TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Since the formation of ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria, observers have turned their gaze toward Tripoli, a bastion of fundamentalist Sunni groups in Lebanon with a complicated relationship to the country’s modern borders. Some fear that the city’s disenfranchised Sunni youth are being seduced by the ‘dream of the caliphate,’ and could even try to establish an Islamic state in Tripoli.
Tripoli’s intelligentsia, however, maintain that while the civil war gave rise to Islamist groups that have since exploited the neglected northern region’s poor economic and social conditions, the city is not yet in danger of becoming an outpost of the Islamic State.
Tripoli has served as a major center for various principalities and governments under the Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Crusaders and the Ottomans. Once a major port and economic center, the city resisted the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1920, rose up for pan-Arabism in 1958, and eventually declined during the civil war.
Since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria, dozens and perhaps hundreds of young men from Tripoli have joined the fight across the border, some flocking to ISIS, while the repercussions at home have sparked at least 20 rounds of fighting between rival Alawite and Sunni neighborhoods.
Many blame Yasser Arafat for supporting the Islamic Tawhid Movement, one of Lebanon’s earliest Islamist groups, which wreaked havoc on the city after Arafat left in the mid-1980s and sowed the seeds of extremism.
“Tripoli is not a religiously fanatic city,” said Tawfiq Sultan, a politician who was close to Kamal Jumblatt and the National Movement during the Civil War. “Blind fanaticism was never present here and it cannot continue. What is happening now or what happened in the past with the arrival of Yasser Arafat will not be repeated, even if the quality of life in general in the city has seriously deteriorated.
“The Tawhid persecuted all residents of the city, both Muslim and Christian, due to the fact that it did not depend on a deep-rooted political ideology. Rather, it was a mix of Islamic fanaticism and patronage networks built on gangs for private interests at the expense of the city and its glory.”
For centuries before Lebanese independence, Tripoli’s strategic position on the coast made it an important Arab city, and some local leaders sought to preserve its influence by opposing the unification of greater Lebanon.
In 1958, many Lebanese Muslims, especially in Tripoli, declared a revolution against the government of Chamille Chamoun.
But today, Tripoli’s political figures are keen to emphasize that the city’s troubled history does not lessen its residents’ commitment to the national project.
“Tripoli rose up against the state more than once, but it always returned under its control,” said Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, a Tripoli native.
“Everyone agrees that the Tawhid gangs are not a political party. Islamist ideology and parties were present and widespread but they wreaked havoc in Tripoli; they killed communists under the pretext they were infidels and dumped [bodies] ... the same methods used by ISIS today, but in the end, and despite the high price, Tripoli retains its role and glory.”
Wafaa Shaarani, a philosophy professor at the Lebanese University, does not think the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Tripoli is possible, despite the presence of extremist groups and the city’s past.
Shaarani described historic Tripoli as a regional capital where Muslims and Christians lived side by side, an economic center for the surrounding towns and villages until the Civil War forced them to become self-sufficient.
“[It was a city of] moderate Islam and firm belief that was swept by Nasserism; all of Tripoli went to Damascus to see Gamal Abdel Nasser,” she said. “They were committed to the unification project.”
The decline of pan-Arabism, coupled with the rise of political Islam and the deterioration of Palestinian-Lebanese relations in the 1980s, created a “sectarian alliance among only the Sunnis of Tripoli.”
The emerging rift in Tripoli society was exacerbated by the Syrian presence, sowing sectarian tensions between Alawite Jabal Mohsen and Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh.
“Officials at the time did not fully understand the dimensions [of this conflict] or how to treat it, and so the now-divided neighborhood was left to desperate poverty, neglect and marginalization,” Shaarani said. “Tripoli is a hotbed of poverty, not a pit of fanaticism, and not blind [enough] to establish an Islamic emirate or caliphate.”
She conceded, however, that the poor of Tripoli had gravitated toward Islamist movements “as have poor Muslims everywhere.”
She warned that serious “intervention” was needed to win back hearts and minds, particularly of Tipoli’s poor Sunni youths, and save the diverse and tolerant identity of the city.