TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Residents and local officials are growing weary of the increasing power that armed gangs have in Tripoli, where they’re now using violence to pressure Tripoli’s officials into blocking a proposed security plan for the troubled northern city.
As caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel met with top military and security figures Wednesday to discuss a security plan for Tripoli, a string of incidents plunged the city into deeper turmoil: A grenade was set off; people were reportedly firing into the air; a liquor store in Tripoli’s Mina neighborhood was attacked; and a percussion grenade exploded under the Mina police station.
These incidents, according to political sources in Tripoli, are not individual acts but rather a series of connected events signaling a rejection of the proposed security plan by the city’s armed groups. These gangs, many of which affiliate with a particular side in the war in Syria, intend to keep Tripoli unstable for as long as Syria is at war, political sources said. Many of the city’s residents are growing fed up with the rise of these armed groups, most of which side with the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Disillusionment among residents began when violence spread to neighborhoods outside Jabal Mohsen, the city’s pro-Assad stronghold. Residents also accuse gangs of extorting money for neighborhood protection and say that the gunmen’s increasing power is threatening the security of the city.
One of the most worrisome developments since the rise of these armed groups – who are supported politically and financially – is a number of haphazard construction projects undertaken by them, political sources told The Daily Star. The building projects, which have cropped up in Qibbeh, Bab al-Tabbaneh, Mankoubin and Beddawi are threatening collapse due to their fragile construction, political sources said.
City planning in Tripoli has been stalled since as far back as 2007, sources said. Since then, long-term construction plans have been paralyzed due to the petty political disputes and the crisis in Syria.
These days, gangs have exacerbated uncontrolled construction and complicated finding a solution. Sources said part of the blame falls on the state, which has been led by a caretaker government for more than six months, something Tripoli’s armed groups are using to justify illegal activity and the relative anarchy they’ve imposed on parts of the city.
Charbel and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati have been leading talks that aim to implement a plan to confiscate weapons and deploy the Army and national police throughout the city. In past comments to the media, Charbel has blamed a lack of personnel and political unity in Tripoli for the slow progress on the security front.
The security plan has gained support from political parties across Tripoli that are starting to sense their decreasing popularity due to the deterioration of the social, economic and security situation in the city, sources said. Many have called on their peers to lift political cover for those who violate the law.
But sources said outcry from politicians against the rise of Tripoli’s gangs means very little. Gang commanders, with weapons, men, financial backing and political sway, now have more power in parts of the city like Qibbeh, Tabbaneh, Beddawi and Mankoubin than politicians. In many cases, commanders receive financial support from local political leaders in the form of welfare and other handouts.
Most gang leaders have refused to talk to the media for fear of being pursued by the authorities.
One exception, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained the relationship his small militia had with local authorities:
“We take money from the party who pays the most and we support its policies. The politicians need us more than we need them and today decisions are in our hands as long as the state authority and power is absent.”
Political sources who were read this commander’s comments said he was not trying to provoke but rather was describing “the reality which Mikati is trying to handle in his own way.”
Force might be the only option the Army and politicians have to enforce the law and crack down on armed gangs, though force would likely lead to an escalation of violence against state authorities, political sources concluded.
These concerns were raised by more than one party in Tripoli who expressed fear of such a confrontation in Tripoli in the coming week.