Why thousands continue to protest in Lebanon’s Tripoli

Tripoli, Lebanon – For 18 straight days, Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli witnessed thousands-strong protests often resembling large dance parties, which have outshined those held in other parts of the country with their consistency and spirit.

Those who filled al-Nour Square each night since demonstrations demanding the downfall of the post-civil war political class broke out across Lebanon on October 17 have shown no sign of letting up, even as numbers elsewhere dwindled.

On a packed night Saturday, many told Al Jazeera severe economic deprivation and high unemployment in the northern city – estimated at about 50 percent – meant locals had little reason to return to normal life.

“Tripoli is most affected by poverty and hunger and frustration and neglect. All of these people have something to demand; they have years of anger to vent,” Raed al-Helwe, a 31-year-old who works in marketing, told Al Jazeera from al-Nour Sqaure.

As Raed spoke, a DJ warmed up the crowd with electronic music from the patio of a large building painted with a enormous mural of the Lebanese flag. It bore the words “Tripoli is the city of peace” written in Arabic.

For a long time, Tripoli was known as a city of conflict, a hotbed of conservatism, a symbol of divisions in Lebanon between those who support the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, and those who vehemently oppose it.

Spillover from the Syrian civil war was particularly bad in Tripoli, where several rounds of clashes took place between Sunni and Alawite rebels, and a number of tit-for-tat suicide bombings killed scores of people.

But that bloodstained image has been shaken over the past 18 days, a change many on the streets are keen to emphasise and maintain.

‘We are the popular revolution’

“This is the real Tripoli,” Ahmad, a 49-year-old man with a food cart, told Al Jazeera.

“The Tripoli they painted as a city of terrorism, as Kanadahar, a city of death and slaughter – here is the real Tripoli, a city of civilisation and culture where people want to live just like anywhere else.”

As he skewered whole potatoes and sliced them into swirls he then deep-fried, Ahmad added: “The armed groups were created by politicians to make us hate each other, and we did, and we lost everything… Now we are taking back our image. What you are seeing here is spontaneous; it comes straight from our hearts.”

Tripoli Lebanon Timour Azhari/Al Jazeera

Unemployment in Tripoli is estimated at around 50 percent Timour Azhari/Al Jazeera

The sentiment Ahmad was expressing was later captured in a chant led by a charismatic MC, aimed at politicians who continue to stoke civil-war era sectarian tensions nearly three decades after the conflict ended.

“We are the popular revolution, you are the civil war,” the crowd chanted, waving the flashlights of their phones in unison.

For a city with a poor security reputation, the protests have been relatively calm, save incidents that occurred quite far from the main protests grounds. This contrasts with protests in Beirut, Nabaiteh and Tyre, all of which have witnessed attacks by supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement that have left many injured.

Helwe said this may be another reason protests in the northern city have gone on. “We haven’t seen big street clashes here. Those on the streets in Nabatieh and Sur Tyre are heroes, they are facing immense pressure. May God give them strength,” he said.

‘All of them means all’

Tripoli is historically a stronghold of the Future Movement of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who announced the resignation of his third government on Tuesday, citing pressure from the street and political deadlock on a cabinet reshuffle.

But support for Hariri has dwindled here in recent years, reflected in fewer seats for his bloc after last year’s parliamentary elections.

So while there were scattered utterances of support for Hariri, protesters in general welcomed the resignation of the Sunni leader as a first step in getting to the remaining ruling politicians.

“Hariri was by no means the worst of them, but all of them means all of them,” Mohammad, an unemployed 21-year-old said. “We brought down the government but there are still corrupt ones sitting at the top of the pyramid.”

Tripoli Lebanon Timour Azhari/Al Jazeera

Protesters have in general welcomed the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri Timour Azhari/Al Jazeera

“The street in general wants to go forward towards the resignation of the president and the parliament,” said Donna Maria Nammour, a 27-year-old who said she spent the entire uprising in Tripoli.

A large banner hung on the building behind Nammour backed up her assertion: “We are continuing till the downfall of the president and the parliament,” it read.

Those lofty goals may be difficult to achieve and Nammour said she would accept small victories, such as the formation of a new government composed of independent experts – a demand of a large swathe of those who have taken to the streets.

“I’m someone very realistic. My dream is to see all these political faces go away, I want a secular state. I’m an atheist… but I’m realistic,” she said.

“It’s likely Hariri could head the next government; we need to be here to pressure for an outcome that suits us, and so I’m going to be waiting in the streets.”

‘Women are suffering’

While Tripoli does have certain particularities, protesters here like elsewhere in Lebanon are demanding basic rights that many across the country have sought – including the right for women to pass on their nationality.

Under Lebanese law, the children of women who marry foreign men are not granted citizenship.

“It’s a life of oppression, they can’t join unions, they can’t find work, the only choice they have is to leave,” Celia Youssef, local coordinator for Jinsiyati Karamati, or My Nationality is My Dignity, said.

Women such as Youssef have taken on leading roles in the mass demonstrations, standing on the frontlines between protesters and counter-protesters during episodes of violence, and chanting fearlessly progressive slogans. Youssef said the uprising has given new space for women to press for their rights in more conservative areas – including Tripoli.

“We used to only protest in Riad al-Solh in Beirut for this cause, but women are suffering from this issue from the north to the south,” she said. “The revolution is a national cause, so we have decided to make our voices heard across the country.”

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