TRIPOLI, Lebanon: An Army patrol trudges through the rain-soaked street leading up to Al-Taqwa Mosque, still bearing the scars of a summer car bomb. The soldiers set up a makeshift barrier of two armored personnel carriers as sniper shots rang through the air. “We’ve arrived in Tripoli,” declares a massive ad plastered on the side of a nearby building.
Fruit and vegetable carts plod along next to Army transports, seemingly unaware of the chaos just down the road from the checkpoint. There lies Bab al-Tabbaneh, the majority-Sunni neighborhood that has been a flashpoint for recent clashes with the predominantly Alawite Jabal Mohsen.
Life goes on inside the neighborhood, whose abandoned swing sets and overflowing garbage bins stand as a testament to state neglect.
The scene inside the district is surreal – some shops are open mere feet away from streets dominated by snipers, according little significance to either rain or bullets.
One man sits by his falafel and moghrabieh cart smiling, unperturbed by the shots in the distance, or the pouring rain. “Where would I go?” he says, when asked why he opens his shop day in and day out, despite the violence.
“Life is in God’s hand,” says another local shop owner, who asks to remain anonymous.
But underlying this resignation is a heartfelt frustration at what they say is the corruption of local politicians.
The shop owner scoffs at the military’s security plan, which he says will not make a difference because the Army does not have political cover to deal with the unrest.
“Their presence won’t make a difference,” he says, accusing politicians of being beholden to foreign powers rather than loyal to the Lebanese state.
The demands appear consistent – locals insist that Ali Eid, the leader of Jabal Mohsen’s pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party, believed to be complicit in two bombings in the city this summer, should be arrested by the Army.
“The battle is not over as long as the state lets this criminal [walk free],” says Abu Issa, who has taken refuge from the rain inside his workshop with his two children and a group of friends, the embers on their nargileh snuffed out, the children silent.
“This is not a sectarian city,” he adds. “It’s a city of peaceful coexistence, but it is against this individual.”
Peaceful coexistence is not the description that comes to mind as you navigate the inner labyrinths of Bab al-Tabbaneh that lead to Sheikh Bilal al-Masri, a militia leader.
Dark tunnels transport you from one street to the next, holes in walls blown out to help fighters navigate the tiny lanes while avoiding sniper fire. A man dressed in green tests his rifle, and a poster of Sidon’s Salafist preacher Ahmad al-Assir adorns one wall.
But the atmosphere lightens near Masri’s home. One fighter jokes with a family upstairs that they never run out of nargileh tobacco despite the battles.
Young fighters who appear to be in their teens, one of them wearing a black cap with the words “There is no God but God,” sport Kalashnikov rifles.
“There have been 700,000 security plans, it’s all lies,” says Masri, an affable and thin sheikh-cum-militia leader with a ponytail and fingerless gloves, his rifle slung on his back.
Masri also demands that Eid’s party, the “criminal gang,” be disbanded, but says the Lebanese state could not take action because it is beholden to outside powers in Iran and Syria.
He accuses all of Lebanon’s ruling class of being criminals, saying Hezbollah is involved in the drugs trade, and both they and the Amal Movement are killers.
He has a much more radical solution. “The solution is for a new elite from the people to rule Lebanon,” he says.
Masri adds that there has been no increase in Army presence since the announcement of the latest security or “media plan” as he calls it. Indeed, there was no apparent Army presence inside the district’s myriad roads.
“It’s all words and a waste of time and is face-saving for the government,” he says.
Masri adds that Tripoli would not devolve into a major confrontation with the Army like the infamous campaign in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in 2007 against Islamist militants.
That is because Tabbaneh remains loyal to the Army, he says, but there would be no disarming of the militias unless the ADP is also disarmed.
He says the Army should not employ double standards when dealing with the crisis in the city.
As his fighters cheer him, Masri recalls past massacres by the Syrian army in Tripoli during Lebanon’s Civil War that the ADP leader is routinely accused of being complicit in.
“Tabbaneh’s people are not just pained by war and battles, of course these are painful to us all,” he said. “But their pain is because they are constantly killed, massacres are done against them, they feel that under this state the Sunnis’ rights are being usurped.”
But for Abu Fadi, another local resident, it is Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen’s innocents who are trampled on.
“It is the poor man who goes out to look for food for his children who is forgotten,” he says. The fighting, which seemed to go on endlessly round the corner, was not an existential battle, he adds. “It’s just letting off steam.”