TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Weapons have become a part of the daily lives of Tripoli’s residents, as their possession is no longer limited to the armed groups active in the flashpoint neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. Tripoli has traditionally been known as an economic center, famous for its Old City souks. But after more than a dozen rounds of brutal fighting, usually centered on the Bab al-Tabbaneh-Jabal Mohsen fault line, the city has now become a booming market for weapons. The trade in arms is now seeing residents buy their own guns, pistols and even hand grenades.
The customers, mainly merchants and shop owners, justify their decision because they feel threatened by the spread of the armed groups, which have now added running protection rackets to their previous roles as street fighters.
The armed groups are not only threatening the merchants in Souk al-Qamh or the vegetable market located on the traditional front line between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. They have branched out to neighborhoods in Tripoli’s Old City, particularly near the Citadel, an area teeming with centuries-old popular markets.
A week ago, these areas began to witness armed clashes between different families, with every family represented by an armed group that protects the interests of its members.
The clashes have pitted the Nashar family against the Hajar and al-Masri families, for example, while the Hassoun family has engaged in similar confrontations, pitting it against the Janzirli, and Naml families.
Last Wednesday, soap and furniture shops belonging to the Hassoun family in the neighborhood of Nijmeh and the gold market (Souk al-Dahab) were burned. Local sources said the act came in retaliation for an attack that targeted a restaurant, al-Dai, owned by the Jaghbir family.
The attack was believed to be the work of individuals from the Hassoun family, which has a bitter rivalry with the Jaghbir family.
Following the incident, the Jaghbir family took the unusual move of issuing a formal statement, a sign that family-centered self-defense actions are taking a hold over the city.
“Following deliberations, we decided to refer the attack on the al-Dai restaurant to the authorities. We would like to affirm that we have not reacted in any way against the Hassoun family,” the family said, rejecting any responsibility for the attack on the restaurant.
The family, however, blamed its rivals for being involved in “disputes with several parties during the last five days of Ramadan.”
Security troubles continue to plague Tripoli, whether they reflect spillovers from the war in Syria, or simple, local-level family feuds. While government officials continue to promise they will deal firmly with the situation, a handful of army and police vehicles are the only sign of the state’s presence, as they rush through the city to deal with flare-ups of violence.
As for the rising spread of weapons in Tripoli, the city is now experiencing a vicious circle, as some impoverished fighters from Jabal Mohsen, Bab al-Tabbaneh and Qibbeh sell their arms and the ammunition after a given round of fighting, for purely financial reasons.
These fighters then wager that they will be able to receive new supplies of modern weapons when the decision is taken to launch a new round of clashes.
Some of these fighters declare openly that they are willing to sell their guns to any customer. The going prices have a wide range, as they might jump from $500 to $7,000, depending on the condition and sophistication of the piece in question (sophisticated sniper guns). It has led to a situation in which the city is awash in weapons, with nearly every household containing weapons of some type.
Abu Ahmad, an arms dealer, is someone who is sought out by those who want to buy or sell guns.
“Everyone in Tripoli is trying to obtain weapons, because the state is absent. There is no way for people to defend themselves, except by owning a rifle and keeping it in their homes, shops, or cars,” he said.
Abu Ahmad laughs when asked if his customers acquire licenses for their guns from the Defense Ministry.
“Do you think that people who shoot in the air, hurl a grenade, damage property or kill people are interested in getting permission or a license to do that? Every armed man in the street is protected by a certain figure, who is in turn protected by senior officials.”