On the rooftop of one of the buildings located in the Bab al-Tabbaneh, a 20-year-old man name A.T points at the opposite building,
“See the picture of the bearded person over there?”, A.T asked.
“Yes, who is he?”
“He is a militia leader in jail and the government has released him. Now, he is back and all his people cheered for him.”
A.T , thick bones, black hair, hazy eyes of 171 cm average, is a former resident in Bab al-Tabbaneh, who is always up to date with what is happening in the neighbor.
“But why would the people cheer for someone who is engaged in militia acts?”
He smiled, “Simply because when he comes, money come with him and people become happy.”
A.T and thousands of people live in Bab al-Tabbneh, Tripoli’s most deprived neighbors in the city. Poverty rates have reached alarming levels where more than half of its families living in poor conditions, according to a study “Poverty in Tripoli” by the United Nations in 2011. The study said that 87% of Bab al-Tabbaneh families are impoverished, ranking it as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city.
Tripoli was once known for its rich cultural heritage, wealthy commerce, skillful handcraft work of wood and glass, is now known above all scales for its leading poverty rates and its periodic rounds of street violence. The Sunni neighbor of Bab al-Tabbaneh, who oppose Al Assad, has a long history of armed street clashes with its pro-Bashar Al Assad neighbor of Jabal Mohsen that consists of an Alawite majority. These periodic conflicts have been taking a place since the early 1970’s when Tripoli joined the process of political polarization during the Lebanese civil war.
Although it has been three years since the last conflict, the toxic politics and economic stagnation have underlined the city’s woes that remain untreated. The city was left on its own, as the government gave up on it, to combat the harsh conditions that resulted from regional, national and even international dynamics that seemed to stack up against Lebanon’s second largest city.
According to a report published by Carnegie Middle East Center in 2014, entitled “The Roots of Crisis in Northern Lebanon”, until World War I, Tripoli distinguished itself as one of the most prominent cities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Long before Beirut robbed the city of its status, Tripoli was a significant cultural center and economic force in the MENA region. This status reflected the regional connections of its port that served the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Baghdad. In 1920, the state of Greater Lebanon was established under the French Mandate, which started the decline of the city’s economic and political preeminence.
The new borders of the Lebanese state disrupted trade relations with Syria and Iraq and Beirut because the political hub and center of economy in Lebanon. This has gradually eaten into Tripoli’s role linking the region with the Mediterranean Sea and marked the beginning of the marginalization of the city. Tripoli was neglected by the central state, even after independence, which has led to its many social and economic grievances.
During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Tripoli joined the armed conflict that took a place in the country. The interference of the Syrian army in the country deepened the conflict between Bab al-Tabbaneh, which opposed the regime and the pro-Assad Allawites in Jabal Mohsen.
The outbreak of the Syrian crisis spill led over the borders and added to Tripoli’s political fragmentation, poverty and economic deprivation, which are accompanied by a feeling of neglect and deprivation among the residents of the city, according to a report published by Lebanon Support NGO in 2016, entitled “The conflict context in Tripoli”.
Turning Away from the State:
According to Adib Nehme, the regional advisor at UNESCWA in Lebanon, the process of impoverishment “is still taking place in Tripoli” where a large number of people in the city are threatened with poverty living conditions. He says this is the result of the process of Tripoli’s marginalization in Lebanon that has been taking place for decades. Not only did marginalization increase the rate of poverty but it also fueled the conflict in the city.
Mr. Nheme added that Tripoli is known for its various industrial sectors that include, steel, wood, leather and fabric manufacturing. These industries that employed around 374 thousand workers were all shut down, leaving large numbers of people unemployed. Among them were 5 to 6 thousand workers from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Mena region alone.
A.T, the former resident of Bab al-Tabbaneh, when asked about the reason for high unemployment there said that Tripoli used to have an electricity plant, train station and even an airport called Kleyate Airport and a lot of projects that all have been placed under political suspension. “If all the projects worked again, the young men will get employed and never have to engage in militia acts at all,” he said.
Following the economic decline was a period of social and educational paralysis, when the percentage of school dropouts increased drastically. According to the report “Poverty in Tripoli”, among the impoverished families, 22% of the children didn’t finish high school while 52% of the parents, one of them didn’t get a high school certificate. Illiteracy and extreme religious beliefs have replaced school education and prevailed in poor areas.
The feeling of neglect and marginalization increasingly “pushed the residents of the poorer areas to give up entirely on the state”, and resort to alternatives according to “The roots of crisis in northern Lebanon”. Often those who find themselves on the margin of the society are more likely to engage in conflict and join militia groups or radical extremist religious groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, it notes.
“Most of the people who have no source of income are engaged in militia groups, they are fighting for money.” A.T said, “Even if they want to be employed, many of the people have warrants and can’t leave the neighborhood without being arrested,” which is another reason why people must work for those militias.
The leaders of the militias that give money to residents in Bab al- Tabbaneh are the followers of a certain ruling political party in the country, according to “The roots of crisis in northern Lebanon” report. The densely populated and very poor communities are potential targets of these political groups because they help them be re-elected, since they represent a major pool of political voters.
“People are in desperate need of money,” A.T said, “they have to elect the leader if they really want it.”
Nongovernmental organizations are replacing the government:
“I used to be a supporter of Jabhat el Nusra” A.T said in confidence, “but not anymore.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Before I joined ‘Ruwwad Al Tanmyah’ NGO, I used not to like the other sect and since Al Nusra was against them I supported it. But in the NGO, I started dealing with the people there and I realized that supporting Al Nusra was a wrong decision.”
Ruwwad Al Tanmyah is a non-governmental organization that was established in 2012 during the period of conflict between the two neighbors. The NGO aims to bring together people from both neighborhoods, especially youth, to build mixed teams of people from Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.
The communication manager at the NGO, said that as the people from both neighborhoods engaged in activities, the stereotyping barrier was broken, and the mistrust was replaced by empathy and positive exchanges.
“Nongovernmental organizations are replacing the government now,” said A.T in an optimistic tone, “there is a hope for the city.” According to UNDP, there are around 300 non-governmental organizations of different affiliations working in the city.
He added that “The existing conflict can only be resolved by starting a dialogue between the residents of the conflict areas, only then people will give up their hatred and start cooperating with each other.”
A Gloomy Future:
Despite NGOs attempt to make up for the absence of the government, they won’t solve the problem. Mr. Nehme, the regional advisor in ESCWA, when asked about the future of Tripoli under no government interference, gave two possibilities: First was the occurrence of non-spontaneous political tensions that are intentionally initiated by policy makers.
Second, is the possibility of the rising class conflict between the rich and poor areas of Tripoli, that is caused by the growing socioeconomic disparities within the city itself. The sense of passivity and detachment displayed by the rich class in Tripoli is being translated into symbolic violence against the more westernized areas of the city.
If you are in Beirut and planning to take a taxi to your next destination, it might not be the safest idea. There is a high possibility of a crime waiting to happen if the taxi turned out to be fake; a passenger will be under the threat of getting harassed, raped, or robbed at gunpoint.
“People must be extremely cautious when they take a shared taxi,” said Marwan Fayyad, the head of General Syndicate of Taxi Drivers in Lebanon, “Taxis are not as safe as they used to be, they are threatening the security of the Lebanese citizen.”
Fayyad then told the unfortunate story of a woman who got harassed by a fake taxi driver and his friend who acted as a passenger. The woman got robbed; they stole her purse and money in Mar Elias, Beirut. When this case was reported to the Internal Security Forces (ISF), Fayyad said, the ISF used traffic cameras in the area to arrest the taxi criminals. “We knew then that he was a fake taxi because his plate was not registered in the state’s records.”
The problem of fake licensing plagues the whole transportation sector, including minivans and buses.
“There is no monitoring from the state,” said Fayyad, “the Interior Ministry and the Internal Security Forces are the ones responsible for this issue but there is no enforcement of laws.”
According to law number 384 that was issued in 1994, the government permitted the licensing of certain number of public transportation categories that should not be exceeded. It allowed the issuance of up to 12,000 taxis plates, 4000 minivans plates, and 1,000 plates for other red plates in Lebanon. In 1996, however, the government increased the number of taxi plates to 33,000 vehicles in total while having maintained the same number of other plates. Abdel Hafiz Qaisi, the general director of land and sea transportation, noted that “The issuance of the number of licenses was based on no studies back then.”
Around 55 thousand taxis operate in Lebanon today, with 22,000 of them operating illegally, Qaisi said. Minivans have reached 14,000 and only 4000 of them are legal, whereas of 4000 buses, around half are illegal.
These shocking numbers indicate the chaotic situation of the public transportation sector. The mushrooming of fake public transportation vehicles, although it is underrepresented by the state and the media, is considered one of the most harmful outcomes of the government’s negligence of this sector.
How do taxis fake their licenses?
Public transportation vehicles are known for their red plates that distinguish them from the white private vehicles. There are three methods to forge a taxi plate, according to Fayyad. First and perhaps easiest is when taxi drivers buy a private vehicle plate and paint it red instead of white. The driver then buys the “Taxi” sign and places it on top of the car and starts operating as a taxi.
The second method uses the same plate on different cars. The drivers make several copies of the same red plate and distribute them to several cars of the same model, type and color as the original one. These cars then operate in different areas.
Finally, other drivers use their private vehicle with a white plate as a taxi, in a state of complete nonchalance.
What is the reason behind the expansion of illegal public plates?
The chaos in the transportation sector reflects the ineffective policy regulations and harsh economic conditions in the country. This is reflected in the chaos that the transportation sector is suffering from in Lebanon.
The high rate of unemployment in the country is a leading reason for the expansion of fake public transportation in Lebanon, said Fayyad and Najdi. According to an article that was published in 2016 by Al-Akhbar newspaper, entitled “Unemployment in Lebanon: We Need Six Times the Available Jobs,” the rate of unemployment has reached 34 percent of the Lebanese population.
“To drive a taxi, would be the first thing an unemployed person to think about, because this job provides him with an immediate source of income,” said Fayyad.
Not all the unemployed persons can afford the cost of a red plate in Lebanon. According to Abdel Hafiz Qaisi, the red plate costs around 40 million Lebanese Liras. Those who can’t pay it will be left with no other option but to forge a public license plate and work as a taxi, said Najdi.
Another reason is the increasing number of foreign workers in Lebanon.
According to the new traffic law (law number 209), only Lebanese citizens are allowed to have public transportation license. A foreign worker can’t drive a taxi, minivan or a bus; however, due to the weak state monitoring and lack of law enforcement in the transportation sector, chaos has spread.
“Take for example, the Palestinians,” said Najdi, “the Lebanese law prohibits Palestinians living in camps from working in Lebanon, but people want to live eventually. So, they use illegal means to get a source of income, and the easiest way to do that is operating an illegal taxi.”
Najdi estimated the number of Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian drivers to constitute around 50% of the total number of taxi drivers in Lebanon.
In order to stop the increasing number of illegal taxis, the ISF is placing checkpoints in Beirut to check for legal taxi documents.
Colonel Joseph Moussallem, the Police spokesmen in ISF, said that checkpoints are distributed all over the country and are efficiently operating.
Marwan Fayyad, on the other hand, said the opposite.
“The checkpoints only exist in the city of Beirut,” said Fayyad, “and once you leave the city, you’ll barely find any. Take, for example, Beirut-Dahieh highway. It is full of illegal public transportation vehicles, yet the ISF is doing nothing about it.”
How is it affecting the legal operating taxis?
“When a passenger is harmed by one of the fake taxi drivers, he blames it on all the taxis but not the fake one,” said Abo Jamel, a 61-year-old taxi driver, “people don’t trust public transportation drivers anymore, everyone has a car now.”
Abo Jamel has been working as a taxi driver since 1986. According to him, being a taxi driver was a decent job in the past, but not anymore.
“I used to make enough income. But now, I must work twice the amount of time to afford my family’s basic needs because of the competition imposed by the increasing number of illegal taxis, who didn’t pay for the plate,” he said.
Najdi said that the usage of such illegal means is “a grave violation” for drivers’ legal rights and added that they are “stealing” their source of income.
What is the government doing to prevent this phenomenon?
As the Interior Ministry is not enforcing any laws concerning this issue, the Taxi Driver Syndicate along with the Internal Security Forces are putting a lot of effort to stop it. Whenever the legal drivers spot an illegal vehicle they take a photo of the fake plate with their phone cameras and send it to the ISF. The ISF trace the owner of the plate to his place of residence and send him a warrant.
“Today, it is hard to distinguish legal from illegal taxi licenses,” said Colonel Moussallem, “Therefore, the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation is working on identification stickers that include a bar code.”
Members of the Internal Security Forces will be provided with bar code scanners that will display all the information related to the vehicle and its driver. Mr. Abdel Hafiz Qaisi, said that the stickers were already distributed and the scanning machines were delivered to ISF, but “they still didn’t initiate the work yet.”
Colonel Moussallem said that “there are priorities,” and organizing traffic in Beirut is draining 90 percent of ISF members, leaving only 10 percent on check points.
What is Next?
The expansion of illegal public transportation is one consequence of the many problems the transportation sector is suffering from in this country, such as traffic. The sector is barely regulated by the government. In addition, the Lebanese civil war had put a halt on almost all forms of transportation, leaving only some taxis and privately owned cars operating.
The lack of a regulated public transportation sector in Lebanon gave birth to dozens of new and potential projects in hopes to fill the gap that was left after the civil war.
The government imported 200 busses in 1998, after the war had ended, in hopes to restore the public transportation sector. But the project wasn’t studied properly which led to its demise. The bus suppliers failed to provide technical help.
By 2004, only two of them were still operating while the rest were used for parts scraping, replacing the broken parts on the busses that function with parts from the dead busses. They stopped operating completely in 2008 when there were no good parts left.
The government’s current priority is the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, according to Jad Baaklini a founder of the Bus Map Project. Bus Map Project is an initiative that was started in 2015 by a network of bus riders who hope to encourage more people to ride the bus through maps.
Baaklini and his co-worker Chadi Faraj have been attending conferences held by the government about the BRT for a few months now. The BRT is a bus system with a roadway that is dedicated to a specific type of busses only.
The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation is responsible for the BRT project which has been in the talk since 2015 and was announced in 2017. The general director Abdel Hafiz Al Qaisi said that they already have pilot drawings of 900 bus stops and decided on the lines the BRT will follow on a map of Greater Beirut. They have also set the hours the busses will function at and the number of busses they will be importing from abroad.
The busses are expected to have WiFi connection in them and a tracking device that allows citizens to know where each bus is and when it would reach the stop they’re waiting at. They will also be equipped with ramps for handicapped people.
“Our real challenge is to gain the people’s trust in public transportation again,” Qaisi said, “this will take a lot of time and effort.”
“The expansion of illegal transportation vehicles in Lebanon is out of our hands, but this project will help solving the problem.” Qaisi said. Qaisi then explained that the government will be offering job opportunities for current public taxi, bus and van drivers on the condition they achieve the qualified standards set by the government to become a part of the project.
“The Bus Rapid Transit project is not the government’s priority now.” Said Qaisi. The BRT project is now waiting for the parliament’s approval. Once the approval is gained, the project will be initiated immediately. Mr. Qaisi, however, is expecting a delay, due to the country’s complicated political situation.