For many, the clashes that erupted in Tripoli came as no surprise. The city has been rife with problems for a long time. Security has been jeopardized by the proliferation of weapons, political and sectarian tensions, and the tense interactions of the Syrian crisis. Any clash, at any moment, could create a massive earthquake on the "Lebanese Richter scale."
Thus, when Lebanese General Security arrested a Salafist accused of having links with a terrorist organization in an apparent attempt to create sectarian strife by playing on emotions and worsening regional tensions, the city plunged into chaos. Tripoli is in a very vulnerable position, and is used to consuming itself in its own fires. Protesters blocked the roads with burning tires, and the unrest spilled out into the streets and alleys of poor neighborhoods, including Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tebbaneh, which witnessed yet another confrontation that claimed dozens of lives.
Given the many underlying factors for the clashes, Tripoli has once again paid the price for being at a financial and regional disadvantage. The city was divided along sectarian and political lines a long time ago, and has since been grappling with its ghosts amid a lack of state prestige and institutions. The prime minister and five other government ministers are from Tripoli, but this is not expected to make any difference. The opposition, led by the Future Movement, does not seem to be any better; all they do is seize opportunities to criticize Prime Minister Najib Mikati without bothering to protect the city.
Clearly, the intractability of the Syrian crisis is largely responsible for exacerbating the deepening tensions in Tripoli. It may be true that what has happened over the past two days is proof that the Syrian crisis does affect Lebanon internally. The simple arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, who is known for supporting the Syrian opposition, was enough to spark violent clashes. This time, the “self-distancing” policy failed to absorb existing tensions. This incident was preceded by recent attempts to smuggle large quantities of arms by sea. The army was able to take control of the situation before the ship could reach its destination.
As a result of all of this, the military is trying to make use of its equipment and political cover in order to impose security and reconcile its mission with the particularities of the city. This is especially difficult when there are people trying to foil the mission by accusing the army of targeting a specific group. The General Security Service was accused of the same thing after Mawlawi was arrested and brought to Minister Mohammad Safadi’s office. Islamists were enraged, saying that the arrest was insulting to the people of Tripoli.
Mikati: the Army is not against Islamists
In this context, Prime Minister Mikati told As-Safir that some people try to make the army look like it is working against the Islamists, but this is not true. The army did not intend to break up Saturday’s sit-in, but when fights broke out, the army had to conduct a large-scale intervention just to secure the situation.
Intensive contacts made yesterday [May 14, 2012] managed to persuade the Islamists to suspend their protest against the arrest of Mawlawi, a demonstration that had been taking place in the courtyard of (Lebanon Independence leader) Abdul Hamid Karami. However, tension continued to plague Jabal Mohsen, Bab el-Tebbaneh and the surrounding areas, where sporadic clashes were still reported throughout the night, causing more casualties.
Security Sources: No to Political Investment
Security sources told As-Safir that the situation is far worse than some might imagine. Lebanese security forces warned against any political investment in the case of Shadi al-Mawlawi, in particular, and in the situation in northern Lebanon, in general. This could have dramatic consequences for the country. “Investigations will soon reveal the truth about what was in store for Tripoli and the north. Lebanese security forces will not be intimidated by politics. They will perform their tasks to the fullest until the facts are revealed and everyone assumes their responsibilities,” security sources said.
Higher Defense Council
Meanwhile, President Michel Suleiman convened a Higher Defense Council meeting on May 13 in Baabda Palace to address the situation in Tripoli. During the meeting, security officials gave detailed information about the violence, and some ministers voiced concern over the possibility that there could be a terrorist network in northern Lebanon. They said that some members of the network were arrested before the most recent clashes, and that the detainees’ cases are being actively investigated at the judiciary and security levels. Security and intelligence officials stressed that those who breach security will be pursued and prosecuted. On May 14, Shadi Mawlawi will be transferred to the appropriate court to conduct an investigation and to make a proper judgment against him.
According to information obtained by As-Safir, the Higher Defense Council emphasized the importance of security in preventing the violence in Syria from spilling over into Lebanon. The council also urged the Lebanese government to distance itself from events in Syria and to try not to exacerbate the military and security situation. “The President’s directives were clear: There will be no tolerance with anyone. Security measures will not be compromised. The council also stressed that the army and security forces will be provided with the necessary equipment to perform their national task and to rout out sectarian strife,” said As-Safir.
As for the events in Tripoli, an official source told As-Safir that a decision was made to extend state powers. Instructions were clear: to arrest all militants involved in the clashes, and to bring them to the judicial authority. No one can hide; we have videos and photos of the militants during the clashes. As for those who blame the security forces for the violence, we advise them to watch their mouths. The security forces were only doing their job.
Marwan Charbel and Decisiveness
After the council meeting, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel told As-Safir that “The decisions we take will be final. The situation will be handled seriously, but without bloodshed, if possible. We will reach a solution, God willing. What matters, however, is that security services have the perpetrators’ names. The judiciary will follow up.”
Safadi and General Security
Minister Mohammad Safadi said that “Some took advantage of our reputation for helping people, which led to the Mawlawi’s arrest. I filed a lawsuit against General Security.” Safadi also stressed that “those who are guilty will be punished.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mikati held a meeting with Tripoli MPs, which resulted in an agreement on the following four points:
- Condemning the way in which Shadi Mawlawi was arrested, since he was taken to Minister Mohammad Safadi’s office
- Facilitating Mawlawi's transfer to the judicial authority in order to conduct an investigation and take the necessary action
- Settling the Islamist detainees issue immediately, as it is a ticking time bomb that could explode at any moment
- Requiring the army to take the necessary measures to control the security services and to stop violence
The army is also required to reveal the names of all persons involved, including those who claimed that they enjoy political immunity under Prime Minister Mikati, since Mikati was the one who ordered the arrest of all who were involved, regardless of their political allegiances.
After the meeting, Mikati stressed that “Street fights are a double-edged sword, and they have dramatic consequences for the country’s security.” The Prime Minister said that political immunity is not granted to those who breach security. He also considered “the way in which Mawlawi was arrested was unacceptable and reprehensible. We ask the judiciary to settle this case and we do not wish to interfere in its work.”