New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen
Middle East Briefing N°29
14 Oct 2010
The crisis that has gripped Lebanon since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 has taken a new and dangerous turn, as the international tribunal charged with investigating the assassination comes close to issuing indictments. The expected implication of Hizbollah members has turned the political landscape into a brutal battleground. Inter-communal relations, the legitimacy of the resistance embodied by Hizbollah, the credibility of the tribunal, the survival of the current national unity government, the future of the recent Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and the fragile stability of the country are all at stake. International support for the tribunal, Hizbollah’s categorical rejection of it and the difficulty Saad Hariri, the current prime minister and Rafic’s son, would have to disavow it, risk leading rapidly to a political impasse whose effects would reverberate in the streets.
Many politicians and commentators evoke the possibility of an impending coup d’état or even a new civil war. But the more probable short-term scenario is repetition of a recurring Lebanese cycle: a political stalemate that triggers popular tensions which, in turn, political actors manipulate in order to bolster their leverage. As a result, instability is most likely to occur in Lebanon’s under-developed peripheral areas, whose populations are deeply divided by current events, harbour painful memories of the civil war and are largely left to their own devices until escalating violence brings them into the political game. Such is the case of the Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods of Tripoli, which recently have witnessed both verbal and military escalation, including the firing into the latter neighborhood of a rocket that injured two.
Much as Lebanon, despite its small size, reflects the tensions of the region in its entirety, these two neighborhoods replicate, on a miniature scale, broader challenges to the stability of the country as a whole. Over the last few years, deadly incidents in these geographically and socially remote areas have been linked to disputes far beyond their horizon. This microcosm, largely hidden to those who focus on the spectacle of the capital’s political scene and the secret power games played on the regional stage, offers a key to understanding the interaction between the local, national and regional levels and thus deciphering the crisis currently brewing in Lebanon.
Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh are virtual metaphors for the country at large. Founded as a single unit, they were separated during the civil war along the boundary that now divides the fractured community. Once interwoven, the Sunni majority in Bab-Tebbaneh and the Allawite majority in Jabal Mohsen parted ways in the 1970s and 1980s. Around that time, Tripoli experienced intense political mobilisation under the impact of the Palestinian cause, rising Arab nationalism and Islamism, and, partly as a result, Syria’s expanding influence. Factional street battles caused many deaths, culminating in the 1986 massacre in Bab-Tebbaneh. As elsewhere in Lebanon, those wounds have yet to heal. Memories are fresh; identities are defined primarily by victimisation, yesterday’s suffering, persistent threats and the prospect of revenge; the present is viewed through the prism of the past; and both sides share an intense sense of vulnerability.
The resurgence of the old demons in Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh is of a piece with the country’s chronic instability. Since the end of the civil war, nothing has been done to solve underlying problems; rather, post-war Lebanon has been built upon a flimsy equilibrium whose perpetuation has become an end in itself. Tellingly, violent outbreaks in 2007 and 2008 were followed, at best, by efforts to contain the situation until the next flare-up. The few agreed so-called reconciliation measures still await implementation.
But these two neighborhoods also have served as the arena for proxy wars. External actors transferred their conflicts there, backing local fighters in a struggle that was less costly, and more easily managed, than would be open warfare in the capital. It is hardly coincidental that tensions between Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh exploded just as opposing sides came to realise the limits of what violence in the capital could achieve and decided to back down out of fear that it might spin entirely out of control. Such was the case both when the opposition-led January 2007 general strike threatened to devolve into fighting and when Hizbollah occupied parts of the city centre in May 2008.
These neighbourhoods, marginalised and neglected by the state, illustrate a development model centred on Beirut’s wealthy quarters. Basic public services are reduced to an absolute minimum. Victims of a decrepit education system, young people expect little more than menial work or unemployment. The security apparatus, absent in normal times and all the more so in times of crisis, makes fleeting appearances whenever a truce is concluded, as if to symbolically endorse the reestablishment of “order”, without in fact asserting state authority. A feeling of abandonment and economic precariousness feed a militia culture inherited from the civil war in two conflicting areas which in fact have much in common.
For many Sunni youngsters in Bab-Tebbaneh, joining one of the many Islamist groups which have spread relatively freely since Syria’s military withdrawal provides an attractive alternative to idleness and social failure. Jabal Mohsen’s Allawite majority has rallied behind a single political party, not necessarily out of shared ideals or conviction, but rather because it is the only actor able to protect it in some fashion.
The external sponsors that prop up local actors do little more than maintain them in a client relationship. That was the case when Syria, then Lebanon’s dominant power, favoured the Allawites politically while failing to ensure Jabal Mohsen’s development. It is true, too, of Bab-Tebbaneh’s various sponsors, whether Saad Hariri’s Future Current movement, Saudi Arabia or members of Tripoli’s wealthy Sunni class. Besides, just as external actors use local conflicts to pursue their own confrontation by other means, local fighters use their struggles as a way to attract important outside support. This economy of violence is replicated at all levels of Lebanese politics.
The ebbs and flows in the antagonism between Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen serve as a reliable barometer for tracking two fundamental issues facing Lebanon: tensions between Sunnis and Shiites on the one hand; and relations between Lebanon and Syria on the other. Notwithstanding a period of relative calm in both regards thanks to the Damascus-Riyadh rapprochement – exemplified by Hariri’s reconciliation efforts – popular resentment is very much alive, if not rising. What is happening at the ground level illustrates the scepticism and suspicion with which, so far, ordinary Lebanese have greeted agreements reached at the top, and how little such agreements have altered underlying dynamics. The international tribunal easily could bring the temperature on the street back to boiling point. Should that occur, Tripoli’s barometer could take another plunge.
Beirut/Brussels, 14 October 2010