Tripoli's working class lives matter

To Lebanon's oligarchs, Tripoli's working class lives are just collateral damage
5 min read
29 Jan, 2021
Comment: Tripoli and its revolutionary youth must resist a reality in which their deaths are seen as an affordable crime by the ruling class, writes Nizar Hassan.
'If they speak up, their voices will be ignored until they riot' writes Hassan [Getty]
For Tripoli's working class, escaping death and misery is no easy feat. 

If those who have so far escaped unemployment abide by the lockdown rules, their means of subsistence is lost, especially those in informal, low-paying jobs with no guaranteed income for the days they can't get to work. If they speak up, their voices will be ignored until they riot. And when they riot, they are met with the fiercest of repressive reactions by security forces, including live bullets shot directly at their bodies.

Tripoli's streets have witnessed all three of these scenarios in the last few days. What started as relatively small marches in the city soon turned into riots, especially after they were met with a heavy handed response from police and military troops. Tripoli's main square soon turned into a battlefield between the heavily armed security forces who don't hesitate to use their weapons, and groups of young men mostly armed with any stone they can find.

On Thursday, Omar Tayba died from wounds he received when he was shot at by security forces during protests. This is not the first time the repression of protests has killed people in Tripoli; before Tayba, there were Fawwaz Samman and Ahmad Tawfiq.

As pointed out by comedian Nour Hajjar, when police put three bullets in the body of an unarmed young man in a public square and in the presence of the media, it is more of an execution by the state than riot policing.

In Tripoli the state is represented by prisons and troops, not infrastructure and public services

Official executions are usually justified by judicial verdicts that represent a justice system that maintains the social order. So what allows these crimes in this case? It is the unfortunate fact that for the social and political order in Lebanon, the lives of Tripoli's people are cheap.

Tripoli is one of the poorest cities not only in Lebanon, but in the region. The city's development needs have been largely ignored by the central government, especially with the Beirut-focused paradigm in the post-civil war years. What is supposed to be Lebanon's second capital with great economic potential is an underfunded, marginalised city where the state is represented by prisons and troops, not infrastructure and public services.

The working class of Tripoli, like other marginalised social groups in Lebanon, have been consistently treated by the state as second-class citizens, only praised ahead of elections, and drowned in accusations of violence and extremism most other days.

Martyrs who come from the most underprivileged neighbourhoods of Tripoli do not get the same attention as their middle-class counterparts from higher class backgrounds. The authorities know this and therefore allow the iron hand to smash left and right when Tripoli's people revolt.

Another factor that makes it easier for the state to crush protests through excessive violence is the ambiguity of political dominance in Tripoli.

Read more: 
Anger against Lebanon's banks is justified, legitimate and progressive

If the army kills someone in almost any other area of Lebanon with the exception of Beirut, the local 'za3im', or local oligarch, will face popular backlash: how could you let the state be used against your people when we grant you loyalty to have geographical control?

In Tripoli, none of the politicians is held responsible the same way, which allows the army and policy to act with more impunity. Even worse than that, politicians did not hesitate to condemn the riots on the basis of the need to protect private and public properties.

Over the last few days, statements condemning the riots came from across the political spectrum, with most politicians portraying the movement as a conspiracy, and one of them, Najib Mikati, threatening to "carry arms" in defense of his properties. With that, politicians who are supposed to carry Tripoli's grievances only reiterated protesters' point, that nothing they do will get their voices heard.

In this context, there is a responsibility on all groups that claim to be revolutionary to step up not only in defense of Tripoli and its revolutionary youth, but also against a reality where their deaths are seen as an affordable crime by the ruling class.

Letting the establishment get away with today's crimes in Tripoli means we can forget about any such leverage

If no one is held accountable for what is happening in Tripoli today, not only will its people be further repressed, but also the revolutionary journey will have received an incredible blow. It will signify that once again, the people's movement against the establishment has lost all leverage, and that power is still monopolised by the ruling class.

An important pillar of the post-October 17 reality was that all ruling parties now needed to worry not only about one another, but about people's reaction to their actions and crimes. This leverage was dealt a heavy blow after the August 4 port blast, when immediate accountability took the meagre form of a government resignation with no positive effect on anyone. Letting the establishment get away with today's crimes in Tripoli means we can forget about any such leverage.

Finally, there is an urgent need to force the authorities into socio-economic support for the poorest segments of our society. Even if this doesn't prove to be a high-momentum moment for popular uprising, the minimum it should lead to is a set of policies enacted by the government to support the poor and unemployed. 

Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese organiser, researcher and podcaster based in Beirut. He is a co-founder of the progressive political movement LiHaqqi, he researches workers rights and social movements, and co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast.