TRIPOLI/BEIRUT: Whether it is referred to as the “heart,” the “bride” or the “reservoir” of the revolution, the fact is that Tripoli has drawn the most consistently impressive crowds of any city in Lebanon during 18 days straight of popular uprising.
Even when numbers dwindled in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and the south, thousands filled the northern city’s Al-Nour Square, chanting for the downfall of the ruling class, dancing, singing and captivating the country.
Locals who spoke to The Daily Star Saturday night said unparalleled economic hardship in Tripoli was the main reason they continued to return to the streets.
“There is so much poverty and deprivation here that, no matter how this turns out, things will be better,” Salwa, an 84-year-old Tripoli resident said, walking slowly toward Al-Nour Square with her husband. “I just hope they don’t get tired, but it doesn’t seem like they are going to.”
While demonstrations may have dwindled elsewhere, the Tripoli protests have remained substantial - and people have taken notice. Many Beirutis headed up to Tripoli Saturday, both to support the protests there and to invite the city’s residents to a large demonstration planned in the capital the following day.
“We wanted to show that this movement is about decentralizing the country,” Eric, a 26-year-old fashion designer from Beirut, told The Daily Star from Al-Nour Square Saturday night. Thousands stood around him, chanting “All of them means all of them” - the rallying cry of a protest movement united in its demand for the downfall of all of the country’s major postwar politicians.
Eric went up to Tripoli in a 12-car convoy of friends. “We organized this to call them to Beirut tomorrow to show our unity, because the numbers in Beirut are down,” he said. “The Aounis are also going to have a counterdemo at the presidential palace. We need to show everyone that we have numbers, too.”
The plan appears to have worked. The demonstration by supporters of President Michel Aoun Sunday brought out thousands, but was dwarfed by the Beirut protest and the other smaller gatherings that took place from Tripoli to Nabatieh, Sidon and Tyre.
“We are here to stand with our brothers in Beirut and be together, and bring down the system together. All of them means all of them,” Mohammad Abdullah, a taxi driver and father of five from Tripoli, told The Daily Star in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square Sunday.
He said he was in the capital following a call from the Beiruti protesters who had come to Tripoli the night before. “We appreciated that they came to us and we decided to return the favor,” he said. “We are from different areas, but I know that many here in Beirut, in Dahiyeh [Beirut’s southern suburbs], also don’t have bread at home. That unites us as Lebanese.”
Abdullah had made the journey as part of a 25-bus convoy loaded with 1,000 people, and said another 800 were on the way.
People including a 39-year-old NGO worker named Mohammad pitched in LL5,000 ($3) to rent the buses and pay for fuel.
“It’s important for us to continue showing that we aren’t satisfied simply with the resignation of the government, and to do that, we need to bring together all the squares of Lebanon,” he told The Daily Star. “Lebanon has already given huge support to Tripoli, so we’re here in Beirut now in the spirit of unity.”
Mohammad said it might be true that areas such as Tripoli were in a worse economic state than Beirut, and that every area had its own demands based on local issues. But everyone agreed that politicians had to pay the price for years of mismanagement and corruption.
“We have all been brought together by this decentralized protest. Zouk Mosbeh is different to Jal al-Dib or Akkar or Beirut, but we are all saying that this rule of sectarianism and corruption is not for us, and we want it to fall,” he said.
This level of cross-country collaboration is new for protests in Lebanon. In the past, they have been largely based in the capital.
That much was clear during the 2015 garbage crisis and even during the uprising against Syrian occupation in 2005.
Serge, a 41-year-old who traveled to Tripoli from Beirut Saturday, said this solidarity between communities would be essential going forward.
He added that people protesting in the south, many of whom have braved intimidation and violence by supporters of the locally powerful Amal Movement and Hezbollah, should be next in line for a similar display of solidarity.
“The counterrevolution is mounting, so it’s important to have cities communicating more and building networks,” he said. “We need to help those who are most in need.”