The northern city of Tripoli – the former gateway of the Levant, dilapidated by decades of neglect – has caught nationwide attention for its electrifying embrace of a one-month-old Lebanese protest movement.

Marches for key demands such as a fall of the sectarian system weave through the city day, professors from the public Lebanese University hold lectures in the evenings, and targeted sit-ins have taken place inside monopolized telecom offices.

With most Lebanese forced at one point or another in their lives to depend on wusta, or someone on the inside of government to obtain documents, resolve a problem or find employment, it is also a movement against the corruption in which many say they are tired of participating.

“It’s time to shit where we eat,” said one man from a nearby coastal town, ahead of a planned attempt to block the road to a luxury resort, where his own family owns property.

By nightfall, Tripoli’s central square with its towering illuminated sculpture reading “God” – long seen as the outward announcement of the city’s austere character – has lately been packed to the brim with young women and men, under a mural reading, “Tripoli, City of Peace.”

“All of them means all of them,” the key rallying cry across the country, is especially embraced in Tripoli, one of the geographic bastions that sectarian political elites have long taken for granted to fall in line under their direction. Now, such bastions have shifted their anger inward, taking swings at their own zaim, or leader, or at the very least not offering them exceptions.

Protests against the veteran Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri in the southern city of Nabatieh, a bastion of his Shiite Amal Party, have electrified Sunni protesters in the north, who know the movement will need all Lebanese involved if they want to shake the sectarian system.

In turn, the embrace of the protesters in Tripoli with the ousting of Prime Minister Saaad Hariri, who has previously referred to himself as the “father of the Sunnis” in Lebanon, has created an unexpected opening for a nationwide non-sectarian movement.

And in a once-unthinkable symbol of solidarity between regions and sects, a mural of a Druze protester shot in the head by a soldier in front of his wife and children as he tried to block off a road south of Beirut, is now a fixture in Tripoli.

‘The people demand, they don’t negotiate,’ reads a banner held by Lebanese protesters in the northern city of Tripoli. Photo: Asia Times/Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Islamists sidelined

The city that once made news for clashes between its poorest neighborhoods, and for allowing young men to fight on behalf of Islamist factions in neighboring Syria, has become a fixture on the nightly news for electrifying parties in the square.

“Guys, should we reserve a table in Tripoli or are they still allowing walk-ins?” read one Tweet from a Lebanese account, after videos went viral showing thousands in the central square partying to techno music.

While some hardcore activists view the carnivalesque atmosphere as a distraction from the serious business of blocking roads, others feel it has been invaluable for showing the country another side to Tripoli.

On any given night, on the outskirts of Tripoli’s main protest square, tents host various educational and activist platforms as Lebanese soldiers, internal security forces and intelligence agents maintain a close eye on the movement in all of its forms.

A large poster on a side street off the square calls for freedom for “political prisoners” – the Islamists rounded up during a major crackdown on a once-brazen militant presence in the city.

But it is a far cry from the brazen displays Tripoli’s hardline Islamists once were able to make during the height of the civil war in Syria next door, when bearded, armed men sometimes blasted through the main square on moped convoys and took shots at the army before a security crackdown.

For the time being, the square is jam-packed with students and families, and women out in full force, keeping political or sectarian flags and slogans at bay.

Work bearing fruit

On a given night, many of those in the central square might be milling around just to enjoy the atmosphere. But they are also exposed to ideas and educational lectures being given at the various protest tents.

One evening, a law professor at Lebanese University in Tripoli explained the ins and outs of the national constitution and how an article aimed at safeguarding “national cohesion” has been repeatedly used to hamper reform.

A crowd of students, as well as older observers, pass around the microphone to ask her their questions and make points.

While much of the crowd has been made up of teens and families, there is a strong presence of young professionals – the educated and empowered age group at the forefront of nationwide organizing.

“We are fighting not only the politicians, but also the older generation,” said Nour Moukadem, sitting with her friend on a tarp just off the main square, who said she engages in a daily debate with her parents about what they see as a futile endeavor.

“What is common between Tripoli and all Lebanese cities is poverty and a lack of governmental projects or development. The problem is it’s been years of theft of our own money and we didn’t get back any services,” she said.

Moukadem says she is not assuming change will be quick.

“Even if I don’t see an impact this year or next year, I believe in the coming years that my children, if I get married, will see an impact. We know that change take time,” she told Asia Times.

Lebanese anti-government protesters hold the national flag as they practice water skiing off the coast of the northern port city of Tripoli, on November 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ibrahim Chalhoub

As an example, she says that years of work by civic associations to bring together Tripoli’s youth is now bearing fruit.

“The things that NGOs have been working on for years, to break the barriers between different sects and areas, is finally showing up. So all this is to say that change takes time.”

Aisha Halawani, a business consultant, says that for years poverty has left Tripoli residents vulnerable to being recruited into political disputes, to their own detriment.

“The political parties have been using the poor people. We give you money; okay, go shoot. What happened in Tabbaneh and Jabal happened because they’re very, very poor,” she said, referring to clashes in recent years between neighboring Sunni and Alawite districts.

Now, she believes, many people are waking up and seeing a different kind of potential for their city – once the main port of the Levant.

A fish merchant in Tripoli says Prime Minister Saad Hariri should not be the only casualty of the protest movement. Photo: Asia Times/Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Timeline for change

Towering over the main square, a poster with a timeline of objectives seeks to keep the protest movement focused four weeks on, even as the government has clung to power.

“Uprising of the Lebanese people from every area and every sect” is the first item, with a check-mark signifying its completion. The second, the resignation of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, has already occurred.

But the third, and the one on which entrenched political elites have been dragging their feet on for four weeks, seemingly hoping the protest movement will disperse, is “the formation of a technocratic, independent government with legislative powers.”

So far, that has been the sticking point.

At a nearby fish market, where restaurants and families across the north come for the freshest catches, a merchant expressed support for the demands of the protest movement – so long as they targeted all the political elites, not just the first to fall.

“It can’t just be Prime Minister Saad Hariri who goes,” he said. “It has to be all of them.”

On Tuesday, protesters are set to block the roads to parliament in Beirut to prevent lawmakers from potentially granting themselves immunity from corruption charges.