Tripoli Protests and the Collapse of Lebanon

How Can the City’s Unrest Foretell the Future of Sunni Community?

-	Anti-government protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in the centre of Lebanon's impoverished northern port city of Tripoli on January 31, 2021. (Getty Images)
- Anti-government protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in the centre of Lebanon's impoverished northern port city of Tripoli on January 31, 2021. (Getty Images)

Tripoli Protests and the Collapse of Lebanon

Protests turned into violent riots last week in Lebanon’s Tripoli when clashes erupted between security forces and protesters, leading to more than 400 wounded and one dead. Protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and fireworks inside the Tripoli municipality historic building, setting it on fire.

These protests – although brief and localized – could be a sign or a sample of what to come as Lebanon descends further into collapse and failure of state institutions.

Although the security forces managed to coerce the protestors and reinstate the lockdown, it does not mean that people’s anger had also subsided. On the contrary, poverty, hunger and fear are increasing by the day and the city – along with the rest of the country - seems to be situated at the verge of a major breakdown and a possible mass social unrest, albeit much more violent and chaotic.

Many of those in the political leadership rushed to accuse international and Islamic factions to be behind the protests, forgetting that Tripoli is the largest and poorest city in Lebanon, and that more than half of the Lebanese population now live below poverty lines. According to the International Monetary Fund, gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 25 percent last year while prices jumped by 144 percent over the same period.


Not only it is the poorest city in Lebanon, Tripoli’s development needs have been ignored by the city’s and country’s leadership for decades. It has been underfunded and marginalized, despite its great economic potential and infrastructure. Instead, many political factions and leaders have used the city’s shortcomings to keep it in check and use its communities to serve their political agendas. From Hafez Al-Assad, to the PLO and Hezbollah, in addition to many Islamist groups, all used Tripoli’s vibrant dynamics throughout the decades to flare sectarian tension and political clashes.

Tripoli has witnessed much of Lebanon's worst violence since the civil war's end. Islamists battled troops north of the city in 2007, and the Syrian uprising brought in many Syrian refugees but also sparked a sectarian tension between Tripoli's Sunni and Alawite communities. Because of the ongoing war in Syria, Tripoli lost its strong trade ties with Syria.

According to a Reuters report in May 2020, almost the entire city's workforce depended on day-to-day income, and 60% of them made less than $1 a day. More than half of the families were in the poorest classification, lacking basic services, education and health care. Since then, the situation has deteriorated, and the lockdown stopped the day-to-day workforce to access the minimum to feed their families.

Add to all that the lack of a real Sunni leadership – considering that the vast majority of Tripoli and the North are Sunnis. All of the current Sunni politicians have neither helped Tripoli nor represent its communities. On the contrary, they have taken advantages of these communities during elections and political campaigns.

During the October 2019 protests, Tripoli broke the stereotypes and participated in the largest and most expressive public expression of the year. Despite its high poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy rates, Tripoli was called “the bride of the revolution’ because of its peaceful and stunning expression of diversity and civility. But with the COVID lockdowns, deteriorating economy and political deadlock, many in the city’s poor neighborhood have fallen way below poverty lines and feel that they have nothing left but to express their anger, fear and frustrations.

It seems that Tripoli is today the beginning – the spark of an upcoming street protests and social unrest that will not be suppressed by the security forces. Lebanon’s other cities, towns and communities will probably follow, once poverty becomes too much to take or once the pandemic’s worst is over. Tripoli, again, will lead the street rhetoric and ignite the streets of Lebanon.


It doesn’t seem that the financial, economic or political situation in Lebanon will change in the near future. Lebanon is facing a real deadlock and is stuck in a vicious circle where nothing will improve without reforms and real change, while the current political class refuses to do neither.  Despite the new American administration or the renewed French initiative, the only thing that might move forward is a government formation.

However, forming a government is a small detail, which will not lead to any breakthrough without serious reforms. And negotiations over the government formation do not seem to have anything new or promising to offer. Political leadership are still fighting over cabinet shares and the blocking third, while the international community looks further away from Lebanon and the Middle East in general.

Therefore, it is not farfetched to imagine the worst case scenario for Tripoli and its people – while the whole country descends into chaos and poverty. Many from Tripoli’s poor have already tried escaping by sea to Europe and many had died en route. The boats of death that smuggles Syrian refugees and poor Lebanese could resume when all hope is lost. Those who leave will become refugees in Europe, and those who stay will be left to their own fate.

Many expect social unrest to rage throughout Tripoli in the coming months due to poverty and hunger. However, some expect more meddling by foreign hands. It is not a secret that Turkey and some Islamic factions have been trying to control a headless Sunni community in Lebanon. And it will not be surprising to see more Iranian efforts to recruit young Sunni men from Tripoli in Hezbollah’s parallel militia – the Resistance Brigade.

The Lebanese Sunnis are not radicalized, and they do not want to be. There are considered some of the most “moderate” Muslims in the region, and that’s because of the previous leaderships and political umbrellas. However, with no current leadership, assistance or guidance, they are more exposed to radicalized groups and factions, local and regional.

Tripoli is the capital of the north, and Lebanon’s second city. It has the large port and many economic opportunities such as agriculture and manufacturing. At the same time, all the elements of radicalization are beginning to fester, such as poverty, illiteracy, and the lack of a moderate and wise leadership.

This city can go both ways, and the direction it takes can foretell the future of the Sunni community in particular, and Lebanon in general.

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