Tripoli’s Clientelism in the Age of Corona

2020-12-08    |   

Tripoli’s Clientelism in the Age of Corona

This article was written early last August, and we postponed its publication following the explosion of Beirut’s port. Since then, the social and political crisis, along with the poverty in Tripoli and several other parts of Lebanon, has escalated. We saw fit to publish it today so that it may be read in light of the tragedy of the “death boats” that set sail from Tripoli’s harbor to escape the indignity of poverty and destitution. (Editor)


At first glance, Tripoli’s Attareen market seems no different in the age of COVID-19 than before. The stifling movement of pedestrians is obstructed by a few passing motorcycles, the voices of vegetable sellers vie to attract customers with “enticing” prices, and pictures of the city’s zuama [elite political leaders, singular: zaim], faded by the passage of time, watch over the scene as if to bestow their blessing on the populace’s daily life. However, it does not take long to notice the cracks in this scene that expose a city whose livelihood has been further strained by an epidemic. A few people wear masks, reminding us of the presence of the plague that has captured the whole world’s attention, while the merchants’ chatter reveals the suffering caused by the economic crisis choking the country. The market also contains some spaces now free of the press of customers, namely the butcheries and poultry stores, which repel the few who approach them with their shocking prices.

The COVID-19 pandemic befell Lebanon at a time when it was undergoing political and economic changes, particularly following the October 17 uprising. Tripoli, the capital of North Lebanon, newly dubbed “Bride of the Revolution”, was not excluded from these changes. The escalation of the economic crisis, in conjunction with the spread of COVID-19, led to deep transformations in social relationships, specifically the clientelist relationships and networks that concern us in this article, and these transformations affected the contract that has existed between the zuama and their “clients” since Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990. In this article, we will present the factors that paved the way for the change in the nature of the relationship between the zaim and his clients in Tripoli. Then, we will attempt to understand the relationship’s new conditions, especially in light of the shaken trust and commitment between the two sides.

We decided to delve into the Tripoli case because the city combines essential features of the Lebanese equation: a high poverty rate, a branching clientelist system, and remarkable activity in the 17 October 2019 uprising. Although Tripoli’s clientelist network extends to all social classes in the city and takes different forms for different classes, this investigation will be limited to the poorest classes and rely on interviews that we conducted with residents of impoverished neighborhoods and activists from the city.

“There’s No Corona in Tripoli”: The New Face of the City’s Wariness Toward the State

The residents we interviewed did not see COVID-19 as a health danger: “We’ve been exposed to so many germs that we don’t get affected by Corona”.[1] Khalid sarcastically mocked the curfew imposed: “Why, because the humidity is higher in the evening and Corona spreads more?”, he said, breaking into laughter. With this view of the pandemic, several residents deemed COVID-19 and the measures related to it to be a distinctly political tool that the government is using to suppress the protests: “I’ve begun to feel that the numbers are a lie… As soon as the revolutionaries went out to block the road, lo-and-behold, there were suddenly 50 Corona cases in the news the same day! Fifty! Yesterday the cases were zero, but when the revolutionaries went out, they became 50? Get lost, you’re playing us for fools”.

In his research on the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, late French researcher Michel Seurat argues that this wariness toward the state is longstanding in Tripoli and has structural causes. He explains that the city enjoyed self-sufficiency and was distinguished by its economic and cultural development until it was incorporated into a “national framework” when the state of Greater Lebanon was declared.[2] From one angle, Tripoli deemed that the Lebanese state was established by the west, which wanted to impose its own model of “political modernization” upon Islam.[3] From another angle, Tripoli rejected the idea of a state outright, seeing it as an entity that helps to divide the religious community.[4] This wariness toward the state remains a key factor for understanding Tripoli residents’ suspicion toward the measures adopted to fight the pandemic, as well as for anticipating the potential developments in Tripoli that we will address in the conclusion of this article.

COVID-19 and the Economic Crisis Pave the Way for Changes in Tripoli’s Clientelism

The clientelist system is based on a network of services that the zaim provides to Tripoli residents and caters to their essential needs in exchange for their political support. The escalation of the economic crisis in the age of COVID-19 has disrupted this system, with residents’ needs increasing while the clientelist network’s capacity to provide services declines.

COVID-19 Adds Insult to Injury and Increases Tripoli Residents’ Essential Needs

COVID-19 and the government measures related to it have added insult to injury by exacerbating the severe economic recession that Tripoli was already suffering from. “The state hasn’t compensated the people and hasn’t given them anything in return. Don’t go into the street because of Corona – but how will I live?”, commented Mahir. In al-Mankoubin neighborhood, a resident named Ahmad explained that,  “Everyone is a day worker. Ok, I stayed home – how will I eat and drink? How will I pay for rent, electricity, and water?”. Moreover, amidst the spike in prices and closure of some stores, the crisis is having repercussions on Tripoli residents’ social life. For a city distinguished by lively social relationships among its residents, admission of these repercussions did not come easily. Despite our interviewees’ denial, the crises’ effects on the foundations of Tripoli’s social life emerged in the discussion. Residents’ ability to go out and mingle, especially by smoking argila [water pipe] in cafes, has been impacted: “After work, the youth were meeting in the cafes… The prices have spiked. For example, an argila, which used to cost LL5,000, now costs approximately LL10,000. People can no longer come for an argila and spend this amount”.[5] One vegetable merchant in Bab al-Tabbaneh’s market pointed to the virtually empty marketplace and said, “This is a vegetable market? This market was never empty day or night. Come in the morning and there was nowhere to step. Now there’s nobody”. Furthermore, people now refrain from buying certain foods, particularly meat, because of the expense: “Someone eating fasuliya [bean stew] in summer? And without meat!”.[6] Amid this deterioration in Tripoli residents’ economic and social life, their needs have increased such that the services that the zaim usually provided no longer meet them. Beyond the traditional health services, the populace’s food security now hangs in the balance.

The Economic Crisis Weakens the Capacity of the Zuama’s Clientelist Network

Since 1990, no political actor has managed to impose itself as the sole representative of the interests of North Lebanon’s capital. Hence, the political arena split among both traditional zuama, such as the Karami family, and business owners, such as Mohammad Safadi, Najib Mikati,[7] and the Hariri family. The zuama exploited the absence of any state-provided social protection network[8] to sow the idea of the “absentee state” whose functions they seek to undertake[9] via their clientelist networks. Khalid, who is part of this network, described how it operates and the form that it takes. In Tripoli, clientelist services are based on medical and hospital treatment.[10] Other services are provided in exceptional circumstances – including the distribution of food rations and clothing during Ramadan, and monetary bribes during elections – but the largest role is played by health services provided in three ways.[11] Firstly, every zaim has a services office that oversees a number of agents from the various neighborhoods, who act as liaisons to the residents. These residents ask the agents to cover a portion of their hospital expenses (each zaim “deals” with a certain hospital in Tripoli). After the agent obtains the office’s approval, part of the cost is covered using Ministry of Health resources or, in rare instances, the zaim’s personal wealth. Secondly, every zaim has clinics distributed around the city that provide health services, such as Najib Mikati’s Azm and Saade clinics and the Karami family’s Karama clinics. Thirdly, the zaim funds certain NGOs active in Tripoli, usually through the Ministry of Social Affairs, such that the clientelist service is delivered indirectly.

The economic crisis weakened the health sector and, by extension, the capacity of Tripoli’s clientelist network, which depends primarily upon it. Besides the decline in the resources of state institutions, including the Ministry of Health, Lebanon is today witnessing a health sector collapse. This collapse began with the difficulty of securing dollars to import equipment and supplies for hospitals and medical centers and then personal protective equipment amidst the pandemic. Moreover, over the past month, the supply of several important medicines has been cut from the market. According to Ahmad, an al-Mankoubin resident who supports Faisal Karami and whose hospital bill the latter previously covered via the Ministry of Health, the zuama cannot possibly continue providing these services, which are now limited amidst the hospital crisis: “Nobody is continuing with this [the hospital services]. The Islamic Hospital is out of medicine and doctors, and the same goes for the governmental hospital. The country is collapsing. The services are running very short… If you need a coronary stent, there’s none left. There’s none left in the hospitals and the ministry to begin with”. How could a clientelist system provide hospital services amidst a health sector crisis stemming from an economic crisis? “They [Tripoli’s zuama] can’t give like before because the economy is collapsing, and the economic system more than they can handle”.[12]

The Foundations of the Clientelist Relationship Fall Victim to the Pandemic: No Trust and No Commitment

To delve deeply into the changes in the relationship between zaim and client, we must transcend the value judgments of clientelism that categorize it as a political anomaly[13] or “backwardness” and approach it as one model for organizing a community’s life based on certain relationships that, like all social relationships between two parties, are governed by particular properties and principles.

From one angle, our fieldwork reveals that the commitment between zaim and client – i.e. each side’s commitment to its duty toward the other – has been shaken in the age of COVID-19. Some of the interviews indicated that there is rebuke directed toward the zuama for not performing the duty that the clientelist contract enjoins upon them, namely to provide assistance, as the crisis escalates and living conditions deteriorate. “You have Safadi, for example, who is known as rich across Lebanon. Najib Mikati too. Their role should be bigger during this period”, commented a resident of Abou Samra neighborhood. He continued, “The politicians ultimately haven’t done anything for us during this difficult period… A week ago, the protests went in front of the houses of politicians like Ashraf Rifi and Najib Mikati. They [the protesters] said to them, you’re not doing anything for us. They should do something to change the situation”. Ahmad said, “There are people who, though with the zaim, are joining the revolution and blocking roads and burning things because they’re hungry. The zaim isn’t satisfying them”.

In his research on the principles of clientelism, Jean-François Medard explains that the clientelist relationship is one of duty and moral commitment born by both sides.[14] In Tripoli in particular, commitment is the foundation of the relationship between the zuama and residents and is reinforced by the services provided by the zuama’s charitable organizations.[15] The zaim bears a duty toward “those below” that consists of “obligations of nobility” (noblesse oblige). The client, on the other hand, has a duty to return the favor.[16] But from the client’s perspective, the zuama seem to have forsaken their duty and commitment amidst the collapse in living conditions, thus threatening the existing contract between the two sides that, for some zuama, traces back to 1990 or even earlier (as in the case of the Karami family).

From another angle, the clientelist ties are based on trust between zaim and client. Each side must trust that the other will perform its duty or keep its promises.[17] For example, the zaim performs services before elections and trusts that the client will fulfill its promise by voting for him, or the client votes first and trusts that the zaim will later provide the promised services. This trust is being shaken both for the zaim and the client.

From the zaim’s side, Khalid believes that many residents who benefit from his zaim’s services will not keep their promise in the coming elections and vote for him: “Money entices the poor. When the elections come, they [the clients] will take the money [provided by the zaim], but I doubt that a large number will vote for him”. According to activist Ubayda Tikriti, distrust toward supporters is the reason that the zuama are not providing assistance today: “They want to give to the people to gain loyalty. But I think that at the moment, they don’t have the fantastic capacity to rally people behind them that they did before… They don’t feel like they can get anyone’s loyalty, so they won’t be interested in providing services. They won’t do any plain charity work”. This approach by politicians is comparable to the situation regarding the Amal Movement in the city of Tyre.

In an interview that the Legal Agenda conducted during the first weeks of the quarantine, an Amal Movement “cadre” who left his party when the revolution broke out said, “Why are the MPs now closing up their houses and you don’t hear a peep out of them?… I’ve been with them for 40 years, I understand – they starve you and push you into a corner until finally, they give you a little break [a food ration] and you say, oh my brother, they relieved me… They wait for the people to get more and more stuck, and when the people raise their voices, they send down aid”. Now that the zuama’s trust in their clients has been shaken, are they waiting for the needs of the masses to reach criticality before they fulfill the “obligations of nobility”?

From the clients’ side, Ubayda explains that the trust has also been shaken: “The people can’t believe anything they [the zuama] say. Even when you see protests take place in front of their [the zuama’s] houses, they might give money to supporters or thugs to come stand against the revolutionaries. This shows that they can’t even bring people to stand against them [the revolutionaries]”. Hence, supporters no longer trust that the zaim will keep his promise in the future and prefer to receive the service (in this case money) from him before they display any loyalty. As another example, supporters no longer automatically assemble to attend an event called by the zaim; rather, they now demand financial compensation in advance or at least at the time of the event.

How Does the Disturbance in Commitment and Trust Between the Zaim and His Supporters Manifest Itself?

This disturbance is evident in the above example of the supporters who require a sum of money to assemble in front of their zaim’s home. In this case, we see that although they have not abandoned their zaim or joined the revolution, the conditions of their relationship with him have significantly changed because of the decline in trust in these zuama and their promises, which consequently no longer suffice to ensure loyalty.

This disturbance is also evident among another group of people, namely those who still benefit from the zaim’s services and show him the face of a “supporter” while also participating in the uprising’s actions and thereby also adopting the face of a “revolutionary”. “There are people who tell you, we’re against so-and-so and join a protest against him, but you also find them gathering for him when he comes to Tripoli … The people have become two-faced – one face for the revolution and another face for the zaim and his services”.[18] This tendency may stem from Tripoli residents’ fear of forgoing the zaim’s services. They appear to want to join the revolution without burning bridges in case it does not “succeed” because they need his services. According to Ahmad, “All the people’s hearts and souls are with the revolution, but they’re keeping a foot in both camps. They’re frightened. Everyone wants change, but they’re scared that this revolution won’t succeed – where will they return? [The zaim will] dismiss them and stop giving to them”.


Given the destabilization of the principles of the long-standing (particularly since the end of the 1975-1990 war) clientelist contract between Tripoli’s residents and zuama, the escalation of the economic crisis, the spread of the pandemic, and the increase in essential needs, will the contract collapse completely? More importantly, what might replace it?

Based on Tripoli residents’ chronic wariness toward the state and the collapse of its remaining services amidst the current crisis, foretelling the state’s rise upon the ruins of the current form of the zuama system could be premature. Does this mean that in the coming period, Tripoli will witness new forms of clientelism and zuama, or rather other innovative forms of social solidarity that Lebanon is yet to experience? Let’s keep watching.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] Khalid, an agent for one of Tripoli’s zuama, interview with the Legal Agenda, 18 June 2020.

[2] Michel Seurat, “Le Quartier De Bâb-Tebbâné à Tripoli (Liban). Étude D’une ‘Asabiyya Urbaine” in Syrie, L’État De Barbarie, PUF, 2012, p. 235-284.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mahir, an Abou Samra resident, interview with the Legal Agenda, 17 June 2020.

[6] Ahmad, an al-Mankoubin resident and supporter of Faisal Karami, interview with the Legal Agenda, 2 July 2020.

[7] Bruno Dewailly, “Transformations du Leadership Tripolitain: Le Cas de Nagib Mikati” in Leaders et Partisans au Liban, edited by Franck Mermier & Sabrina Mervin, Karthala, 2012, p. 165-185.

[8] Bruno Dewailly and Catherine Le Thomas, Pauvreté et conditions socio‐économiques à Al‐Fayhâ’a: Diagnostic et éléments de stratégie, Agence Française de Développement, 2009.

[9] Lama Karame, “Manufacturing Poverty in Lebanon”, The Legal Agenda, 27 May 2020.

[10] Khalid, interview, op. cit.

[11] According to Khalid, this clientelist network composition is adopted by several zuama in Tripoli.

[12] Ubayda Tikriti, an activist and founder of the “Square and Space” discussions tent, interview with the Legal Agenda, 3 July 2020.

[13] To read more, see Jean-Louis Briquet, “Les Formulations Savantes d’Une Catégorie Politique. Le Clientélisme Et l’Interprétation Sociohistorique Du « Cas Italien »”, Genèses, no. 62, 2006, p. 49-68.

[14] Jean-François Medard, “Le rapport de clientèle : du phénomène social à l’analyse politique” in Revue française de science politique, 26ᵉ année, no. 1, 1976, p. 103-131.

[15] Dewailly and Le Thomas, Pauvreté, op. cit.

[16] Medard, op.cit.

[17] Allen Hicken, “Clientelism” in Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 14:1, 2011, p. 289-310.

[18] Khalid, interview, op. cit.

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