TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Leaning on his cane as he took each step, Abu Khaled walked slowly over to a table in a shaded spot on Tripoli’s seafront. Settling himself down, he gazed at the rickety red Renault van from which he sells coffee and drinks to passersby. The van used to be one of many parked along the sunny strip in Mina, a coastal neighborhood of the northern city, where locals serve coffee, Nescafe, tea, and other drinks and snacks, but Monday Abu Khaled was the only one.
“It all started on Friday night,” he said. “I got a message on WhatsApp saying that early Saturday morning police will come by and take everything.”
As promised, the Internal Security Forces evicted all unlicensed coffee shops and kiosks from Mina Saturday morning at the instruction of North Lebanon Governor Ramzi Nohra. The reason behind the move, however, remains unclear, with accusations of lucrative real estate deals being countered with allegations of illegal activity.
“I took the decision to have these vendors removed because they were trespassing and local people were complaining,” Nohra told The Daily Star. Locals say that some vendors have sold drugs and offered other illegal services in the past.
The seaside vendors, however, said they have yet to receive a valid explanation for their businesses being forcibly closed at such short notice.
“Right now we haven’t been given a reason ... but there is definitely a bigger decision behind it,” said Sheikh Maher Abboushi, a member of the Muslim Scholars Committee who is helping Abu Khaled and the other vendors fight the governor’s decision. Regardless, many have their suspicions.
“The decision taken here is similar to what was happening in Raouche,” Abu Khaled said, referring to one of the few remaining public parts of Beirut’s coastline, which the government has recently fenced off to make way for a luxury real estate project. Nohra denied that was the reason behind the move.
Talking about the incident outside Abu Khaled’s van, Abboushi’s rage was apparent.
“Mina has a different atmosphere where people who go to pray on Fridays and Sundays and live together,” he bellowed, speaking at length with a similar level of gusto to that found in a Friday mosque sermon. “Some people work and make a living here by the sea. Why would the government want to take that away?”
Many of Mina’s lower-income residents’ sole source of income is selling coffee and the like by the sea, and the decision to shut down such means of employment has enraged the locals, particularly in a city with high levels of poverty and unemployment, factors that many believe contribute to radicalization.
“They are taking the livelihood of the poor,” Abboushi said. “Go take the seafront chalets of the rich before you take anything away from the poor.”
“People shooting guns during clashes receive salaries from politicians,” he added. “Why not give salaries to these people?”
As he spoke, a dozen or so of the other vendors – all male and most in their teens and 20s – gathered near Abu Khaled’s makeshift office, the shaded table with four chairs.
“They are like my sons,” Abu Khaled said, gesturing at the group.
Within minutes, a heated discussion broke out as the men began to plan their reaction to the decision.
“I need LL800,000 [$533.33] each month to eat and drink and pay for my kids school,” one of the vendors said.
“Shiekh, we are so angry we want to shoot at something!” chipped in another in a high voice.
“No! We don’t want violence,” Abboushi quickly countered.
“Take your kids out of schools and bring your women to the streets tomorrow.”
The group will organize a peaceful rally in Tripoli Tuesday at 10 a.m., where they will attempt to block the roads leading to the central roundabout in Mina.
“The government is acting as thugs and in turn they are creating thugs,” Abu Khaled said. “We want our rights.”