Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria

The Generalissimos of Tripoli’s Streets

mina_from_tripoli_1930_1_Two nice little items to note today:

(1) The Economist dubbed Qifa Nabki “the leading blog on Lebanese politics.” Sarah Birke mentions several other excellent authorities to follow on Twitter to get your Lebanon news/commentary. Check them out.

(2) QN is five years old! The anniversary came and went quietly a couple months ago, but in view of the Economist’s shout-out, I thought it wouldn’t be inordinately immodest to point out that over the past half-decade, this blog has received over 30,000 comments on 501 posts (i.e. 60 comments per post). The community of lively and informed readers is what has made blogging here most interesting and enjoyable for me. So, umm, thanks. Back to the topic at hand…

The term qāda al-maḥāwir (the “leaders of the axes”) has become an important part of the political lexicon over the past couple of years, used to describe the hard men and power-brokers of local neighborhood militias in Tripoli. I hadn’t heard this term used before 2007 or so, so I asked some folks if they could shed light on its origins. Is it used only to refer to neighborhood bosses in Tripoli? What about Saida? Does it have a sectarian tinge (i.e. is it only used with Sunni militia leaders and powerbrokers)? Is a qa’id miḥwar just a higher-ranking version of a za’im zaroubeh?

As`ad Abu-Khalil had something interesting to say about this issue:

In the [Lebanese Civil] war, we had more centralized leadership of mahawir, so there was more or less one qa’id for each mihwar. The Tripoli battles are more decentralized, or so they want us to believe in order to avoid responsibility. The official version, probably circulated by the Hariri-run Fir` Al-Ma`lumat (Information Branch), is that there is more than one leader and they don’t answer to one authority. I would say it is a self-serving term coined by the Hariri branch of government and their Saudi sponsors.

I don’t know if As`ad is right about the origin of the plural term coming from the Hariri camp, but his description of the decentralized character of the battle in Tripoli makes sense. It’s hard to know whether the situation in the north is a symptom of the general fragmentation of the Sunni community or a reflection of some kind of factional political game between Hariri and Mikati. Certainly Ashraf Rifi’s recent comments about Mikati’s need to solve the problem or resign would lend credence to this theory.

"The Beatles and Qāda al-Maḥāwir" (Poster by Beirut5Ampere.org, follow @moxybeirut). Click to enlarge.

“The Beatles and Qāda al-Maḥāwir” (Poster by Beirut5Ampere.org, follow @moxybeirut).

The cynical reading holds that Hariri and the Information Branch are using the Tripoli unrest to pressure Hizbullah, frighten the international community, and make Mikati look bad. Rather than setting up an army of clean-cut, Saudi-funded, American-armed, Jordanian-trained glorified security guards to confront Hizbullah, they might simply co-opt the existing militias that are boiling over with rage about the situation in Syria and Hizbullah’s role there. That’s where the qāda al-maḥāwir come in, but as I said, this is the grossly cynical reading.

If anyone else has light to shed on the question of the term’s origins and inflections, I’d be curious to hear about it in the comment section.

Update: As`ad has clarified to me that the term miḥwar has multiple meanings: “The political meaning refers to an alliance, as the Nazi alliance in WWII was known as “duwal al-miḥwar“. In the military sense, it refers to a particular front in the course of the war. As in miḥwar Bab at-Tabbani or Sha`rani, etc.”

Update 2: Check out the great poster I just added above, courtesy of beirut5ampere.org (h/t @MahmoudRamey).

Discussion

13 thoughts on “The Generalissimos of Tripoli’s Streets

  1. ” Rather than setting up an army of clean-cut, Saudi-funded, American-armed, and Jordanian trained glorified security guards to confront Hizbullah,”

    Ummm. For innumerable reasons, this is not a viable option.

    The “grossly cynical reading” is far more in the realm of the probable.

    Posted by lally | December 4, 2013, 7:49 pm
  2. Mabrouk the fifth anniversary QN and what better way to celebrate than to quote my old friend As’ad Abukhalil. I am still basking in the glory of having been slandred by him on the Angry Arab blog. I know, I am in good company and it’s a sure sign that I have made it and can now retire. For As’ad everything is a Hariri/Saudi sectarian sunni conspiracy against the secular Hizballah. So what else is new?

    Nabki for good reason.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | December 4, 2013, 7:52 pm
  3. Does the Rifi-Miqati polarization fit into the Hariri-Miqati rivalry that QN discusses? I recall that Miqati’s resignation was triggered by Rifi’s retirement, and at the time Miqati was hailed for showing “solidarity” with Rifi and for bolstering the PM’s Tripoli-Sunni credentials.

    Posted by Jim Reilly | December 5, 2013, 8:21 am
  4. P.S. Congratulations to QN for this anniversary milestone and for the well-deserved plaudits!

    Posted by Jim Reilly | December 5, 2013, 8:24 am
  5. Nadim, I haven’t been slandered by the Angry Arab. But I count myself in good company by quoting you both regularly… What does that make me? ;-)

    Jim, thanks! I think the Rifi-Mikati spat is a reflection of the larger Future-Mikati contest that has been around since 2005. Mikati has styled himself as the real statesman of the Sunni community; Hariri may be trying to make the case that this quality is irrelevant in a country with Hizbullah as a primary player.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 5, 2013, 9:47 am
  6. QN,

    May the next 5 years be just as productive but hopefully a little less interesting… http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/may-you-live-in-interesting-times.html

    We do need some boring times in the middle east, well, at least a little more boring.

    Posted by AIG | December 5, 2013, 12:04 pm
  7. Whenever I hear the term “generalissimo” I cannot but remember an anecdote told of the last days of Franco. The generalissimo on his death bed is visited by a group of close aides, wanting to bid him farewell. When they start saying their goodbyes, Franco, surprised, asks them, “But why are you saying goodbye, where are *you* going?”

    To me, the generalissimos of Tripoli are more like gangs, they have a life of their own and yet are also being used in the political battles of Tripoli, Hariri/Mikati, anti-Asad/pro-Asad or what have you. Following the money trail of these gangs may also partly vindicate the cynical theories out there.

    I wouldn’t be able to provide much insight as to the origins of these gangs if you will, but I am skeptical, as may people here, about this new “security plan” except if I see tangible results for weeks on end! What I know is that until something fundamental changes in Tripoli that will encourage people to give up their weapons and realize the futility of fighting (i.e. basic services, a job, sanitation, and education for those fighting kids) it is the gangs that will, soon enough, make the army leave. Unlike Franco, they won’t be going anywhere…more generalissimos than the generalissimo himself!

    Posted by Eye on the East | December 5, 2013, 2:49 pm
  8. Eye on the East

    Are you in Tripoli?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 5, 2013, 3:21 pm
  9. Mikati seems more the Lebanese statesman than a Sunni one.

    Posted by lally | December 5, 2013, 4:32 pm
  10. QN,

    No, I keep an eye from Beirut :)

    Posted by Eye on the East | December 5, 2013, 5:30 pm
  11. Be careful…it also endorsed the Future/Saudi owned Daily Star and NOW.

    Posted by jreeves | December 5, 2013, 6:54 pm
  12. I’ve got to say: I find the argument from ownership to be weak and inconsistently applied.

    Plenty of good reporters/columnists work for papers owned by illiberal individuals and corporations the world over. So what?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 5, 2013, 8:23 pm
  13. Personally, I like Fox News. The only US news network that’s willing to confront Obama’s ruining of our foreign policy and our economy.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 6, 2013, 10:50 am

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