BEIRUT: When Tripoli descended into chaos last month, theories abounded about political actors behind the violence that killed seven and wounded 20.
The clashes were seen as a microcosm of geopolitical fighting, and politicians vying for support in the embattled area jumped at the chance to declare new security formulas for the city.
Still, amid all the intense speculation, there was little mention of living conditions that may have given rise to the fighting.
As the most impoverished area in all of Lebanon, Tripoli and its adjacent Akkar district are rife with economic problems, which have underpinned a variety of social, environmental, and security issues for nearly three decades.
A 2010 study of poverty in Tripoli, prepared by the Arab Urban Development Institute and Umaima Jada’ of the Mada Center for Development Studies, was one of the first to broach the subject, declaring Tripoli’s economic problems chronic, multi-pronged and in need of wide-scale government action.
The Daily Star obtained a copy of the unpublished 209-page document as part of an ongoing investigation into the lesser-told economic side of the story.
Tripoli is in the throes of constant degradation when it comes to poverty, according to the study, and although there has been a pouring in of efforts by local and international nonprofits over the last decade, living conditions remain subpar.
Poverty rates stand at 35 percent, and poverty is especially concentrated in the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods, the scenes of the armed fighting last month.
Poverty in Tripoli is a triple-tier issue: it is a poverty of resources, exacerbated by high population densities and a palpable sense of marginalization by the central government.
According to the study, which aims to shed some light on the historical roots of the issue, the problem begins with the last of these tiers, and tackling this tier is also where the solution should begin.
The central government’s marginalization of Tripoli began, according to the report, after Zghorta and Tripoli signed a peace in 1976, effectively removing the city from the country’s civil war.
Events in Tripoli no longer mattered to the country’s politicians, who were busy ducking it out in Beirut and other contested areas, and the country’s northern-most city subsequently fell off of the central government’s radar screen. The condition became more pronounced after the signing of the Taif Accord, with the accord fortifying Tripoli’s sidelining from political maps.
Institutions and infrastructure, severely damaged by the fighting of 1975-1976 were subsequently left to decay. The city’s industrial sector, boasting major national factories like Ghandour as well as textile works, slowly began to erode.
Between 1996 and 2004, factory jobs plummeted from 3,000 workers to 300. Money that would typically converge on the coastal city from other northern towns, began to divert course and either flow toward Beirut or remain inside the towns, causing markets in small towns like Zghorta to swell significantly.
“Not even the minimum requirements for production exist in Tripoli,” says the study.
Languishing transport and energy sectors, legal and public services make for a market that has been subsumed by outside competition, it says.
State compensation to the displaced of the Tripoli district was 50 percent less than that given to other constituents, the report claims.
It has also documented over 800 cases of juvenile delinquency in Tripoli. Nearly 600 of these cases come from the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, the highest rate in Lebanon by a considerable margin.
“If Tripoli had problems that affected the national political situation, if there were people there who cut national routes off, if there were an Israeli occupation there, if there were drugs, then [the government] would have paid attention to Tripoli,” Adib Nehmeh, regional adviser at ESCWA, told The Daily Star.
Nehmeh participated in the making of the report. He is also a native of Tripoli who is acutely aware of hard-hitting realities there.
“If the baby doesn’t cry, the mother won’t breast-feed him,” Nehmeh recalls Tripoli’s municipality chief telling him.
But Tripoli has let out a series of sharp cries, beginning with the Dinnieh clashes of 2000, which coincided with the first trickling in of government and NGO money, and happening again in 2007, with the war in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, which led to concerted international efforts to rehabilitate the camp’s periphery.
Still those efforts were not enough, says the report. They were isolated projects, suffering from a lack of coordination and a limited view of the roots of the issue.
All the research and plans needed to tackle poverty in Tripoli have been laid out, said Nehmeh. “All that is needed is implementation.”