By many accounts, Tripoli was once on par with Beirut as a leader in commercial and economic activities. Dating back at least to the 14th century BCE, it has many historical and cultural sites, including the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles, the largest Crusader fortress in Lebanon and the second largest amount of Mamluk architectural heritage on earth (behind Cairo).
It is now seeking to recapture its economic prominence. Several sources make note that “A Tripoli development plan called ‘Tripoli Vision 2020’ has been formulated and supported by a number of advisory councils including influential key government officials and prominent businessmen in the city. The goal of the project is to provide a comprehensive framework consisting of promoting investment, training, re-skilling, talent placement, and output promotion to reinvigorate the city’s economy.” A number of these projects are included in the Capital Investment Plan that garnered broad international donor support at the recent CEDRE conference in Paris.
Financing aside, there are many obstacles to promoting economic growth and delivery of essential services in the north of Lebanon. This blog will focus on two competing visions: that of Salafist militants who are a source of continued instability in the region, contrasted to the work of the NGO Levant Local, which is pioneering work among youth to deliver social services to underserved and marginalized communities.
A recent article by the Carnegie Institute Middle East Center focused on Salafism in the region, defining it as a “Puritan Sunni religious movement advocating a return to the practices of the al-salaf al-salih, the companions and successors of the Prophet Muhammad.” The article points out that before the civil war and the rise of Hezbollah, Salafism was only marginally present in Lebanon among the Sunni communities, which make up some 90% of the population in Tripoli area. According to the research presented, “it is apparent that, at its core, the rise of Salafi militancy in Lebanon stems from a sociopolitical revolt—one that originates in disaffected urban areas where the growth of Salafi groups has more to do with social dynamics than with any supposedly ideological appeal of extremism.”
In fact, individuals and groups studied appear to adopt Salafism to receive subsidies from outside funders, and use religious rhetoric to justify “Acts of violence that seem like Salafi militancy but rather align more with long-standing local traditions of social unrest; or providing a vocabulary and platform to contest local sociopolitical marginalization.” If that is accurate, then the recent rise in Salafi militancy reflects local grievances, identity conflicts, and competing power networks. As with militants from Morocco to Iraq, seeing them only through a security perspective obscures options that may be effective in defusing tensions, reducing instability, and rebuilding communities.
Another critical factor throughout Lebanon, but quite visible in the north, is the economic marginalization of large parts of the Sunni population, where the gap between the privileged and the poor is quite significant. “In Tripoli, where Sunnis constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, 57% of the residents are poor—a far cry from the 28% national average. Yet what is of even more concern is the fast-growing urban segregation between the gated neighborhoods of the well-off, where basic services function, and the marginalized districts, where residents struggle with worsening insecurity, deteriorating infrastructure, poorly performing public schools, and high poverty rates.”
It is in communities that feel marginalized, deprived, and decoupled from the country’s power structure that the Salafists are making inroads, using Gulf money to open schools, run charities, fund orphanages, and help refugees in the absence of the state. And it is in this contested space that Levant Local is taking a stand, investing its resources, and working to make a difference.
The Carnegie study concludes with the statement that “A key priority for the Lebanese government should therefore be to design an ambitious nationwide plan aimed at reducing unemployment, mitigating the spread of the underground economy, developing infrastructure that provides public spaces and deals with overcrowding, and fixing a crumbling public school system. Only confidence in the state and in its capacity to assure the welfare of marginalized citizens will quash the thirst for a social revolt.”
While the national Capital Investment Program and Vision 2020 move through the system, Levant Local is leveraging local resources and ambitions to promote safe spaces for young people by equipping them with knowledge and skills to combat extremism; and they are helping Syrian refugees acquire the tools to build the future Syria. What makes their approach vital? Think of the government as a top-down approach that has to move through the vagaries of the Lebanese political system, and Levant Local as a grassroots strategy. It is empowering young people, women, and local and community groups to develop solutions with limited resources without the numbing bureaucracy that constrains the operations of international NGOs and government agencies.
A few statistics comparing Northern Lebanon (NL) to the Bekaa Valley (BV) area highlight the scope of the challenge. There is 3 times the number of Lebanese in NL (791K to 275k), and it has 9 times the number of people living below the poverty line (608k vs 66k). Although both have a similar number of Syrian refugees (350k), many more Palestinian refugees live in NL (87k vs 6k). So how does NL deal with more than a million poor Lebanese and refugees when it has less political clout and access than other regions? It relies on the resilience of its people, the energy of its youth, and hopefully the wisdom of local leaders who understand that the future of Northern Lebanon rest on an inclusive, dynamic, and power-sharing formula that gives all Lebanese a chance to achieve their dreams.