elite-sponsored militias to the total paralysis of the city’s municipal council. The latter dynamic is compounded by extreme centralization, with an already gridlocked council forced to gain approval from Beirut for even the most banal of undertakings.

Tripoli is a staging ground for intense competition between political bosses

The level of popular frustration with this state of affairs was on full display in the municipal elections of May 2016, when political outsider Ashraf Rifi put forward an electoral list that defeated the list sponsored by a broad coalition of traditional local elites. Rifi’s campaign was one of populism and identity politics; having lately resigned from his post as Minister of Justice in protest over the government’s accommodation with Hezbollah, he cast himself as the defender of Lebanon’s Sunnis in the face of oppression at home and abroad. At the same time, he burnished his image as an everyman, as the anti-elite—the politician who personally answered his cell phone, while his competitors insulated themselves within layers of secretaries and advisors. “The elites relied on autocracy,” mused a journalist. “Rifi relied on humility.”

As is typically the case with populism, however, Rifi’s electoral victory was more cathartic than constructive. The city remains adrift, and no party has put forth a coherent vision for how it might emerge from decades of downward spiral. Optimists place their bets on the notion that the violence in Syria will subside and Tripoli—with its underexploited port and labor force—will be swept up in the process of reconstruction. Yet reconstruction is at best a medium-term prospect, and the scale of Tripoli’s involvement remains to be seen.

A city in quicksand

This situation is all the more tragic given the plethora of resources at Tripoli’s disposal. The city’s port is the most striking of its underused assets, with the potential to relieve the capital’s congested maritime trade, yet Beirut-centric policymaking continues to hamstring efforts to ramp up Tripoli’s role. Plans are underway to upgrade the port with foreign loans while also augmenting it with a Special Economic Zone that would provide incentives to jumpstart Tripoletan industry and foreign direct investment, creating several thousand jobs in the process. But even optimists advise that the SEZ will take at least three years to bear fruit; in the meantime, the project could be set back or derailed by any number of roadblocks in the political or security environment. As a representative of the SEZ put it: “In Lebanon, the road to anything constructive is paved with obstacles.”

The forty-year intermission

Another icon of the city’s untapped potential is the Rachid Karami International Fairground—a sprawling, modernist installation of 1 million square meters that was once meant to serve as the meeting ground for foreign dignitaries and businesspeople. Designed in the 1960s by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the fairground’s prospects were promptly derailed by the outbreak of war in 1975. More recent years have seen the fairground undermined by a mixture of periodic instability and nonsensical administrative procedures that make it virtually impossible to put the facility to use. If the city needed any more physical metaphors for decay, the fairground is flanked by a Quality Inn that is literally falling apart, and whose ownership is years overdue on payment to the site’s administrators.

Still more incongruous than the city’s underused infrastructure is the sheer volume of private wealth accrued over the decades by wealthy Tripoletan families. A coterie of millionaire—and even billionaire—businessmen and politicians hover above (or, more often, outside) the city, reinvesting primarily in the form of unproductive patronage. At its best, this arrangement serves the dual function of solidifying loyalty networks while subsidizing an array of services like healthcare and education for pockets of the city’s neediest; at its worst, it feeds into a system of militarization in which gang leaders rely on top-down support in the form of money and guns. What they do not do, however, is propel the city toward any semblance of productive growth. While many condemn this dynamic as parasitism, others defend it as common-sense: “It’s not about good will or bad will,” said a businessman, “it’s about interests.” Tripoli, with its cocktail of isolation and instability, offers high risk and uncertain rewards.

A final, more amorphous source of potential lies in the groundswell of local engagement among Tripoletans themselves, with dozens—if not hundreds—of local NGOs sprouting up over the past several years. Local initiatives have been augmented by millions of dollars in support from Western donors and international organizations scrambling to mitigate the fallout from Syria’s war in terms of displacement and so-called “violent extremism.” Yet the humanitarian and development sectors, too, have more than a hint of chaos about them: a crowded ecosystem of funders and NGOs often seems to be working at cross-purposes, with little coordination and still less strategy for how it all might add up to a change that is fundamental and durable rather than piecemeal and ephemeral.

A source of potential lies in the groundswell of local engagement among Tripoletans themselves

In this respect, as in many others, Tripoli exudes a sense of movement without change: of money spent and efforts expended, with precious little substantive progress. Perhaps the starkest example of this trend is the city’s industry of “vocational training,” a Sisyphean merry-go-round in which donors enlist local NGOs to equip participants for entry into job markets that simply do not exist. With dismal rates of post-training employment, graduates often return to re-learn the same unemployable skills while collecting whatever modest stipend is on offer.

These frustrating dynamics are attributable, in part, to the sheer scale of Tripoli’s accumulated problems and the general disconnect among those working to solve them. Just as importantly, though, they reflect the confounding nature of the environment in which Tripoli operates, hemmed in by another country’s war and long since presided over by a state that is absentee at best and antagonistic at worst. “There’s a lot of potential, a lot of ambition here,” said an activist in the poor neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh. “We are trying to work with it, but it’s hard. I’m here, I’m working and I’m asking for help, but I’m in quicksand. International organizations can throw us a lifeline, but ultimately we need a state reaching out its hand to us.”

A microcosm within a microcosm

While this state of limbo is particularly stark in Tripoli’s case, it is by no means unique to it. On the contrary, Tripoli tells the story of the last century of history in Lebanon and the Middle East more broadly. As a Tripoletan journalist put it, “The most important thing to know about Tripoli is that it is a microcosm: events outside Tripoli reverberate inside.” Tripoli, like much of the neighborhood, endured acute dislocation as a result of the post-Ottoman redrawing of the Arab world; enjoyed a romanticized—and now elegized—golden age of cosmopolitanism and coexistence around midcentury; bore the scars of political collapse, complete with sectarian polarization and a kaleidoscope of parties and militias; and, most recently, has been convulsed by shockwaves from the Arab uprisings, from which virtually no corner of the region has been saved.

Meanwhile, Tripoli’s gaping inequality, elitist politics, stagnant economy and stockpiles of unproductive wealth are emblematic of problems region-wide, and in some ways coincide with the socioeconomic dynamics shaping events in America and elsewhere in the West; indeed, one Tripoletan noted the parallel strategies of Ashraf Rifi and Donald Trump, each of whom galvanized alienated constituencies through blunt-edged populist rhetoric. Similarly illustrative is the dilemma of a young population with nowhere to go but Beirut, abroad or into an insecure, pitifully paid informal economy.

Tripoli, like much of the region, is built to repel its own human capital

Tripoli, like much of the region, is built to repel its own human capital. Success generally means one of two things: leaving, or finding a way of staying thanks to money coming from elsewhere. The city does attract significant attention and wealth, but little of the kind that does much good. For decades, containment has been the endgame of outsiders projecting in: Beirut has long seen its own development as linked to Tripoli’s decline; the regime in Damascus moved into Tripoli to forestall its ability to influence dynamics back home; and, today, Western donors have dived in primarily to stem the growth of poverty and radicalism that they view as threatening. But neutralizing a place and its people does nothing to solve deep-rooted problems; on the contrary, it shoves those problems off to surface another day, inevitably worse than before.

There is little reason to hope for a white knight who would arrive from Beirut or abroad to rescue the city from its protracted state of decline. But there is, possibly, a critical mass of people who recognize Tripoli’s potential and may coalesce enough to move the city forward. An idle workforce, immense local wealth, cheap and bountiful infrastructure, earnest but haphazard foreign support and an entrepreneurial spirit simmering in pockets of civil society and the private sector should be more than enough. For now, though, they all live in isolation from one another, rendering Tripoli far weaker than the sum of its parts.

What the city needs, then, is someone with the vision and capacity to stitch together its disparate components. Who will do so is anyone’s guess: Tripoli has no shortage of businessmen and activists, of concerned officials positioned to push for the city, of foreign donors hoping to make a mark. Most likely, Tripoli’s best chance will lie in a convergence of stakeholders who can zero in and capitalize on precisely what the place has to offer in the here and now, transcending the twin allures of nostalgia for the city’s past and romantic hopes that it might be reborn, phoenix-like, from the ashes of Syria’s war. Tripoli’s immediate challenge lies in redefining itself—realistically and on its own terms—in order to put its abundant potential to use.

30 January 2017

Alex Simon is a co-founder and Syria director.

Grateful illustration credit: cover photo by Dina Debbas; outdoor auditorium by Chloe Domat; indoor structure by the author. 

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