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    Arms-free Tripoli?

    This time, the cart came before the horse.

    Nearly a week before the latest spat of violence between Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods, [Vice-President of the Democratic Renewal Movement] Mosbah al-Ahdab, a former MP from Lebanon’s second-largest city, launched the Civil Moderation Gathering.

    While the movement is calling for dialogue and unity among all the city’s sects and political factions, it is also requesting an “arms-free” Tripoli. The call for disarmament is the standard response (which goes unheeded) to the frequent flare ups of fighting in the North, and this time was no different.

    Mufti of Tripoli and North Lebanon Sheikh Malek Shaar requested a city-wide weapons roundup following clashes on February 10 and 11 which killed three and wounded more than 20. The last time the two neighborhoods took up arms against each other (in June 2010) talk of removing guns was all the rage for a few days.

    This time, however, Ahdab said he thinks things can be different. He spoke to NOW Lebanon in an interview before the violence and said the Civil Moderation Gathering will circulate petitions and focus on bringing more economic development projects to the largely impoverished city (ironically represented in parliament by millionaires).

    Asked why he thinks this initiative might succeed where so many others have failed, Ahdab said the Civil Moderation Gathering will not be provocative and will take a non-confrontational approach.

    “We have a positive attitude now,” he said, adding that he believes the majority of people living in Tripoli are sick of fighting and want to work and prosper.

    Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has made billions in the private sector, repeatedly said he wants to bring economic revival to the city. Removing the arms, however, could prove far more difficult.

    The idea of disarming the city immediately begs the question: Where did the weapons come from in the first place? Just like the question of who started the fighting last week, answers vary depending on whom you ask.

    Sunni fighters in Bab al-Tabbaneh insisted that Hezbollah is funneling money and weapons into Tripoli. They particularly accused an Islamist group called Tawheed, allied with the Party of God, of arming and said the group owned a weapons depot that exploded during the night of February 10.

    Sheikh Bilal Shaaban, leader of Tawheed, flatly denied both charges.

    “The Tawheed movement and Hezbollah are not arming,” he told NOW Lebanon. “As for the third party [i.e. the Future Movement], and in light of the depot incident, they have to defend themselves. If you ask security forces, you will know who is responsible for the depot.”

    Future MPs have denied any connection to the depot.

    In background interviews with people from Tripoli, NOW Lebanon has repeatedly been told that every political faction in the city is paying young jobless men a monthly salary to do essentially nothing while also giving them weapons. No one, however, would admit that directly on the record, and NOW Lebanon was not able to independently verify these claims.

    It is clear from the fighting, however, that there are weapons in Tripoli. The Sunni fighters NOW Lebanon spoke with last week said they purchased their arms and ammo themselves. At one point, as men were peeking out from behind buildings to shoot in the direction of Jabal Mohsen, one man turned to NOW Lebanon and said, “Let’s send Sheikh Saad [Hariri] a message: We don’t have bullets.”

    Azzam Ayoubi – a representative of Jamaa al-Islamiya in the North, which is Lebanon’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and is allied with the Future Movement – told NOW Lebanon, “There hasn’t been new arming based on the information we have. There has been no new effort to arm. The arming was there, it existed, but it was there then for a reason, so that at any point in time, it can be used for purposes like these.” Ayoubi was referring to the recent clashes.

    While admitting the challenges ahead are numerous, Ahdab is confident the Civil Moderation Gathering will be successful.

    “There are no voices requesting moderation,” he said. “We have to be heard as moderates.”

    Matt NASH & Nadine EL-ALI
    NOW Lebanon

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