Lebanon: Crackdown raises questions on fate of Tripoli’s al-Mina

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A vendor sits at his small table on al-Mina's corniche. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

Published Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Last week, security forces carried out a campaign to remove around 50 kiosks in violation of the law on Tripoli’s al-Mina corniche. The reasons behind the decision remain unknown, as speculation on the campaign’s objectives range from a takeover of the coast by the elite to a plan to build a Syrian refugee camp. Regardless, it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of the changes.

Since last week, security forces in Tripoli – allegedly given political support – have been conducting a campaign to remove around 50 illegal kiosks (mostly wooden stalls or old vans) along al-Mina's coastal corniche. The official pretext was that these kiosks were in violation of the law and were harmful to the image and function of the corniche.

The security campaign sparked a negative reaction among kiosk owners for its disregard of their economic and social situation. On Monday, the owners gathered with their families and blocked two lanes of the corniche with burning tires. They called for an alternative to be put in place and raised banners that spoke of the detriment to their livelihood.

The demonstration attempted to raise awareness of the fate of more than 50 families whose livelihood is dependent on this type of work, as well as the hundreds of customers who spend time at the corniche and do not have the means to pay the exorbitant prices of regular cafes and restaurants.

The corniche in al-Mina is around seven kilometers long, extending from the fishing port to the Olympic stadium at the southern entrance of Tripoli. Hundreds visit daily and it is usually full of people of all ages and backgrounds during the weekend.

The complaints about violations and transgressions along the corniche have persisted since its establishment in the mid-1980s. On each occasion, al-Mina's municipal police or the Internal Security Forces intervene to control the situation and prevent an escalation. But they keep reappearing every time, much like the recent exploitation by van and stall owners of the dissolution of the al-Mina municipality, whose responsibility was transferred to Governor Nohra. This transfer was perceived as weakening oversight, and the owners began to hang pictures of politicians and MPs, especially of Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, as a means to garner political cover for their violations. At the same time, criminal organizations started imposing protection money on the owners of the stalls and vans.

Several questions were raised by the kiosk owners about the reason and timing of the security campaign, conducted without any formal statement by the authorities explaining the situation. This led to the spreading of rumors, with accusations thrown on all sides.

Security sources who spoke to Al-Akhbar claimed that "the campaign to remove the violations on the corniche was prompted by three main reasons. The first was the proliferation of violations along the coastal road, which ruined the public view due to the chaos. The second was the numerous complaints about activities on the corniche, such as the promotion of prostitution and drugs."

"The [third] reason was that the emerging situation on the corniche raised many fears about the possibility of its use for a security operation," the sources added.

Other sources spoke of a fourth and "probable" reason, in that owners of licensed restaurants and coffee shops along the area have been complaining about the competition from the cheaper informal establishments along the corniche.

These tend to be the usual reasons behind most campaigns directed at infractions committed by "the poor," while such crackdowns are absent when it comes to the violations of capitalists who occupied wide swaths of public property, especially on the coast and in the sea. Some elites even openly declared their intentions to invest in the waterfront to build closed touristic facilities for the wealthy, including reclaiming 1,000 square kilometers of the sea to establish yacht clubs, hotels, and tourist condos.

According to available information, two projects have been proposed to the municipalities of Tripoli and al-Mina that involve the occupation of the corniche and the beachfront, in turn depriving the city's residents from their only access to the sea.

A general lack of trust regarding the administration’s decision to remove the corniche stalls has led several observers to search for the real reasons behind the campaign. Some argued that it was unlikely the objective was merely to clean up the corniche and pave the way for powerful investors. They are not worried since stalls in violation of the law were removed from the road and the sidewalk, but all the facilities on the waterfront along the rocks and sand – such as tents, straw umbrellas, and stalls – remained.

Furthermore, sources indicated the project proposed by investor Youssef Fattal to reclaim the sea was geographically far from the corniche and south of the Olympic stadium. Thus, they argued, it has nothing to do with removing the violations on the corniche.

On the other hand, other sources said it is not unlikely that the campaign will spread to other stalls under the corniche. This is in addition to the other project proposed by MP Robert Fadel to reclaim 1,000 square kilometers of sea adjacent to the corniche where the kiosks in violation of the law were removed. The project is expected to extend north from the Olympic stadium to the waterfront across from the Beirut Arab University campus. This particular project involves several politicians and investors, most prominently former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. It was promoted as a developmental need to provide jobs for Tripoli's young men and women. The project, however, faced several obstacles, including a legal hurdle from the mid-1980s, when the coastal corniche was established. The law passed then by parliament included an article prohibiting the possibility of changing the landscape of the corniche and related areas without similar legislation.

Amid such doubts, security and political circles in Tripoli and al-Mina traded anonymous information on a small scale about intentions to establish a Syrian refugee camp in the area. The camp project would allegedly be built along the corniche, which would entail a tighter security oversight. However, political and security sources contacted by Al-Akhbar denied knowledge of such information.

For his part, Abdel-Qader Alamuddin, al-Mina's former head of municipality, denied knowing of any intention to create a Syrian refugee camp along the corniche.

"If this is the case, then it is better to leave the violating vans and kiosks," he said.

However, North Lebanon Governor Judge Ramzi Nohra confirmed that there are intentions to do so, but asserted that “such attempts will not succeed.”

"Politicians and religious figures in Tripoli and al-Mina were responsive to this campaign and had no objections about it." At the same time, he confirmed that, "We will not be pressured on this issue.”

Governor Nohra held several meetings on Monday to follow up on the results of the campaign. He said that he took the decision "after violations of public and private property in the area increased irrationally." He added that "the corniche has become a hotbed for ruffians, and owners of licensed restaurants and cafes kept complaining about such scenes, which harm their customers and force them to go elsewhere."

"There is an idea of how to organize the stalls and kiosks along the corniche," Nohra explained. "We have maps, which, once implemented, will contribute to invigorating the economic situation and multiply the stall-owners' profits. The corniche will become a place for everyone and will be visited by people from all regions in Lebanon."

"The solution would be to adopt the project prepared by the al-Mina municipality years ago in cooperation with the European Union. The project organizes the kiosks and stalls and their functions along the corniche and will be part of the rehabilitation of the waterfront. Executing this project will end the current chaos, provide jobs, and bring the corniche back to its former glory," he told Al-Akhbar.

In turn, the head of the environmental protection committee in al-Mina, Amer Haddad, said he presented Governor Nohra with "maps that could be adopted to organize the kiosks and stall in a thoughtful manner. The number of kiosks would be 50, with no less than a 100 meter distance between them.”

“Recently, the governor pledged that he will make the suitable decision after consulting with the ministries of interior and public works," Haddad said.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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