TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Clashes between Tripoli’s volatile neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh are not the only event to bring back harsh memories of the Lebanese Civil War for many of the city’s residents.
The high unemployment rates, presence of politically backed gunmen on the city’s streets and thugs exhorting protection fees from local businesses have recalled images of the country’s 1975-1990 Civil War for many.
“Tripoli has the largest percentage of poor as well as the largest percentage political financiers,” says one resident, referring to the incredibly wealthy individuals who represent Tripoli in the government.
The extreme wealth of these businessmen contrasts with the large percent of the population suffering from poverty, driving many unemployed young men to seek paychecks from politically-backed armed groups.
According to U.N. statistics more than 26 percent of Lebanese live under the extreme poverty line.
While there are no official statistics on the distribution of the poor throughout Lebanon, it is evident that a large portion of them reside in Tripoli.
Ayman, who declined to give his real name, is a 30-year-old, unemployed resident of Tripoli.
He is waiting for clashes to break out again in the city so the he can make money as a fighter.
“I live with my sick mother in the area of Khan al-Askar which is near Abu Ali river,” says Ayman, who claims he began to hide his identity after the judiciary in Tripoli began to arrest gunmen.
“I used to own a pickup truck which I rented out for money. But because of our poverty, I had to divorce my wife and give her my car to repay the dowry.
“Now I’m waiting, like many others, to fight again so we can earn money,” he adds.
Ayman says that the starting salary for recruits to various armed groups in the city is monthly assistance of $200.
“When [the recruit] becomes employed as a fighter within a group of 10-15 fighters who are armed with automatic rifles and hand grenades, then he starts receiving a monthly salary of $600,” Ayman claims.
Ayman says that many young men with no alternatives join these armed groups despite the risks of injury or death during clashes.
“It is not a career as much as it is last resort for the poor who risk losing their homes.
“There is no work in the city. People become desperate and what can they do other than rent their lives out to the leaders of armed groups?”
While information on the leaders of these armed groups and their funding is difficult to verify, Ayman says that there are widespread rumors that political parties depend on the militants to carry out missions on their behalf in return for large amounts of money.
Most politicians in Tripoli are accused of having formed armed groups by their political rivals, ever since the sporadic outbreak of violence over the past year between the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and the mainly Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen.
Fighting in recent months has claimed dozens of lives and wounded more than a hundred people.
Getting to the bottom of who is arming and funding the gunmen is an endless cycle of accusations.
Hezbollah has been repeatedly accused of having armed and funded the pro-Assad fighters in Jabal Mohsen.
The party refutes these accusations, claiming that they are simply providing development aid and charity funds rather than weapons.
In a similar cycle, the head of the Arab Democratic Party Rifaat Eid, one of the leading figures in Jabal Mohsen, has repeated statements that the residents of the neighborhood have no interest in renewed clashes because they would be completely besieged after they fired a single bullet.
Yet, Future parliamentary bloc MP Mohammad Kabbara continues to accuse Eid of turning Jabal Mohsen into military base for Hezbollah and the Syrian and Iranian regimes.
Former Tripoli MP Misbah al-Ahdab says that underneath this endless cycle of accusations lies real political backing for the armed groups.
“No one can fire a weapon unless they have political coverage and feel above the law, which means anyone who is fighting belongs to a particular political group offering him protection.
“There is a struggle between the security apparatuses in Tripoli.
“There is a specific apparatus that protects those backed by March 8 and provides them with security, judicial and political coverage, while another protects fighters backed by March 14.
“But at the end of the day, when things become chaotic on the streets, you just have the poor fighting the poor,” he adds.
Another issue facing residents of Tripoli is the presence of thugs who claim to protect various neighborhoods while also demanding protection fees.
One of these thugs, the ominously named Abu Shafar (“shafar” meaning razor in Arabic), roams the neighborhood of the internal Souk in Tripoli.
Residents say that Abu Shafar does his rounds in the morning, collecting fees from stores while he fabricates stories of attacks against their businesses and how he defended their livelihoods.
He is usually rewarded with LL5000 by each store.
The neighbors say that if a shop owner does not give Abu Shafar money, he would break into the store or set it on fire at night so that the owner understands that he is serious about protection payments.
Daily bouts of gunfire or skirmishes for unknown reasons can be heard in Tripoli.
But so far the Army has been able to contain the eruptions of violence.
Still, residents are constantly afraid that these armed clashes will return Tripoli to the violence of the Civil War.
With each security incident between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, many are certain that it is only a matter of time.