Tripoli tinderbox

A Sunni gunman moves his position during clashes, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Sunday May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The clashes over the weekend were an all-too-familiar event in Tripoli, a city that has become accustomed to the periodic outbreak of internecine violence.

The events provided further disturbing evidence of the existence of arms in the hands of a range of citizens and parties in the city.

Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city, and the capital of an area in the north that constitutes nearly 30 percent of the country’s territory. With a port and an, albeit unused, airport, it has the potential to be a key economic player in the country.

That it instead is beset by poverty, and the kind of violence witnessed in recent days has much to do with the treatment of the city at the hands of politicians.

Even though we have a prime minister and a handful of ministers who hail from the city, and even though each time there are clashes there are casualties in the Army and the security forces, no real change is enacted. The solutions proffered for such violence are a replica of the tribal ones that have been suggested for decades.

These are cosmetic solutions that barely scratch the surface of the city’s problems, which all sides have been trying to brush under the carpet, hoping they will go away. They will not.

That is true now more than ever, with the conflict in Syria threatening to ignite further strife. The problems have more than doubled, but the attitude of the government has remained the same.

Tripoli suffers from neglect of its entrenched social, economic and security problems. As the government keeps the city and its challenges at arm’s length, extremists and armed groups move into the gap it has left.

These groups maintain affiliations with as many parties – both foreign and local – as possible, mushrooming under the eyes of the government, and sometimes even with its consent, in a bid to create political advantage.

The result is that Tripoli is going from bad to worse. Unemployment is rising as the local economy plummets, and as a result, respect for any government agency is disappearing at a fantastic rate.

There will be no light at the end of the tunnel unless the absent authorities address the real problems to put Tripoli back on the map of Lebanon as a city famous for its tolerance.

Authorities will likely tell us in the coming days that things are back to normal in Tripoli, that the violence is over.

A child could see that the city remains a powder keg. The government is putting on blinkers hoping that the problems will go away, but a bloody conflagration is around the corner.

The government must treat this situation as a priority, because should conflict explode in the city it will not only affect the surrounding area, but – in the current volatile atmosphere – will spread strife to the whole country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2012, on page 7.




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