By Eric Knecht and Yara Abi Nader
TRIPOLI, Lebanon (Reuters) – Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation has failed to quell nationwide protests but nowhere have they proven more determined and more energetic than in the second biggest city, Tripoli, whose residents complain of decades of neglect.
On Monday, after a period of relative calm, protesters blocked roads in Beirut and elsewhere to press their demands against the ruling elite that have plunged Lebanon into political turmoil at a time of economic crisis.
But the protesters in Tripoli, a port city some 80 km (50 miles) north of Beirut and long dogged by chronic poverty and unemployment, have stood out for their determination and fury.
“We’re continuing (the protests) in order to topple the president and the parliament,” declared a defiant banner hoisted in Tripoli’s Nour Square after Hariri’s resignation.
Despite Hariri’s resignation last week, formal consultations over the formation of a new cabinet have yet to begin. Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, continues in a caretaker capacity until the formation of a new government.
Tripoli’s nightly rallies, which resemble an electronic music festival, have become a ritual for the roughly 500,000 residents of the mainly Sunni Muslim city.
Images of swaying cell phone torches lighting up the hardscrabble city’s Nour Square as a rotating set of DJs mix nationalistic tunes have become iconic since Lebanon’s protests kicked off on Oct. 17.
“Tripoli is the area that is hurting the most,” said Ayman Haddad, 33, who said his job selling medical equipment paid too little to afford to get married. “In Beirut people have money for the month ahead, but in Tripoli we live day to day.”
Sunni politicians from Tripoli have been a focal point of protest anger, including Najib Mikati, a former prime minister and wealthy businessman.
Residents point to under-utilised state resources such as a nearby airport used only by the military as emblematic of a government attitude they say has allowed a city dubbed the “capital of the north” to fall deep into disrepair.
A 2016 United Nations report found that about 50% of people in Tripoli live below a poverty line of $4 a day.
“NO ONEBACKING US”
“There is interest in the capital Beirut, and in the south they have groups like Amal and Hezbollah protecting them. But in Tripoli we have no one backing us,” said Bilal al-Dahan, referring to the country’s powerful Shi’ite groups.
Residents say the lively demonstrations have refashioned the city’s image, long tarnished by sectarian violence between rival Sunni Muslim and Alawite Muslim neighbourhoods.
“A lot of people are telling me they see Tripoli in a different light,” said Mohammed Yaghi, a 36-year-old actor.
The city’s residents say their ability to draw big, charged crowds without respite has encouraged others across the country to keep up the momentum.
“When the pressure in the streets in other areas seemed to die down, Tripoli’s stayed very strong. This actually brought people back out in other areas,” said Marwa Otham, 36.
Tripoli’s resilience has challenged what critics see as a government attempt to co-opt the protest movement by positioning itself as the guarantor of an anti-corruption crusade.
“We are going by one principle right now: that we have just started,” said Haddad. “We are continuing until the whole regime is toppled, even the president.”
Lebanon, one of the world’s most heavily indebted states, is grappling with the worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
(Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Gareth Jones)