TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Except for the occasional cries of street vendors, nothing is likely to disrupt the tranquil mood of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s bustling narrow souqs, where the scents of pungent spices, freshly-baked bread, and deep-fried falafel blend together creating a fragrance typical of traditional Middle Eastern market places.
But the mostly Sunni suburb of the northern coastal city of Tripoli has had a long history of disputes, some of which turned bloody, with its neighbor Jabal Mohsen, home to the majority of Lebanon’s Alawites.
The nine-week old unrest in Syria and resentment against minority Alawite rule there raised fears of a revival of tension between Tripoli’s two impoverished neighborhoods that have thus far witnessed a cautious calm.
“We exported sectarianism to Syria, it spread from here to there and not vice-versa,” said a resident of Jabal Mohsen, who refused to give his name, when asked whether he feared that the turmoil witnessed in Syria could extend to Tripoli.
Despite reassurance voiced by the city’s officials that the security situation in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen was under control, residents of both neighborhoods were almost certain that random security incidents will occur.
“We are used to disputes, there might be minor incidents, individual problems but the [Lebanese] Army is in charge and will contain violence,” said Ezzat Kheir, the owner of a shop in the notorious Syria Road, considered the green line between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
A resident of Jabal Mohsen, who did not wish to give his name, said aggravation was not improbable. “I’m almost certain that some clash will occur,” he said.
The residents of the two neighborhoods also laid the blame on each other in case the security situation takes a turn to the worst.
Giving instructions to his apprentice about the best technique to prepare a raw liver sandwich, Khaled Ahmad said if the people of Jabal Mohsen “provoke us we are ready to hit back.”
The mufti of Tripoli, Sheikh Malek Shaar, who brokered a truce deal between Sunni and Alawite leaders in Tripoli back in 2008 when tension between the two Muslim sects soared, sounded more optimistic saying he did not fear sectarian clashes in Tripoli.
“There might have been hostility in the past but agreements reached between figures from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen rest on solid foundations and call on all parties to adopt wise, prudent and reconciliatory behavior,” Shaar told The Daily Star.
Shaar said the Alawite community was an integral part of the city of Tripoli, adding that he paid regular visits to Jabal Mohsen to coordinate stances on various issues.
Despite acknowledging the Lebanese Army’s pivotal role in maintaining peace in Tripoli’s deprived neighborhoods; Shaar argues that the agreement reached between the leading figures from the Sunni and Alawite communities had more impact.
“I can guarantee that there will be no fights or clashes and I am responsible for what I am saying,” added the mufti.
Shaar’s optimism was partly shared by the head of the Arab Democratic Party (ADP), who explained that despite provocations the Alawite community has vowed not to clash with its Sunni neighbors.
“Despite provocations and incitement against the Alawites [heard] in mosques we are committed to preserving calm and stability,” said Rifaat Ali Eid, who hailed measures undertaken by the Lebanese army to avoid potential clashes.
But Eid and his supporters voiced fears of the growing influence of Sunni fundamentalist groups in Tripoli and criticized the interference of certain groups in Tripoli in Syrian domestic affairs.
“I am married to a Sunni but I don’t want my wife and kids to wear the niqab,” said one resident from Jabal Mohsen before an ADP official interrupted him ordering an end to the conversation with the press.
“The situation is very difficult and we don’t want to give any opinions during such delicate circumstances,” said the ADP official, who refused to give his name. “We are currently on the brink of a volcano,” he added.
The ADP Secretary General, however, was more vocal saying Tripoli has turned into “another Kandahar.”
Eid also accused groups in Tripoli of fueling the unrest in Syria, saying Syrian authorities have arrested “hundreds on Lebanese who helped protestors.”
Salafists in Tripoli staged last month demonstrations in support of anti-regime protests in Syria and the confessions of a three member terrorist cell revealed that Akkar MP Jamal Jarrah allegedly armed and funded protestors.
Earlier this week, Tripoli MP Mohammad Kabbara called for assisting Syrian protestors. Kabbara also slammed the policy of non-interference adopted by his parliamentary bloc, the Future bloc, regarding events in Syria.
“Wise figures in Tripoli are helpless,” said Eid, adding that Tripoli has now become a “highly volatile spot.”
Mufti Shaar, meanwhile, strongly dismissed claims saying Tripoli has turned into a stronghold for Islamist fundamentalist groups arguing that these have little if any influence in Tripoli.
“These claims are unfair,” he said, “I don’t see how a small city like Tripoli can influence events in a bigger country like Syria.”
He added that no one in Lebanon had an interest in the situation degenerating in Syria. “When my neighbor is fine I am fine.”
Eid and Shaar however agreed that any security breaches ought to be dealt with by the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces.
“We have no choice but to resort to the state’s institutions, said the Mufti.
Eid for his part said as a minority Alawites have no interest in clashing with other communities.
“We will not fight with our brothers in Tripoli and we will never ever abandon our homes in Jabal Mohsen,” he added.
But Tripoli’s two notoriously restive neighborhoods are not without their sensible voices.
Abu Haidar, who hails from Jabal Mohsen but owns a grocery store in Bab al-Tabbaneh’s souks, said the Lebanese no longer trusted their leaders who were only after their own interests.
Local cleric Sheikh Youssef Miqdad also relies on the awareness on the people of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen to overcome obstacles.
“The people are not interested in bickering everyone is busy earning their daily bread.”