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The view from Tripoli’s restive Jabal Mohsen

The fight against Jabal Mohsen is carried out by various fronts that surround the neighborhood. (The Daily Star/Antoine Amrieh)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Residents of Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen have no choice but to spend hot and sticky summer afternoons confined to the neighborhood’s overcrowded alleys.

Men discuss politics in cafes while children play ball in the streets before being ordered back home by mothers screaming from windows and balconies.

The latest clashes with Bab al-Tabbaneh, the most intense in recent years, in addition to a series of attacks against Alawite businesses, have left the people of the “Jabal” bitter but resilient.

“We are attacked on a daily basis and our businesses are targeted,” local Mohsen Dahil laments. “But we won’t leave ... we’re Lebanese and we’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Alawites of the Jabal, who back Syrian President Bashar Assad, fought hammer and tongs against their Sunni rivals stationed in the neighborhoods encircling their tiny territory. In the aftermath, several businesses owned by Alawites across the northern coastal city of Tripoli were burned down.

The head of Jabal Mohsen’s dominant group, the Arab Democratic Party, argues that unlike the city’s other political factions, his party was not invited to recent meetings held by Mufti Malek Shaar intended to contain the violence. This is a clear indicator, he says, that the ADP did not initiate the clashes.

“They hold those meetings without us, and the shooting and shelling instantly ceases, so we stop in turn,” Rifaat Ali Eid tells The Daily Star from an office in his well-guarded villa in the Jabal.

“What does this mean?” he asks. “It can mean only one thing: Jabal Mohsen is not picking a fight and we’re only responding to attacks against us.”

The young Alawite leader describes as “insignificant” reports that groups affiliated with ADP’s ally, Hezbollah, are actively taking part in attacks against Jabal Mohsen.

“These are individual cases that have no influence on the actual battle,” he maintains. “Almost half of Tripoli receives assistance from Hezbollah in one form or the other, and this in no way means Hezbollah is fighting against us.”

Pictures of Eid, his father – the former Tripoli MP Ali Eid – the late Syrian President Hafez Assad and his embattled son Bashar hang across Jabal Mohsen. One orphan poster depicts Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.

Eid, who collects the remains of shells fired at Jabal Mohsen on a corner of the bookshelves behind him, blames Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi and Wissam al-Hasan, the head of the ISF’s Information Branch, for fueling tension in Tripoli.

He says these security apparatuses are behind the growing influence of Islamist and Salafist groups in the city. “But they are nurturing a monster,” Eid adds. “Sooner or later things will blow out of control and all of Tripoli will be affected by [this monster], not only Jabal Mohsen.”

The fight against Jabal Mohsen is not carried out solely through its rival Bab al-Tabbaneh, but rather across several fronts that encircle Tripoli’s Alawite quarter of 50,000 people.

During clashes, gunmen from the Jabal fight on multiple fronts including Bab al-Tabbaneh, Qibbeh, Baqqar, Mankoubin and more recently the Riva, which towers above Jabal Mohsen.

Sunni fighters now dominate the Riva axis, capturing a vital route from the Alawites and further tightening their siege on the neighborhood, which lacks any medical facility now that Al-Zahraa Hospital has been transformed into Lebanese Army barracks.

It is through the Riva region that Alawite fighters previously could access Zghorta, the district of their closest ally in north Lebanon, Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh, without having to go through rival areas in Tripoli.

Jabal Mohsen students, who have to take official exams in Tripoli and Zghorta areas, are being escorted to test centers by Army personnel.

“What kills me is that the kids can’t take their exams without being escorted by the Army,” says Jabal Mohsen resident Ahmad al-Abed. “Isn’t exam stress enough?”

Long-term feelings of uneasiness between the Jabal and its environs have sectarian, historical and socioeconomic roots.

In Tripoli, these differences have manifested themselves since the 1960s in recurrent clashes between the impoverished districts of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh.

More recently, the 15-month uprising against Assad, an Alawite, has widened the schism between the neighboring communities.

While Tripoli’s Sunnis speak of a moral duty toward anti-Assad rebels, Lebanon’s Alawite community says it owes a lot to the Assad family.

“If they [Sunnis] want the Assad regime to fall, let them go and fight it on the border [with Syria] rather than launch attacks against us,” Abed says.

In 1976 when Palestinian factions took over Jabal Mohsen, Alawite families were forced to flee their homes and were displaced to villages in the northern district of Akkar and the Syrian coastline. Former Tripoli MP Ali Eid sought the help of then-President Hafez Assad, who trained and gave weapons to fleeing Lebanese Alawites.

“In 1976 the Alawites vowed that they would never again be mistreated or displaced,” says Rifaat Eid. “Even if it costs us our lives we won’t abandon the Jabal.”

But nowadays, Tripoli’s Sunni fighters say there is a pressing need to get rid of Eid and his supporters if the tension between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh is to ease. They say the ADP is causing strife in order to ease the pressure on Assad.

“Bashar Assad has so far shown great resilience in the face of the superpowers. He doesn’t need the help of the ADP,” Eid says, adding that the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen have no interest in battling with their neighbors.

“We don’t want strife. We are 50,000 people and they are 800,000,” he says. “I am not going to kill my people.”

Eid argues that the calm Tripoli witnessed in the last week was “precarious,” saying there is no genuine political cover for the Army to carry out its duties and “neutralize the actual sources of trouble.”

But Eid reiterates that the ADP is committed to stability and coexistence. “Don’t think I’m incapable of being cruel and inflicting pain to the other side,” he says. “I am [just] not being nasty because I am against strife.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 23, 2012, on page 2.

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