TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Moussa Meraeb and I arranged to meet under the first bridge in Minieh, a town in northern Lebanon. There was no way I’d be able to find his house by myself, he said. As I followed him through the dilapidated back alleys of his hometown, past rusted cars and crumbling concrete apartments, I couldn’t disagree.
Meraeb, 49, is a burly, blunt man who was employed for almost a decade at a Beirut-based security company, Protectron. He might have seemed intimidating if not for the fact that he fawned over two of his small children, who clearly adored him, for the duration of our conversation. His true vocation was as a shoe cobbler but the work as a security guard had been steady and paid well enough—$800 a month—to provide for his family.
In October, Lebanon was convulsed with protests against the political status quo and a deteriorating economy. The demonstrations were particularly large and sustained in the northern city of Tripoli, of which Minieh is a suburb; businesses and schools shut their doors, and development in this impoverished region ground to a halt. Meraeb’s job was one casualty of Lebanon’s economic decline: In the middle of October, his manager called to tell him he had been fired.
In the months since, Meraeb has fed his family by taking loans from friends and family to the tune of 2 million Lebanese pounds (roughly $500) and through gifts of money known as eidiyye, traditional during Ramadan. But such support has dried up with the end of the holy month, and he now makes daily treks to Tripoli to search for work. Earlier on the day I met him, he had paid a visit to the office of a rich relative to plead for money or a job but was turned away without a meeting. “There is nothing for me,” he said.
The crash of the Lebanese currency has made the situation even more difficult. As the crisis worsened, the Central Bank found itself unable to sustain the longtime peg of 1,507 pounds to the dollar. When Meraeb and I spoke, the currency had plummeted to approximately 4,000 pounds to the dollar. The cost of basic goods had skyrocketed, he said: He used to be able to buy a full meal for his family for 20,000 pounds; now it cost more than 50,000 pounds.
Had he seen any money from the Lebanese state, which promised to disperse 400,000 pounds to needy families to offset the economic pain caused by the coronavirus? He shook his head. “All of them are liars,” he said. “I didn’t get anything from anyone.”
Faced with such dire conditions, Meraeb is pondering a drastic solution. For years, he watched as Syrian refugees made Lebanon the first stop on a dangerous journey to a better life outside the Arab world. Now he wants to emulate them.
“I am waiting for corona to end and I am thinking to take my family and run away across the sea to Turkey. And from there to Europe, and then we will see,” he said. “I am not seeing any hope here.”
As we spoke, a basic question kept running through my mind: How did it come to this? Lebanon has been devastated before by internal strife and foreign wars—but this time, there is no street fighting between the country’s many armed factions, and no conflict with Syria or Israel, to explain the country’s economic collapse.
I particularly wanted to understand what has happened to Tripoli, the country’s second largest city. Predominantly Sunni, it has long been a focal point for Saudi political influence in Lebanon but remains one of the country’s poorest cities. A majority of residents lives on less than $4 a day, according to UN data, a far higher proportion than in Lebanon as a whole. Doesn’t Riyadh have a vested interest in helping transform this city into a thriving, vibrant metropolis—and why hasn’t it done more?
Over the past year, I have had endless conversations with Saudis about their struggle for regional primacy with Iran, and how their country exerts influence in the Arab world. In interviews with activists, politicians and regular citizens in Tripoli, I heard from those on the receiving end of Saudi foreign policy. What I found is that even those Tripolitans who are sympathetic to Saudi Arabia partly blame the kingdom for their city’s abject condition. Saudi interventions are seen as part of a system of foreign influence that has deepened divisions among Lebanese and contributed to hollowing out the state, bringing the country to this crisis point.
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The situation has only worsened since I spoke to Meraeb. Last week, the Lebanese pound shed another 20 percent of its worth, falling to 5,000 pounds to the dollar. As people watched the value of their salaries evaporate, they took to the streets in angry, nation-wide protests. In Tripoli, demonstrators set a branch of the Central Bank on fire and clashed with security forces, who tried to disperse them with tear gas.
Fawzi Ferri and Soulaf Hajj had long been wondering when this would happen. Over cigarettes and coffee, the longtime activists laid out their perspectives on the political unrest. Ferri spoke with a detached air of an academic; his day job is as a professor at Balamand University. Hajj, on the other hand, styles herself as more of a professional provocateur. “I’ve been a very bad girl for a long time,” she said by way of introduction.
In 2018, they founded a movement called badna hqooqna: “We want our rights.” During the week, they would pick one of the major issues plaguing their city—corruption, unemployment, lack of regular electricity or clean water—and hold discussions about it. On Sundays, they would stand in Nour Square, the city center, to protest the government’s failure to address their chosen issues. The popular anger they had witnessed for long years finally boiled over in October 2019, when thousands flocked to Nour Square in some of the largest demonstrations Lebanon had witnessed.
Saudi influence has touched on many of those issues. Lebanon has long been an arena for foreign powers to play out their feuds, and many Lebanese take it for granted that they need the support of a powerful external actor to gain sway in Beirut. Ferri and Hajj look to Riyadh as a strong potential ally and see its failure to improve their condition as complicity in the corrupt status quo.
“From the 1990s until today, Saudi Arabia gave Lebanon everything,” Ferri said. “It gave to Hezbollah. It gave to the Lebanese state, which is controlled by Hezbollah. And it gave to the Christians and Hezbollah more than to the Sunnis.”
In this conception, Saudi Arabia’s sin is that it has been too even-handed. While Iran is an unapologetic partisan of the Shiite community, Ferri and Hajj believe, the kingdom has failed to back its own natural allies in Lebanon. I was skeptical: Wasn’t it true, I asked, that Saudi Arabia had provided financial support to most of the leading Sunni politicians in the country?
Ferri believes that fact only proves his point. He quickly countered: Hadn’t all this support come at a time when Hezbollah was tightening its grip over the state? The Saudi policy of relative laissez-faire therefore amounted to assent to an Iran-dominated political order. This was the main reason Tripoli has suffered such economic neglect: Hezbollah has used its dominant position in the state to block any development projects in the city, he said, in order to set up a parallel economy that enriched its supporters and undercut average Sunni businessmen.
The lack of Lebanese Sunni leadership is a consequence of the lack of Saudi leadership, Ferri and Hajj believe. They spoke with no small amount of envy about how Iran had supported Hezbollah to the hilt, provided it with arms and an ideology, and gave its Lebanese allies many ways to contribute to their shared goals. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, had no vision for the future of Lebanon, simply buying off potential allies to gain influence. “Not with any other thing, just money,” Hajj said.
With Hezbollah doing whatever it can to prevent the rise of a strong, wealthy Sunni city, Ferri and Hajj believe, Lebanon’s protest must focus on toppling the Shiite paramilitary organization.
“[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is at the head of the orchestra. The others are part of the corruption, of course” Hajj said. “We’re going to have to say that all of them are responsible, everybody that is corrupted should go to jail—and top of the line is Hezbollah and the arms of Hezbollah, which are at the head of the Lebanese.”
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Hajj was broaching an issue that Lebanon’s self-styled revolutionaries have worked hard to avoid. Since October, the protesters’ rallying cry has been kullon yani kullon: “All of them means all of them.” The slogan’s appeal lies in sidestepping the question of which group is most responsible for the country’s governance failures—doing otherwise would almost certainly fracture the movement by aligning it with a specific political faction or sect.
The vague slogan conceals real differences among the country’s protesters, however. Many friends and contacts in Beirut would not share Ferri and Hajj’s diagnosis that Hezbollah was the guiding force behind all that ails Lebanon, or agree with their laments about Sunni weakness. For Shiite protesters, meanwhile, kullon yani kullon enables criticism of Hezbollah without opening themselves up to charges of betraying their sect, precisely because they are also condemning the country’s other leaders.
Even in Tripoli, some protesters are more circumspect about appealing to Saudi Arabia for assistance. Across town, I sat down with Obeida Takriti, a young activist from the city’s eastern neighborhood of Abi Samra. While Ferri and Hajj hoped to turn the geopolitical competition over Lebanon to their advantage, Takriti was searching for a way out of the straitjacket of dependence on any international sponsor.
When protests broke out in Tripoli in October, he seized a megaphone and headed to Nour Square. At first, he helped lead the protesters’ chants, but by the third day, he realized more needed to be done. It was easy to shout about the failures of the political class but hard to bring Tripoli’s residents together to develop shared solutions to their common problems.
“People in Lebanon in general, and Tripoli specifically, they have an idea about politics that it is limited to a few people, or it is corrupt, so they don’t really want to discuss politics,” he said.
Takriti launched an initiative called Saha w Msaha, a play on words that translates roughly to “A Square and a Discussion Space.” His goal was to start a conversation among Tripolitans about their shared grievances, and to push them toward concrete collective action. During the peak of the protests, roughly 1,000 people showed up for each discussion session. When the coronavirus struck in March, he took the initiative online—the group has hosted conversations through Facebook every day since the lockdown began.
In Takriti’s sessions, the question of where to look for international help emerged as a source of division among participants. Saudi Arabia, after all, is just one of several foreign powers vying for influence in Tripoli.
“Currently people are lost. Do we go toward our Sunni identity, to Turkey or Saudi Arabia?” Takriti said. “Or do we go with Hezbollah because it is strongest, and we need Syria on our side? …I think Tripoli is torn apart on this level.”
Lebanon’s leaders rarely portray themselves as playing an influential role in how the country is run. From the grandest official to the most minor politico, they invariably describe themselves as besieged by shadowy forces that have left them powerless to remedy the many governance failures.
Takriti has also seen those divisions reflected on the streets. Foreign powers and the political parties they support were active during Lebanon’s protests, he said, working to coopt the protests for their own goals.
“OK, [the demonstrations] were big in numbers,” he said. “But that was because there was something that was good, and also because there were things that were not so good.”
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“Let’s see a bloody revolution. If someone is corrupt, bring him down and execute him. Have you seen real revolutions without this? If you can’t hold people accountable through the justice system, then there needs to be a revolution.”
I might have expected to hear such sentiments from a few radical protesters in Nour Square. But I was hearing it now from Rouba Dalati, a representative of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, the largest Sunni political party in Lebanon.
As I thought back on my time in Tripoli later, that statement embodied the hall of mirrors sensation that comes with discussing politics with the country’s political class. The Future Movement is decidedly mainstream: Saad Hariri or his father Rafiq, who was assassinated in 2005, have served as prime minister for more than half of Lebanon’s post-civil war era. Sitting in Dalati’s Tripoli apartment as a maid offered me juice and chocolate, I couldn’t help but wonder: If protesters listened to her advice, why wouldn’t she expect herself and her compatriots to be dragged into the street?
But Lebanon’s leaders rarely portray themselves as playing an influential role in how the country is run. From the grandest official to the most minor politico, they invariably describe themselves as besieged by shadowy forces that have left them powerless to remedy the country’s many governance failures. That was the answer I was repeatedly given when I inquired why Tripoli’s leading politicians had not done more to bring jobs and economic opportunity to the city.
To be fair to Dalati, these forces are not entirely fictional. When I raised the subject, she rehearsed Lebanese history: The country was occupied by the Syrian regime until 2000, the ruling Assad family having no interest in seeing a prosperous Sunni city emerge so close to its borders; the 2007 conflict with jihadist militants at a Palestinian refugee camp in Tripoli and long-running skirmishes between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods of the city further delayed development; and most recently, Hezbollah, the dominant force in the country, has vetoed efforts to develop the city.
Several Sunni politicians, including Hariri, received funding from Saudi Arabia, Dalati acknowledged. But that was “personal” support, she said. While that money might tether Hariri and others to Riyadh, it is not buying Saudi Arabia their love.
Saudi development aid to Lebanon is disbursed though the state, Dalati said, where it is spread to all regions of the country. “Where are the projects Saudi Arabia is doing in Tripoli? Ask them. Because there are question marks, and things aren’t clear.”
Other figures in Tripoli were more explicit. Tawfiq Dabbousi, president of Tripoli’s Chamber of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, said the economy was still almost entirely shuttered and the unemployment rate, which is estimated at 35 percent, was heading even higher. When asked if Saudi Arabia was doing anything to mitigate the damage, Dabbousi shook his head. “All I see is pocket money given to particular parties and particular people, and this doesn’t make an economy.”
That method of buying loyalty has distorted the incentive structure for every Lebanese politician. The route to power lies not in developing popular and effective policies but winning support from an external power and doling out its patronage to one’s own supporters. Once in power, the country’s politicians distribute government jobs to those same loyalists, transforming part of the state into their personal fiefdoms.
The result is a system in which public trust in institutions has almost completely eroded. “You have a group of six running the country. Whenever they want to name officers [in the security services], the ones in Sunni areas would be named by Hariri,” said Misbah al-Ahdab, a former parliamentarian who was previously allied with Hariri before a public falling out. “All the infrastructure of the intelligence, they work in order to promote politicians and repress those who are critical of those same politicians.”
The assertion that security services had infiltrated the protests was one of the few unanimously held beliefs among Tripolitans with whom I spoke. Who was guiding the efforts was a matter of some debate, but many described staying away from the demonstrations for fear they are being manipulated by some hidden hand.
And what does Saudi Arabia get out of all of this? “I think the Saudis are not so interested in details,” Ahdab said. “What they want to say when they sit at the table with the Americans or with the Europeans is: ‘We manage the Sunnis in Lebanon.’ Anything you want from the Sunnis, you go and talk to the Saudis.”
If Riyadh wants nothing more, it will probably be able to maintain its current role in Lebanon indefinitely. But the disconcerting fact is that its actions will only exacerbate the country’s alarming trajectory, and it will likely find itself winning itself few actual friends.
Driving back to Beirut, I thought about what I could tell Meraeb I had learned from all my conversations in Tripoli. He is far from the only person considering leaving—a growing number of Lebanese like him are looking to opt out of their broken system and find a better life abroad. But I doubted I could say anything he didn’t already know.
Top photo: View of downtown Tripoli (Saul Kaiserman, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Downtown_Tripoli,_Lebanon,_from_the_Crusader_Castle.jpg)