The Tripoli municipality has been shaken by a controversy that pits its mayor, Riad Yamak, against the majority of council’s members, including those close to Prime Minister Najib Mikati, MP Ashraf Rifi and even some independents.
Yamak, who appears isolated amid the dispute, stands accused of negligence and mismanagement by some (mainly independents), and of corruption by others (especially those affiliated with various political forces).
While tension within the council is not new — paralysis has marred its work for almost a year and a half — a new development has further aggravated the situation. Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, himself a Tripoli native, transferred Yamak’s file to the public prosecutor’s office for financial crimes on June 8, based on suspicions of waste of public funds and unjustified expenses detailed in a complaint lodged by seven of the council’s members. Mawlawi also issued a circular to elect a new mayor and deputy mayor.
Based on the circular, North Lebanon governor Ramzi Nohra, who is close to the Free Patriotic Movement, called for a municipal council meeting on Aug. 1 for a vote of confidence and to elect a mayor.
In Tripoli’s last municipal elections in 2016, the list backed by headed by MP Ashraf Rifi, who had shortly beforehand resigned from his job as justice minister, won all the seats against a broad alliance involving former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Ahmad Amareddin, supported by Rifi, was elected mayor that year. Three years later in 2019, Riad Yamak, an independent who was part of Amareddin’s initial team, was elected mayor. Yamak’s relationship with Rifi has deteriorated ever since. As for the next municipal elections, they were not held as planned in 2022, but were postponed by the government for one year.
A decision in a meeting without a quorum
Mohammad Nour Ayoubi is one of seven elected municipal council members who filed a complaint to the interior minister against Yamak for wasting public money and state property. The complaint specifically mentioned a murky case in which Yamak is alleged to have improperly distributed about LL3 billion in food aid in Tripoli.
“Calling for the election of new mayor and deputy mayor is perfectly legal since they have been in office for three years, and extending the council’s term does not imply an extension of the mayor’s term,” Ayoubi told L'Orient-Le Jour.
Ayoubi, whose brother is the secretary-general of the al-Jamaa al-Islamiya party, said that “the conflict with Riad Yamak is not personal, but we have questions about vague cases.” He added that during the past three years as mayor, Yamak convened meetings only twice a month. Ayoubi also claimed that one recent council decision to spend LL34 billion was taken in a meeting lacking a quorum, held in early June in the presence of only six elected members.
For Jamil Jablaoui, another municipal council member, Yamak is guilty of neglecting the city, rather than of corruption. “The mayor has completely given up his duties and remained distant from the hot issues affecting the city, such as the diesel and generator issues, and even the bread shortage, health and food security,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour. “This is despite the fact that the municipality adopted a joint fund scheme to receive aid from NGOs to help the population through this difficult time.”
Jablaoui also alleged that Yamak has not taken any actions in cases of encroachment upon public property, even when the Army offered to help evict offenders. The election of a new mayor is “necessary,” he added.
‘Let me be judged by the public opinion’
For his part, unsurprisingly, Yamak denounced what he sees as personal attacks aimed at tarnishing his reputation. “I am not attached to this position,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour. “But I must defend the city, because I am convinced that it is targeted by these accusations, and I must defend myself.”
The accusations of negligence and corruption are “defamation, particularly since the public prosecution for financial crimes has not taken any decision against me,” Yamak continued. “If I am guilty of anything, let me be judged by the public opinion, but I challenge the interior minister to make any public move in this direction.”
Yamak added that he felt it was “suspicious” that Tripoli is the sole municipality that will soon elect a new mayor even after the Lebanese government extended the terms for all remaining municipal councils across the country for one year. He said the complaints against him and the call for a new mayoral election were due to “well-known political reasons,” without specifying them.
However, according to well-informed sources in Tripoli, Yamak’s comment was likely an allusion to his refusal to grant requests made by high-ranking officials to recruit their relatives to some projects in the city.
Meanwhile, sources close to Interior Minister Mawlawi denied that he has any personal dispute with Yamak. According to these sources, the call for new elections was made according to procedures set by the interior ministry’s municipalities directorate and in accordance with the desires of other elected members, who were tired of seeing “paralysis” in one of the largest municipalities in Lebanon.
Whatever is held to be true in the matter, Yamak has not remained silent. He said he has already consulted his lawyers regarding a request against the voting session in the municipality, considering the move to be a “breach of law.” Yamak added that a vote of confidence against a mayor should take place during their years in office, and not during the extension period.
In the meantime, it seems likely that a population fed up with increasingly difficult daily life in a city known as the poorest on the Mediterranean is a thousand miles away from interest in the bickering of its elected officials.
Translated by Joelle El Khoury.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.
The Tripoli municipality has been shaken by a controversy that pits its mayor, Riad Yamak, against the majority of council’s members, including those close to Prime Minister Najib Mikati, MP Ashraf Rifi and even some independents.Yamak, who appears isolated amid the dispute, stands accused of negligence and mismanagement by some (mainly independents), and of corruption by others (especially...