Root Causes: What They Are Not
Tripoli’s conflict is not well understood. Media, and even many policy accounts, often focus on either a simplistic sectarian explanation or “Syrian spillover.” Yet, these two explanations are as inaccurate as they are common. Neither of them accounts for the timing of the conflicts. Part 1 of this two-part series explained why neither sectarianism nor spillover adequately explain the conflict. It also challenged the emphasis on militias, arguing that such an emphasis conflates cause and effect. This second installment identifies the political institutional roots of the ongoing crisis.
Root Causes: The Confessional Wound at the Heart of the State
Tripoli’s political crisis centers on confessional contention. Confessionalism allocates state power (e.g., government positions and state resources) among officially recognized religious groups. Confessionalism thus leads to conflict in two ways. First, the logic of confessional resource allocation calls for mobilization around sectarian group claims. Second, the two-sided ill of de-institutionalization/personalization of power creates an institutional vacuum which ultimately pushes resource competition to the streets. Both of these factors are particularly pronounced in Tripoli.
In Lebanon, rights of citizenship are mediated through recognized confessional group rights. Unfulfilled aspirations for group representation mean complete exclusion from political rights at both the collective and individual levels (e.g., Alawi personal status courts, government employment, etc.). Moreover, the confessionalized structure of the parliament, especially cross-confessional voting, combined with demographic realities mean that confessional representation is currently ineffective within the electoral constituencies of the north. In Tripoli, as well as Akkar, a Sunni majority controls the election of the Alawi representative. Due to national-level politics, Sunni parties have sought to control these parliamentary seats and have put only nominally Alawi candidates on their lists. These lists have swept the elections due to Sunni demographic majority.
Confessionalism also leads to personalization of power or clientalism, as access to state resources is obtained through personal networks rather than state institutions. Confessional networks are an inter-woven web of personal networks, especially that of the extended family. As discussed below, Tripoli is especially non-institutionalized, as political life is dominated not by parties, but rather wealthy individuals atop influential families. The weakness of state institutions and contention among political families has heightened conflict in Tripoli.
Lebanon’s confessional system apportions political positions, public-sector jobs, and other state resources among confessional groups. Shut out of this system, Alawis frequently complain of scarce public-employment opportunities. During a July 2012 interview following the summer 2012 escalation in clashes, one independent Alawi politician casually remarked, “If you want a government job, you have two choices: become Sunni or become Shi‘i.” Rif‘at Eid, head of the Arab Democratic Party (ADP), argued in the same year that public-sector positions can only be “taken with blood” and that Alawis are “waiting for the next bloody battle just to take [the post of] garbage man.” Yet, it is the high-stakes battle for parliamentary representation that has driven conflict in recent years.
As part of the post-Taif Accord restructuring of parliament, seats were to be divided equally among Christians and Muslims. Alawis were allocated two seats in 1991 within the broader share of Muslim seats. However, the Alawi seats were put in Sunni majority districts. The Taif Accord called for the larger district of the muhafaza or province, but this was never implemented in any of the post-Taif elections. However, the constituencies containing Tripoli have always had Sunni majorities, either the division of the Northern muhafaza or the use of qada` (or smaller districts) in 2009. As a result, Alawi representation is determined by a Sunni majority. During the Syrian occupation, the ability of any sectarian community to select their representative was limited. When the Syrian army withdrew in 2005, Alawi representation became a significant issue because elections were not managed by Damascus and, like many seats around the country, the lists and the results were not pre-determined by the Syrian regime. Alawis are not the only minority facing this challenge and thus calling for even smaller districts. Generally, Christian sects have supported smaller districts since 1992 for this very reason. The Armenian community has also been particularly affected, especially since 2000.
During the 2009 parliamentary elections, there was an expectation within the Alawi community that the Alawi seat would be left open as part of the September 2008 agreement that temporarily halted hostilities in Tripoli, which had emerged around the time of the May 2008 clashes in Beirut, Alay, and Akkar. When the March 14 list was announced on 22 April 2008, RPGs were immediately launched from Jabel Mohsen. Then, Rifa’at Eid of the ADP had directly linked his engagement in violence to the issue of representation. In the month before the parliamentary election, Eid told me, “We’ve tried a million ways before (to get Alawi representation) . . . the only way we can take our rights is force.” Yet this electoral dynamic is entirely overlooked in the popular, but ill-founded, narratives of sectarian and regional rivalries.
De-institutionalization and Personalization of Power
To a large extent, de-institutionalization and resulting clientalism or personalization of power is an integral part of confessionalism. If power derives from confessional membership, citizens are linked in communal rather than in political ways. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Lebanese politics are dominated by the zu‘ama (confessional leaders). Yet, Tripoli’s de-institutionalization and personalization of power goes beyond this general Lebanese condition.
Tripoli has a relative lack of political parties compared to other regions of Lebanon. The scions of a few prominent families, the Miqatis, Safadis, Jisrs, Karamis and Kabbaras, dominate Tripolitanian politics. Their machines are built on personal (and often financial) networks and, sometimes, foundations—not the parties who have a presence elsewhere, however weak. The Hariri-led Sunni-identified Future Movement has some politicians who belong to their party, such as Samir Jisr. Jisr, who comes from an important political family, has extensive personal networks that he leverages to wield political power separately from the apparatus of the Future Movement. However, most politicians are independent agents, a factor heightening the brinkmanship that reigns. The 2009 “reconciliation” list was not a March 14 list, but instead a list of names of prominent politicians and businessmen. Although Jisr is a Future Movement MP, the only 2009 candidate in Tripoli with a party apparatus was the Kata’ib-affiliated Maronite from Batroun.
The lack of effective institutions goes beyond political parties and penetrates the state, including security institutions. In the absence of effective security institutions, militias have expanded their influence. Even combatants increasingly cite the absence of the state as a justification for their activities. In 2012, combatants, at both leadership and lower levels, explained their participation in militias by referencing Hizballah’s arms. However, since 2013, the same combatants would reference the lack of a state and the need to take community protection into their own hands. For some politicians this rhetoric is a mere device to justify the use of arms. Yet, the shift in rhetoric is noteworthy. And it is perhaps more of an alibi for those calling the shots than those actually pulling the triggers. The former live far from the front lines and are the very actors whose pursuit of personal interest is weakens the state while the later and those who fear tumbling into the chasm created by the collapsing state.
Breakdown of Social Institutions: Militias as Middlemen
As discussed above, the confessional political system in Lebanon discussed above, Lebanon’s political system is built on a foundation of clientalism. However, much like electoral systems, clientalistic systems vary in their structures. Clientalistic structures vary within confession, region, and time period.
Much has been written about both the war economy during the civil war as well as the post-war reconstruction clientalistic division of spoils and provision of social services, often along confessional lines. Yet, present-day Tripoli fits none of these models. It is not a war economy: a situation of open war in the complete absence of a state in which militias levy “taxes” and perform other duties typically associated with the state. Nor is it a post-war reconstruction economy: a situation in which erstwhile militia members reconstitute themselves through the state, manipulating the flow of a newly opened “reconstruction” spigot. The state is contracting in Tripoli, but is not entirely absent. Similarly, militias are growing but not entirely dominant.
Writing about militia development at the outset of the second civil war starting in 1975, Elizabeth Picard says,
The first militia fighters did not receive wages. Unlike those of the ‘professional’ fighters of the PLO, their initial arms purchases were financed by local entrepreneurs, and administrative tasks were performed by neighborhood volunteers. These early militias thus shared certain features with citizen-based vigilante movements that arise in other contexts, and even with such volunteer organizations as the neighborhood watch groups found in the United States. At this stage one cannot yet talk of a militia economy. Although the destruction and interruptions of economic activities had an impact on the resources of households, they did not really have structural effects on the overall economy of the state. Nor did localized economic hardship have an effect on popular perceptions and official representations that blamed the fighting on insidious foreign elements.
Although the war economy is not fully developed, militias still play an economic role. Militias are not entirely economically self-sufficient, neither raising funds through petty criminality nor through state-like economic operations such as taxation at borders (e.g. extortion at ports). Instead, militias are sponsored by local politicians, or as Picard described them prior to the civil war, “entrepreneurs.” Operating in a liminality between a fully functioning state and its complete absence, powerful politicians are able to maximize their influence by manipulating access to services that would otherwise be offered by a strong state. They do so through militias, the informal institutions that have increasingly become the connective tissue with society and replacing formal state institutions as the mechanism through which politicians interact with society.
The political and economic crisis is leading to a deterioration of the state. At the national level, this means the inability to form a government, pass a new electoral law, and hold elections. At the municipal level, this means deadlock (Tripoli) and dissolution (Mina). At the neighborhood level, this means the disappearance of state institutions such as schools and clinics. These institutions have closed not only due to lack of funds, but also because political disagreements have led to a chronic inability to agree on the head of the clinic (and thus which politician would control it). Like the national and municipal level institutions, political deadlock leads to eventual institutional demise.
In several conflict-affected neighborhoods with increased militia activity, (e.g., Bab al- Tabbaneh, Abi Samra and Qibbeh) residents frequently speak of relatively recent closings of public schools and clinics. The contraction of the public sector has left increasingly impoverished Tripolitans dependent on politicians, and their local militia intermediaries, to pay for these services in the private sector. Conversations between militia leaders and community members often involve requests for hospital support, to treat those wounded in combat as well as provide basic medical services to the family.
The centrality of social services as connective tissue in militia politics of the region is also evidenced by the fact that a serious falling-out between a major Tripoli politician and his militia leader occurred over disagreements about hospital fee payments. Relations were only mended once payment was received. While militia leaders may complain about sluggish provision of ammunition or other arms support, failure to pay hospital fees can lead to a breakdown in the relationship.
Even in more affluent neighborhoods, residents speak of reliance on private schools due to deteriorating public institutions and what some residents call the “private school mafia” that changes textbooks and uniforms annually to exact fees. This middle sector of society is decreasingly able to maintain political independence, as contacts are required for access and patronage required for payment.
While “sectarian” and “spillover” explanations of conflict in Tripoli make resolving the conflict impossible—either because of intractable “ancient hatreds” or lack of a regional solution, the political causes can be addressed. The conflict owes to a particularly virulent form of de-institutionalized politics—a void in which militia politics thrives. Lebanese actors can rebuild the polity. Although the re-institutionalizing politics in Tripoli are grim, it is not impossible.
At the national level, institutions are increasingly hollowed out. The recent parliamentary extension again puts off elections. This forestalls any possibility of addressing Alawi representational grievance through construction of list that includes either an Alawi with ties to the community or is left blank for the Alawi to elect their “own” representative. The departure of the dominant Eid family from the mountain creates an opening in which representative Alawi institutions can expand and build the basis for greater representation at the local and national level. Although the elections have been delayed, electoral reform is again back on the agenda. The question of more meaningful minority representation through electoral reform—in Tripoli and elsewhere—could offer possibilities for resolving the political and institutional roots of the crisis.
The continued lack of a presidency has weakened institutions at the national level, which has seeped down to the local level. Although the cabinet cleared part of the backlog of administrative appointments in May, some high-level posts remain open further weakening state bureaucracy. In this climate, state-level rebuilding of educational and health institutions, such that the state replaces militias as mediator of access to services, is unlikely in the immediate future.
In the mean time, the citizens of Tripoli continue to try to rebuild their institutions from the ground up, especially through civil society work as well as arts-based activism. Although not directly ending the conflict, this work creates an important counter-narrative. The work offers a different way of connecting civilians to the state, shifting the conversation from one of the patron-client vocabulary of confessionalism to one of rights, duties, and collective fate.
[Click here to read Part 1 of this two-part series.]
*This article is based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork from 2009-14 in Tripoli and Northern Lebanon. For previous discussion, see Maren Milligan “Tripoli’s Troubles to Come” Middle East Report (August 2012) and Maren Milligan “Tripoli’s Crisis: Identifying Causes, Mapping Sectors, and Crafting Responses,” UNSCOL (December 2013). The author benefitted from the time, assistance, and insights of many friends and interlocutors whose names have been withheld by request given the politically sensitive nature of the material.
 For an excellent analysis, see Ohannes Geukjian “From Positive Neutrality to Partisanship: How and Why the Armenian Political Parties Took Sides in Lebanese Politics in the Post-Taif Period” Middle Eastern Studies 45.5 (2009): 739-767
 See, for example, Elizabeth Picard, “The Political Economy of Civil War in Lebanon” in Heydemann, Steven, editor. War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, c2000 2000. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6c6006x6
 See, for example, LTA “Reconstruction Survey: The Political Economy of Corruption in Post-War Lebanon” (2007) and Reinoud Leenders, Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Post-war Lebanon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012)
 See, for example, Melanie Cammett, Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).