Monday, January 21, 2013

Tripoli sliding into lawlessness

[Originally posted at NOW]

Rami Nasser and his friend had been slightly apprehensive about riding their motorbikes through Tripoli late last month, but it had been three weeks since the last bout of armed clashes had subsided, and a local friend assured them the situation was calm. As they were soon to discover, however, the definition of “calm” in Tripoli can be flexible.

“We were on our way to see a friend in Minyara [north of Tripoli] around noon,” Nasser told NOW. “When we entered Tripoli, we kept to the main roads. Everything looked very normal; the streets were full of people. Then, just a hundred meters or so after passing the Abu Ali Roundabout, on which the army had heavily deployed, we suddenly saw about five young guys blocking the road in front of us, shouting at us to stop.

“They started pushing our bikes and then one put a gun to my friend’s head, so he got off the bike and handed him the keys. At this point we thought it was a robbery. The five turned into over 20 within less than a minute. I thought about just slamming on the gas and trying to get away, but then one took out a handgun, cocked it, put his finger on the trigger and held it right to my face. So I got off and gave him the key too.

“Then, after we took our helmets off, a man looking like a sheikh – with the Salafist beard and shaven moustache – walked up and looked at our faces and told the guys, ‘No, no, it’s not them, let them go.’ So they gave us back our keys, and as we turned around, one shouted, ‘You should thank your god nothing happened to you. Go!’”

Abandoning the Minyara plan, Nasser and his friend made for a nearby army base to report what happened. They received a mostly indifferent response. “They didn’t care. They told us, ‘Good thing you made it out unharmed; they could have taken the bikes, they could have shot you,’” said Nasser.

“When they tried to write a report, they realized they didn’t have a pen, and they had to buy one from a nearby supermarket. And while they did this they told us to park our bikes inside their barracks, in case the guys came to check if we were talking to the army. It was really ironic, because we were with the army and they were afraid of them, not vice versa.”

To this day, Nasser has heard nothing back from the army regarding the report, and still doesn’t know why he and his friend were held up by the gunmen, though an army intelligence officer at the time suggested they were looking for two people on motorbikes who had recently “done something” against them.

Nor were the army the only ones to shrug at what happened. Ordinary pedestrians, some of whom had stopped to watch as the gunmen closed around the bikers, simply carried on with their days once Nasser and his friend fled the scene.

“It was as if it were a totally normal, everyday thing to put guns in people’s faces,” he told NOW.

Indeed, such occurrences do appear to be increasingly typical of the city that Tripoli has become – heavily weaponized, largely lawless, and violently divided along political and sectarian lines. Local resident Mustafa Ramadan told NOW that the notorious antagonism between the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods has only made things worse.

For example, “A few weeks ago, a young man was walking through Tabbaneh, and someone decided he was a fighter from Jabal Mohsen who had killed Sunnis in the recent clashes,” said Ramadan. “So right then and there, in broad daylight, he pulled out a handgun, shot the guy dead and ran away. A few hours later, they discovered it was the wrong man.

“You can get killed nowadays just for looking like people.”

Why has it become like this? According to former Tripoli MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Tajaddod Movement, the problem is that the gunmen are politically covered. “The security institutions are more protective of fighters than civilians,” he told NOW. “You know, someone like me, if I request permits for my own protection from the Lebanese army, I have problems getting them. But they throw them right and left to all those fighters.”

Moreover, “The only money that comes into Tripoli is for buying weapons, on both sides, to create insecurity and to create an atmosphere that has nothing to do with the traditions and social fabric of Tripoli. This is an agenda that is regional; it has nothing to do with the state of Lebanon.”

Therefore, the solution, says Ahdab, is “to have a big decision coming from the government to say no more weapons and to protect civilians, rather than giving instructions to the security institutions to protect fighters.

“But if there is no political decision, nothing can be done, and unfortunately there has not been one. A blind eye is being turned to what’s going on.”

Some of the above names have been changed for security reasons.

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