Alex Rowell/Now Lebanon: Lebanon: Tripoli readies for a different kind of battle

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Lebanon: Tripoli readies for a different kind of battle
Alex Rowell/Now Lebanon/May 27/16

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The last time NOW walked along Syria Street, three days after yet another round of militia clashes between the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood on the street’s south side and the Jabal Mohsen quarter to its north had left 17 dead, the shops were almost all shuttered with heavy metal sheets; Lebanese Armed Forces armed personnel carriers (APCs) and Humvees the only vehicles moving on the road.

Revisiting the boulevard Thursday afternoon, however, the spectacle was dramatically different. Doors everywhere were open for business, populated with customers and busy workers. The volume of car traffic sufficed to cause jams in both directions. On several buildings, the scores of bullet- and rocket-holes that had once been such distinguishing features were now filled in. True, the army APCs were still there, parked with their gun turrets manned at various entrances to Jabal Mohsen, and soldiers stood patting their M-16s on the corner of every side street leading into Tabbaneh. But it’s been nineteen months since the last serious clash here, and, by Syria Street standards, things couldn’t have been calmer – it was a very different kind of battle NOW had come to cover this time.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, will go to the polls Sunday in the final round of the nationwide municipal elections. Unlike many other cities where local chieftains and strongmen formed joint lists, effectively reducing the vote to a foregone conclusion, in Tripoli the stage is set for a vigorous three-way contest.  A ‘For Tripoli’ list, backed by two billionaire former prime ministers, Najib Miqati and Saad al-Hariri, as well as ex-ministers Mohammad Safadi, Faisal Karami and Ahmad Karami, along with the Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyah and Al-Masharii Islamist parties, faces off against the ‘Tripoli’s Decision’ list backed by retired Internal Security Forces chief and resigned Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, and the ‘Tripoli is a Capital’ list headed by former MP Misbah al-Ahdab.

The lists each have a distinctive character, palpable even from the style of posters plastered around town. ‘For Tripoli,’ whose billboards appear on the highway several kilometers before one even enters the city, makes no secret of being a multi-partisan cross-section of the establishment, bringing together heavyweights from both the pro- and anti-Damascus ‘March 8’ and ‘March 14’ coalitions, respectively. Rifi, by contrast, who has smothered the area near his home on Riad al-Solh St with populist banners, is running on a hawkish March 14 ticket, asserting, “We will not allow the March 8 team to control our institutions.” Ahdab has issued a manifesto calling for socioeconomic development, hoping to tap into the everyday concerns of the city’s many low-income households.

In Tabbaneh, residents told NOW they were casting their lot with Rifi, in appreciation of his firm stance against the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition they blame not only for the local violence, but the misfortunes of Tripoli more generally.  “I swear to God, me, my wife, my sisters and my whole family will vote for Rifi,” said a mechanic wiping his brow in a garage. “You can ask anyone else you want here, they’ll all tell you the same thing.” “There’s no one but Rifi,” agreed a young man sitting on a plastic chair a few doors down, smoking an arguileh pipe. “He’s the only one with principles,” said a friend seated next to him. “Hariri was the one who turned us against Miqati in the first place, and now he’s shaking his hand,” he added resentfully.

 Only one member of the group dissented. Asked if he too was voting for Rifi, a young man with a long, bushy beard replied, deadpan: “I’m a Daeshi [ISIS member], I don’t vote.”
That was a joke – or so NOW hoped – but some others said in earnest they wouldn’t be voting for anyone. At the ‘Qahwetna’ café, opened on Syria St earlier this year by the NGO March with a view to promoting integration between Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen residents, four young men – hailing from both quarters – said they felt abandoned by all politicians without exception.
“They used us as cannon fodder, then turned their backs the moment the fighting stopped, not even paying for our hospital bills,” said a bony youth of about 18.

 “Miqati has the most money, so he’ll win”
In the city center, there was markedly less enthusiasm for Rifi, with residents seemingly resigned to the inevitability of a ‘For Tripoli’ victory.  “Miqati has the most money, so he’ll win,” said a worker at the ‘Gentleman’s Snack’ restaurant on Rahibat St, near Nejmeh Square. “He provides services – cleans roads, repairs infrastructure, etc.” Neither Rifi nor Hariri had much mass support in the city, in this man’s estimation. As for Ahdab, “he’s the most honorable one, but he doesn’t have Miqati’s money.”  By chance, NOW spotted Ahdab on the next street down, walking door-to-door to hand out copies of his manifesto, stopping regularly to smile for ‘selfie’ photos requested by random passers-by. After saying hello, he invited NOW to his house on Maarad St to explain the ‘Tripoli is a Capital’ program further.  “We’re totally aware that it’s David against Goliath,” he said in his living room, surrounded by half a dozen members of the campaign team. “But still, it has to be done. We can’t leave an opportunity like this without stating exactly what should be done in order to save Tripoli.”

The two key points of his program, Ahdab said, were the provision of health insurance for those who have none, and job creation. “These things are the minimum that could be done by the municipality of a city that has gone through all this instability.” He also vowed to counter what he says is the rampant corruption of the current municipality (“they spent almost [$67 million] lately, and nobody understands what they did with it”) by introducing full financial transparency. “It should be very normal to know how much money the municipality has, and to have it published. You know, if you go to the municipality’s website, the last budget that’s published is the 2009 budget. We’re in 2016!”

 While the program may well appeal to policy-motivated voters, the ‘For Tripoli’ list has proposals of its own to counter with. One of their candidates, Chadi Nachabe, is a well-known local civil society activist, who was spoken of highly by everyone from Tabbaneh residents to Ahdab himself. In a phone call Friday, Nachabe told NOW the ‘For Tripoli’ manifesto comprised seven policy priorities, including boosting tourism, tackling youth unemployment and revamping infrastructure.  “[We have to] improve the economic situation and attract visitors from nearby areas such as Koura and Zgharta to come and shop in the city, because we suffered from the wars and battles in the city, losing a lot of people from outside Tripoli,” said Nachabe.
Still, for other civil society activists, the idea of working for the major political juggernauts is a deal breaker.

 “They’re the ones who were funding and arming all the young guys to kill each other,” said Taleb Kabbara, a blogger volunteering for the ‘Tripoli is a Capital’ campaign.
“I would never trust any of those people.”

**Amin Nasr contributed reporting.