Guest: Tripoli (Lebanon), a historic field of dissidence

Foreword by Alex Mahoudeau:

This note was sent to me by my friend Sylvain Mercadier. Sylvain wanted to summarise the work he conducted on his Master programme, on spatiality and identity in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. I pasted the note as is. I thank Sylvain on sharing this insight with us on this platform. The districts Sylvain describes in his paper, Bab et-Tebbaneh and Jebel Mohsen, are too often reduced to two places at war because of the eternal opposition between two religious groups doomed to fight eternally. Sylvain’s clear and documented analysis puts this opposition, over-represented in the media, in its rightful place by historicising and politicising it. It also provides some insight to a city generally ignored by research.

c. Sylvain Mercadier, The Abd al-Hamid Karameh plaza, Tripoli, Lebanon

c. Sylvain Mercadier, The Abd al-Hamid Karameh plaza, Tripoli, Lebanon

Second largest city in Lebanon, Tripoli has gained a reputation for being a center of protest to government policies and turmoil since the Lebanese independence.
The gradual relegation of the Sunni capital of Lebanon, from a province capital during the Ottoman era to a second rank city in an new modern-state entity, combined with a more and more impoverished and idle population are but the most symbolic elements of Tripoli’s unsolved historical crisis.
Furthermore, from the eruption of the Civil War in 1975 to the current day, the spiral of violence has kept the city under a halo of instability characterized by its Islamic flavor.
After a first empirical approach to these problems, a leap into the past to analyze the subtle interrelation between the population of Tripoli and its urban network will prove more than useful in understanding the underlying roots of a long and lasting opposition movement that has taken many shapes through time.

The mandate legacy: a city polarized

To understand Tripoli’s opposition movements requires analyzing their driving force. The creation of the State of Lebanon by the French during their mandate (1920-1943) brought new state boundaries that isolated the city from its hinterland sister, Homs, from which Tripoli was the natural commercial sea outlet.
This was to be the first element of Tripoli’s resentment towards French policies, and overall, against a centralized power that people felt negated their opinion and very existence. As was the case in other cities like Beirut, Damascus or Aleppo, Tripoli was to witness rapid urban changes in an era of global modernization: the local upper class of landlords, merchants and leaders migrated to new neighborhoods created along the outskirts of the decaying Ottoman-style old city while traditional activities remained in this historical center, revolving around the souk (market) and mosques in narrow and curvy alleyways.

In contrast, the new neighborhoods had an unprecedented gleaming and modern feel with their rectilinear boulevards and western-style infrastructure (cinemas, cafés etc…).
Being wide, straight and administered by the new authorities, this new space was to become the most vivid scene where the typical modern and bureaucratic state would deploy itself. New methods of coercion were subsequently enforced, literally containing the dissenting masses in the natural stronghold that the old city represented.

Populist leaders emerging in the period of the Mandate gained support from the masses by capitalizing on the feelings of discontent within these contained neighborhoods. The most prominent leader would be Abd el Hamid Karameh (1890-1950), the heir of a noble family of Ulama (Sunni clerics). Karameh took advantage of his relations and popularity to mobilize the people against the Mandate policies and, by extension, against what was perceived as a diktat upon his community led by the French alongside the Beirut-based Maronite leaders.

Demonstrations would regularly swarm the downtown, led by Karameh himself, and maintain an atmosphere of polarization between the old, authentic and besieged city, and the foreign-born and oppressive new neighborhoods from which the French state apparatus exerted its power.

Torn in two, the city thus had a place of confrontation par excellence: the Tell plaza.

Indeed, forces of order would surround the Serail, the city’s most important administrative building located on the plaza, and a curfew would be enforced every night to prevent the mob from threatening the vicinity of this strategic and pivotal hub. Religious leaders of the old neighborhoods would often advise their supporters to avoid venturing into this area for, besides the sinful activities found there, they soon understood how vulnerable they were in this part of town when confronting governmental authorities.

From Arab Nationalism to Islamism: Tripoli’s tumultuous years

It took more than twenty years after the independence from the French Mandate (1943) for the old city to “reclaim” the plaza and make it their own. Curiously, the event that would initiate this would be the Six Day war in June of 1967, a war in which Lebanon did not participate.
The population of Tripoli, being generally close to Arab Nationalism that Nasser incarnated, was literally electrified by the news of the war. When it became clear that it was being lost, they flooded the plaza in an impulsive and destructive wave. The forces of order had already left, and the old Serail was empty of its occupants. After two days of rampage, the plaza lost its splendor, never to be recovered. More importantly, the Serail itself was destroyed by the mob, stone by stone.

Although it can be noted that a new Serail was already planned in the outskirts of the city next to a new plaza (which can partly explain why the authorities did not bother to defend the old one), the dismantling of such a symbolic building was a significant event.

This episode also represents the tendency of the power center to slowly shift from the city center towards the west, gradually distancing itself from the turbulent old city and its poor vicinities. Indeed, although the Tell plaza remained central, it was now the Abd el Hamid Karameh square that incarnated the image of modernity and political power of Tripoli. This large roundabout, located at the entrance of Tripoli from the direction of Beirut, and its statue and title referring to a former leader of the city, became the stage of the Karameh Zaâma to implement their local hegemony. This reorganization of the city most benefited Rashid Karameh, the son of Abd el Hamid (who died in 1950). Ironically, the Karamehs, who rose to power through opposition to the state, ended up integrating themselves into state institutions. Even today, the Karamehs are key members of government.

Symbolizing the hegemony of the Karameh leadership over Tripoli, the family’s palace was built to overlook the square below, in the middle of which stands a statue of Abd el Hamid facing south, in direction of Beirut, the capital of the newborn Lebanon. Inhabitants of the city have criticized in the past the position of the statue, arguing that it was inappropriate for such a landmark to turn its back to the city.

But the erection of a statue of the former leader raised other debates in the city: was it acceptable for a statue of such a recent leader to be placed on the most important square of the new city? Some Muslim clerics even argued that the presence of a human figure bordered on idolatry and was therefore unlawful according to religious ethics. But no attempt was made to remove it… at that time.
New administrative buildings were created; the most important of which was the new Serail, fifty meter from the roundabout, towards the South, on the Fuad Chehab boulevard (the avenue coming from Beirut). This new Serail raised a lot of criticism and it was only accepted after city officials promised to build a religious cultural center in front of it, thereby counterbalancing the temporal power by a spiritual one and bringing the conservative forces of the old city (located a few blocks behind the boulevard) an abstract feeling of belonging to this new neighborhood.

Shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, bombardments occurred in town, and the statue was damaged and eventually removed. It is not clear who was responsible for this aggression, but it underlined the Karameh’s slow but inevitable loss of influence. The polarization of the Lebanese society into various coalitions and the “balkanization” of the country was about to seriously impact Tripoli.

Logically during the war, Tripoli was an Arab-nationalist fiefdom. The leaders of the city appealed to this ideology to mobilize the masses that only dreamed of reintegrating a greater Arab -predominantly Muslim- entity, where they would no longer be a minority. Hence, this leftist ideology often underpinned more conservative aspirations, serving to thwart any demeaning attempts on their community from other minorities. It also comes as no surprise that Tripoli became one of the most active fronts from which the Palestinian Authority led its operations.

But this Arab Nationalist movement, influenced by Nasserian ideology, was more and more diluted after the Six Day war. Moreover, the lasting effects of Islamist doctrines spread by Wahabi clerics, as well as that of the Iranian Islamic revolution replaced any leftist ideology with a radical Islamic one. After the evacuation of the Palestinian Organisation in 1983, a new movement took control of the city: the Tawhid.

Tawhid: Unifying the militias under the banner of Islam
Tawhid inherited the PLO’s weapons when the latter evacuated Tripoli under international supervision in 1983. Being a coalition of three factions from the city (one already Islamic and two previously Marxist-Leninist militias that switched to an Islamic ideology) Tawhid quickly took control of the city. The movement was led by a charismatic leader named Sheykh Said Shaaban. The Shaaban Doctrine was simple: leftists had failed, Islam was the solution, unity of the Umma  the only way and the fight against oppressors of Islam the only valid struggle. The Tawhid had one main enemy: the Syrian army that had deployed throughout North Lebanon as part of the Arab Dissuasion Force of 1983.

For Tripoli, having always been governed by the upper class, the rise of the Tawhid marks the first time that a popular, marginalized force gained control of the whole city. The municipality and governmental institutions ceased to exist. The Tawhid, in a new fashion, tried to institute a system based on Sharia law, in which they established a “Caliphate” within the city. Their intention was to recover its dignity, its “Karama”, a slogan that has always been a key element of the protestor’s message. The most symbolic act they would make was to replace the statue of Abd el Hamid Karameh with a sculpture representing the word Allah, set above the words in Arabic “Tripoli, citadel of the Muslims”. At this time, the name of the square shifted from Abd el Hamid to Noor, meaning light or illumination, directly referring to the essence of God.

Meanwhile, communists (initially very active in Tripoli) were hunted down and executed on charges of atheism. New rules were implemented in order to regulate the people’s lives (prayer, dress, women’s appearance etc…) all part of a plan to purify the city of its previous corruption brought about by western influence and institutions.

At that time, the siege of the city by the Syrian army began. The Tawhid gained a city only to face an even more ruthless and uncompromising enemy. Indeed, Tripoli faced its worst hours in these years (circa 1983), when it was under Syrian fire. Eventually, after a three month bombardment, the Syrians broke through defenses and entered the city. In Bab et Tebbaneh where the resistance was fiercest, punishment took the form of a massacre of more than three hundred inhabitants.

Pax Syriana and beyond

For twenty years, the Syrians extended their control on the city, only to find themselves in the exact same pattern of coercion and containment as the previous occupants, the French Mandate. Tripoli was again torn between an easily controlled, modern part of the city where the state could exert control under Syrian regime supervision and an untamed old town and periphery where a dense population crowded in insalubrious ghettos.

The Syrians had informants throughout the city and those who dared to oppose its hegemony were sure not to expose themselves publicly. Today still, people suspect that vendors in the Abd el Hamid Karameh roundabout are the eyes and ears of the regime.

As the State slowly recovered its previous prerogatives, new actors started playing a role within state institutions as long as they were approved by the Syrian intelligence services. Ironically, the Tawhid movement, after losing the battle against the Syrian Regime, was itself coopted and became a puppet of the Syrian regime in Tripoli’s politics up until today. This anomaly (a Sunni Islamic group holding strong ties with the Syrian regime) has strongly marginalized the Tawhid movement today, but is at the same time a strong asset for the Syrian regime inside Tripoli, a city it has always kept an eye on.

After Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2006, Tripoli’s suburbs continued to reflect the juxtaposition between a predominantly Sunni opposition found in most of Tripoli’s deprived neighborhoods, and the Syrian proxies found naturally in the Alaoui neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen. But more importantly, the movement of demonstrations originating from the old city and the “rebel” neighborhoods started again. The Abd el Hamid Karameh square became the natural outlet of these demonstrations where Islamists, amongst others, could express their anger towards the government, not without any symbolic relevance regarding the calligraphy in the center of the roundabout.

The violent confrontation between Bab et Tebanneh and Jebel Mohsen, symbolically separated by Syria Street, is often depicted in media headlines. Unfortunately, recurrent violence between the two neighborhoods is often poorly analyzed and other patterns of confrontation that could shed light on the roots of violence are overlooked. These include the total exclusion of the population from municipal policy making, striking inequalities between neighborhoods, vote-catching operations by powerful political parties, and most of all, the sponsoring of local militias by very influential donors from all around the Middle East, including Lebanon.

To overcome the difficulties the city is facing, responsible decision makers will have to break Tripoli’s polarization and include the marginalized neighborhoods at the discussion table. Already a vibrant city for its cultural heritage and its dynamic civil society scene, Tripoli deserves to rise from its imbalanced evolution. It will also require an end to the containment that those marginalized neighborhoods have historically been subjected to. Only then will a square such as the Abd el Hamid Karameh plaza become a symbol of modernity and Tripoli a beacon of some of Lebanon’s most remarkable cultural and intellectual heritage.


Further readings:

in English:
– Ziadeh, Khaled, Neighborhood and Boulevards, reading through the Modern Arab City, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

In French:

– Dewailly, Bruno, L’espace public à travers le prisme du pouvoir : quelques éléments de réflexion à partir d’un cas tripolitain (Liban)“, URВАМА Université de Tours 2002

– Rijsel, Paul, La Municipalité de Tripoli : entre pouvoirs locaux et services de l’Etat, Urbama, Tours, 2001

– Ziadeh, Khaled, Vendredi Dimanche, Actes Sud, coll. Sindbad, 1996

In Arabic :

كيال مها ،عطيةعاطف،تحولات الزمن الأخير،نيسان 2001،الزرقا لبنان

Cite this blog post
Alex Mahoudeau (2016, June 7). Guest: Tripoli (Lebanon), a historic field of dissidence. The Cobble And The Frame. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

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