TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Upon his return from what he dubbed a “well-deserved” vacation in Turkey last October, Tripoli’s notorious militiaman Saad al-Masri received a hero’s welcome in the northern city.
“I will never leave the business of vegetables or guns,” Masri told supporters, denying rumors he had fled the country after amassing a fortune.
Oddly, his comments are an accurate reflection of the reality the man has been living since the death of his brother Khodor, also a militia leader, in one of the many rounds of fighting between Tripoli’s rival neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
The predominantly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh lies in the slums on the outskirts of Lebanon’s second biggest city and is notorious for two things: being separated from the Alawite enclave of Jabal Mohsen by (the aptly named) Syria Street, and Saad al-Masri.
Commanding with the mentality of a mafia don, Masri controls the fighters of the so-called vegetable market front, instilling fear and respect among residents and traders.
Syria Street and the nearby vegetable market are the most infamous of the neighborhoods’ front lines with Jabal Mohsen, but there are many others just as brutal and bloody. Masri, however, has bestowed a more romantic flavor on the scene, leading some in Bab al-Tabbaneh to view him as a modern-day Robin Hood, although others disagree.
A tour through the narrow, bazaarlike streets of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s vegetable market reveals a prosperous and lucrative business district. Lucrative to those who control it and the man who controls them: Masri.
Ahmad, a skinny, bearded shop owner in the market, told The Daily Star that Masri made the rules.
“He is the undisputed monarch,” the trader said with some hesitation. “Not even a bouquet of parsley can be sold at the market unless [it has been cleared] by Saad al-Masri”
It is believed that Masri has developed a form of monopoly on all incoming goods that earns him a few thousand dollars a day.
Masri is the son of a Sunni father and an Alawite mother and has relatives who serve in the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to Sheikh Bilal al-Masri, a pro-Syrian-rebels Salafist from Bab al-Tabbaneh. Sheikh Masri, not related, said that Saad al-Masri inherited his status as a fighter and a businessman from his late brother Khodor.
Khodor al-Masri emerged as a fierce fighter during clashes with Jabal Mohsen in 2008 and took part in several rounds of fighting until he was killed by Lebanese Army fire in 2012.
The sheikh described Khodor al-Masri as charismatic and a “God-fearing man,” saying he was famous for having captured the hearts and souls of young Tripoli fighters and leading by example.
“Khodor, rest his soul, was killed by a Lebanese Army sniper because he wanted to leave [former Prime Minister Najib] Mikati who was financing him and his group,” the sheikh said.
Khodor prohibited any sort of transgression in the vegetable market and had many “honorable” stands in his days, the sheikh said.
“Saad is merely an heir to Khodor and is working on expanding his brother’s legacy and fortune,” the sheikh added. “The money he makes from the vegetable market, added to the financial and political support he gets from Mikati, has made him a very rich man.”
When contacted by The Daily Star, sources close to the former prime minister said the sheikh’s allegations were part of an ongoing slander campaign against Mikati.
“Everyone knows that premier Mikati does not finance the children of Tripoli with weapons but rather with education,” one source said.
Although the link has never been proven, it is well known that Tripoli’s major militia leaders, who in recent years have stolen the limelight from the long-neglected city’s politicians, thrive due to the financial and political backing they get from local parties and figures.
Whether he is getting help or not, Saad al-Masri has certainly come into money.
Hailing from a relatively modest family in Minyeh, the militia leader dropped out of school in the fifth grade to work at Bab al-Tabbaneh’s vegetable market with his father. He now lives in a villa in his home region estimated to be worth over $1 million and has recently purchased an apartment in Tripoli’s upmarket Damm and Farz district.
A senior political source from Tripoli told The Daily Star that Masri was at one point receiving $50,000 a month from Mikati as support for his fighters, “who are the best armed among all of Tripoli’s militias.”
But according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the sum has since substantially diminished and has now been replaced by social and health benefits.
“This has lead Masri to devise a system whereby he forces the owners of 20 shops in the vegetable market to pay him what ranges between $200-$300 in protection money on a monthly basis,” the source said.
Masri’s newfound fortune has raised questions among his supporters and opponents.
“Who pays for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ammunition?” asked Abu Rami, a veteran fighter in Jabal Mohsen.
Abu Rami argued that a regional compromise was about to take place that would render all of Tripoli’s fighting squads and their commanders useless and that Masri’s maneuverings were in preparation for this.
“Masri has understood that and is now polishing his social and political talents,” he said. “I think Masri wants nothing to do with fighting anymore, he wants to tend to his growing empire and send young men off to kill and get killed.”
For the political source from Tripoli, however, Masri’s goal is not to gather a fortune but to establish himself as a leader: “Masri believes he should be the next Sunni leader in Tripoli.”