Heart to Heart with Tripoli's Mayor: Dr. Riad Yamak
For the Arabic version of the interview, click here.
Dr. Riad Ezzat Yamak became mayor of Tripoli in 2019. He is an Independent with over two decades of social activism on the local Tripoli scene. Having earned his medical degree in Italy and subsequently moved back to Lebanon, he gained fame and appreciation from many in Tripoli for serving underprivileged areas. The title of "adami" or "the respectful one" would be bestowed on him and would ultimately land him in one of the most strategic positions in the city, the office of mayor. In this interview, Tripolicy's Raafat Yamak will interview Dr. Riad Ezzat Yamak on the challenges, setbacks, achievements, and future of the city of Tripoli as Lebanon continues to spiral down a path of total collapse.
Raafat Yamak: Dr. Riad, thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. We're excited to delve into many topics and touch upon some of the questions the audience has asked us to direct to you.
Riad Ezzat Yamak: Thank you for conducting this interview. I'm looking forward to answering your questions today.
RY: Great. Let us begin with your activism work and the leadup to you winning the mayoral race.
REY: Well, I have been a council member of Tripoli's Municipality since 1998. I was part of the Islah (Reform) group and was nominated by them multiple times. I was re-elected to be a member of the Municipality's council in 2004 under then-Mayor Jamali. In 2010, I was not nominated and it was during this time when I took a brief political hiatus from any municipality work. In 2016, I was re-elected and appointed to lead the Athletics & Youth and Medical portfolios for the entire city. In 2019, a vote of no-confidence was called into effect during Ahmad Kamareddine's tenure and this resulted in my ascension to the top office in the Municipality as mayor.
RY: Was it your political goal to become mayor or was it something that you just found yourself in with the no confidence vote that was called at the time?
REY: No, it was never my intention or goal to become mayor. I found myself in this position especially when there was division at the time regarding my nomination. Even within my own group, the Islah group, there were other names besides mine that were being nominated. Ultimately, my colleagues agreed on my name and after multiple rounds of discussions with the opposition, an agreement was reached regarding myself becoming Tripoli's mayor.
RY: Did you feel like the experience you gained as a member of the Municipality's council was enough preparation to deal with the challenges as mayor?
REY: I would say, yes and no. There's no doubt that my previous experience with the Municipality was valuable but it's a totally different arena when you're mayor and juggling a plethora of portfolios. As a council member, you're solely responsible for a number of portfolios. Thank God, when I was leading the Sports & Youth portfolio, I received widespread recognition for my work and till today, I receive support from athletic organizations throughout the city. Similarly, my work with the Medical portfolio also received support from syndicates and relevant medical clubs in the city. Furthermore, my life experiences as a doctor with open channels to many of the underprivileged areas in Tripoli, like El-Qobbeh, gave me the opportunity to listen to people and hear about the problems and challenges they were facing. All of this I consider valuable experience.
RY: And I assume your work in the respective portfolios that you mentioned and the recognition you were receiving motivated you to try and do more change in the city?
REY: Absolutely. We were working with genuine concern for the city and even under then-mayor Jamali, I was leading the customer service department where people would submit their issues and we would try to find quick solutions to them. It truly felt like I was doing a positive change. What I want to say, however, is that during my tenure as mayor, I came at a time of extreme political, social, and economic turbulence. This was a major hinderance to any work the Municipality was trying to execute. We had contracts with multiple companies, among them concrete companies to fix Tripoli's roads and sidewalks. This work was delayed because of roadblocks by protesters and general chaos across the country. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic caused further problems for us as the central government started taking a more heavy-handed approach regarding decisions that were historically up to the discretion of the municipalities. The biggest punch of all was the economic collapse of the Lebanese state. I decided to take the decision to not take money from people for overdue tickets and other violations because of the hyperinflation that hit the country. I couldn't see myself sending employees to a household who had lost nearly the total value of their savings to ask for fees regarding a parking violation a month ago. We are not in normal times here. We're working overtime to try to do what we can, such as apartment renovations for homes that are threatened with collapse or have leaks. We have worked on dozens of apartments throughout the city, thanks to private donors and the Municipality's renovation team. Finally, we also have a crisis of ethics in this city where many are using their poverty as an excuse to act a certain way and unfortunately we have seen an uptick in thefts. Nothing can justify such behavior. During these times, we need to unite and work together. If we are divided, it will only exacerbate the situation.
RY: It is without a doubt that the problems and challenges are many. What are the top three issues you are facing right now?
REY: I would say that it is the fuel shortage. Everyone is suffering from this. The second issue is the hyperinflation and here you see employees who used to make what was equivalent to $2000 a month now making about $200 a month due to the Lebanese Lira's collapse. Take a look at the salary of the Lebanese soldier as well. The middle class no longer exists.
RY: Going back to the fuel shortages real quick, we have seen videos of petrol stations hiding their fuel and removing it from the market to increase the price. Furthermore, you have fuel being smuggled out of Lebanon and unsafe handling of this material has cost lives, like the recent Akkar blast. What are you doing to ensure that the supply is reaching the market to avoid artificial increase in prices?
REY: Regarding the fuel issue, we are trying to deal with this as strongly as possible. We have a group that we established led by Mutfi Mohamad Imam and joined by other local syndicates. We all went to Beirut to meet with Caretaker Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, and the Energy Minister, Raymond Ghajar. I presented them a detailed outline regarding how to deal with the fuel issue and I asked them to delegate this task to Tripoli's Municipality. If we are not given the authority to exercise oversight on the fuel issue in Tripoli, then we lose the chance to monitor the volume of fuel entering each and every single petrol station coming into Tripoli and the volume that is leaving Tripoli. We need to know how much fuel each petrol station and/or generator is taking.
RY: In other towns across Lebanon, their municipalities have been more effective on the ground and have been able to monitor their fuel intake. How is it that Tripoli is lacking in this regard?
REY: Keep in mind, that Tripoli is not a small village or town. We have a population of over half a million people with 500+ generators. To monitor all this, there needs to be a mechanism established with the appropriate manpower and more importantly, political will! Since you brought up other areas of Lebanon, to their credit, they have local political leaders who have exercised oversight on this. On the other hand, in Tripoli, the politicians here are met with protesters at their doors on a near weekly basis. I believe this has marginalized the political class in Tripoli and to be frank, without their support, my team and I will continue to struggle. Furthermore, the Tripolitan political class no longer enjoys the support they once had and effectively, their power has diminished. On top of that, Tripoli, historically, has been inclined towards a certain political party. Well, that political party, as of right now, has no presence in the skeleton government currently in Beirut due to political bickering between all political forces. This further adds to the strain on Tripoli as its networks are cut off or marginalized.
Many have criticized me asking where the local police force is. I tell my critics that the local police force does not have the effective power nor resources to implement meaningful change on the ground.
"The role of the police force is limited to traffic organization but to deal with armed gangs, namely at the petrol stations and other areas is beyond our capabilities."
Now, I acknowledge that there needs to be more stringent security and as I mentioned before, I called for a meeting and we all gathered at Mufti Imam's residence and afterwards I held a press conference where I pointed the blame at Governor Nahra. According to the law, it is within his jurisdiction to implement security, not the mayor of Tripoli. The position of mayor is constrained by the governor and interior minister, making my attempts to implement meaningful change on the security level extremely difficult. I reiterate, Lebanon has a government that is centralized and power is localized in Beirut. One of the solutions to Lebanon's woes is to create a decentralized structure that gives more autonomy and freedoms to other areas of Lebanon, particularly Lebanon's second largest city!
RY: I see, but I'm going to press further on the fuel issue. You mentioned 500+ generators and the lack of infrastructure to monitor fuel input and output for all of them. Why can't we at least begin with the petrol stations, in terms of monitoring how much is being offloaded? This can be a start.
REY: Regarding the petrol stations, we released a document outlining our plan. They consisted of four main points. One of these points is the establishment of security alongside the local police force at every petrol station and force them all to be open. However, this has not been able to happen in all petrol stations and some petrol stations fear opening up after the latest protests that have emerged. Unfortunately, petrol stations in more underprivileged areas have been facing gangs who are forcing the petrol station owner to give them a financial cut. They also have their associates cut the line to fill their tanks with petrol to be sold on the black market. A black market has emerged and it is lucrative. A lot of drivers are filling up their cars, emptying the fuel at home in some kind of storage container, then going back for more. Now, again, we are trying to organize this issue. However we are understaffed in terms of security and to be frank, it is way over the heads of the Municipality to deal with these gangs by ourselves. We need support.
RY: We all know that the current governor, Ramzi Nahra, is tied to a certain political party in Lebanon known for its right-wing views and gross incompetence. Waiting on him for assistance does not seem to be a sustainable solution. Are there any plans to train the local police force to where they can eventually be professional and trained enough to deal with the city's issues?
REY: We had plans to increase the number of our police force and to provide training. However there were some issues that emerged dealing with internal corruption that caused the plan to be stalled. Furthermore, complications began to multiply and more urgent priorities started to take over the agenda. Some of these complications pertain to the council members in the Municipality who have unfortunately taken their battles against me to Facebook and other social media outlets. Rather than being unified, some of them sow discord and this really causes setbacks towards the action items we had initially set.
RY: I'm glad you have brought up the council members. I have heard you in multiple interviews with local journalists mention that sometimes the council members skip important meetings in the Municipality. Why not enforce transparency in the Municipality and release a document on the official Municipality page detailing what was discussed in those meetings with the names of those in attendance? That way, the people of Tripoli are made aware of what is going on internally rather than relying on rumors.
REY: It's funny you mention that. I have been thinking about that. I was not in favor of spreading the Municipality's dirty laundry to the public. However, after thinking about it more, I have realized that this idea would do more good than harm. It is unfortunate that it has reached this, but it is what it is.
RY: Moving on from this topic, I want to discuss the sad day in Tripoli's history where the Municipality and Sharia Courts were almost burned down to the ground. It was astonishing to see, particularly because Tripolitans all over the world were watching the Municipality burning on Facebook Live without a single fire truck in sight! On behalf of Tripolicy, I would like to tell you that we are happy that you came out of that incident safe and we pray that nothing like that happens again. What's the status of the investigation regarding that night?
REY: Thank you for that. I'm not sure if you saw me on Facebook Live that night, but I was there. I was watching my office burn down while trying to call the fire station and it took them an excessively long time to get there.
"By the way, the same thing happened in the Areed Souk where a store was burning down and the fire trucks took too long to arrive. I was standing there in front of the store, calling the fire station multiple times. The fire station used the same excuse as the Municipality episode and said that there are people blocking them from entering. I truly felt like it was déjà vu all over again."
As soon as I got the phone call, I contacted the head of the fire department and his response was simply that "the people didn't let us in." So, I went there and noticed that there are no obstacles to reaching the location. As a result, I called the security forces, who repeated the same excuse as the fire department head. I literally told them, I'm standing right in front of the burning store. I was genuinely confused about the excuses that were being coughed up. And of course, when I went there, unfortunately, I started receiving insults from the people. All I can do is contact the relevant parties to deal with the issue.
Regarding the investigation into the Municipality being burnt down, I have asked about this several times. There were cameras that caught all the perpetrators. However, in my opinion, I think that dark episode of Tripoli was part of a grander conspiracy against the city and the Municipality as an institution to punish it for being independent and pro-change.
RY: That is truly ridiculous and sad to hear. One of the positive externalities from all of this was the positive reinforcements that were directed towards Tripoli, namely from civil society, politicians, and even government officials, like the visit from the Turkish ambassador to Lebanon to Tripoli's Municipality. Were there any action items that came out of these meetings?
REY: Yes, I agree that there was positive reinforcement but unfortunately till now, a lot of the promises we received haven't been fulfilled yet. We're still in the stage of having studies being conducted on the building, primarily since it is a historic Ottoman-era building. We hope renovations will start soon but still no fixed date yet. I have a group working on this case.
RY: What about the Turkish group TIKA? They do great work and I'm well aware of the very friendly ties between Turkey and Tripoli. Do you think they can help with the renovations?
REY: Turkey has always been a friend, not just to Tripoli, but to all of Lebanon. Our arms are open to anyone who wants to assist Tripoli.
RY: I wanted to bring up another issue that got you some criticism on social media by local activists regarding your reinstatement of the police chief who is allegedly known for his heavy-handed response to matters. What are your thoughts on that?
REY: There is a degree of truth in the criticism against the police chief. However in my opinion, there are two points that need to be considered. The first point is that it is in the city's interest to have a police chief with a military background, like the one we currently have. The second point is that although I had removed him, I was not offered a replacement. My intention was to pump new blood into the police force, especially someone with a Lieutenant or Colonel ranking. When the replacement seemed like an impossibility, I reinstated him. Yes, he has his flaws; however, he also has many beneficial attributes, among them his experience with the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. People need to realize that for a police chief to not have ties to security agencies is a huge handicap. Little can be done and that was my issue with the interim police chief I had appointed. He did not have the connections that the current police chief has, and in Lebanon especially, connections are important to get things done. Anyhow, this was an internal matter, and to be frank, some of the social media activists really did a disservice to their city when they began connecting imaginary dots regarding the police chief appointment and the episode with the burning of the Municipality. They incited people against the Municipality by saying that the fire trucks had a lack of water because it was being used for the water cannons against protesters. This couldn't be farther from the truth. I strongly believe that their incitement contributed to that dark episode against Tripoli's iconic Municipality. Those kinds of rumors and claims really hurt me specifically when I know that they are aware these allegations are false.
RY: Another issue that is making Tripoli slowly bleed is the exodus of the youth and intellectual class. Many have left to different countries, causing a brain drain that is surely to have an effect on the local economy. How severe is this problem and what are you doing to help tackle the situation?
REY: Lebanon was always known to have people leave the country for a period of time to finish studies, make a quick buck, and then come back to Lebanon to invest. Lebanon has always been like that. However, with the current situation, the issue is much different. Now, you have people who have jobs but are leaving anyway because of the hyperinflation. Many doctors and engineers who are employed by the State and private companies are leaving. This has never happened before at this scale to where even State jobs are being depleted.
RY: How can the Lebanese community overseas assist the Municipality with being more efficient? There is lots of talent overseas with ways to increase efficiency and enhance certain processes. Little things that can be fixed and have a profound effect on the overall work pipeline. Any thoughts?
REY: Lots of organizations have come to me with proposed solutions to certain problems and it is mostly youth-focused. I would argue that before we look at the youth, we need to find solutions for the parents of the youth. Many of the adults are unemployed with little hope about any future prospects. But I really can't thank all these organizations enough. They have targeted different fields and this work is all deeply appreciated. We are struggling with some of our equipment that needs maintenance. A lot of the equipment we have is outdated and needs refurbishing. In addition, we try to do our part whenever aid packages come into the city by providing logistical support and access to information that may help with the overall distribution. Although the situation is tough, we are blessed to have a caring Tripolitan community overseas who care about their city.
RY: That's great to hear. What about Tripoli's politicians? Is there any coordination between your office and the billionaires and millionaires who reside in the city? Where are the plans to build factories? People are really tired of the occasional food package from the city's successful businessmen. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Am I right?
REY: I completely agree with you. However, for factories or any employment opportunity, this should have happened before the economic crisis.
"Now, there is social and economic collapse. Unfortunately, if we had people who thought about the long-term future of the city, these factories that you're referring to could have softened the blow of the economic punch we are currently facing."
It is the unfortunate and sad reality. Furthermore, we have a large amount of Syrian refugees that have exhausted an already strained system. However, we are not prepared to leave them alone and we do what we can to assist them. The government has failed in creating any kind of economic plan for Tripoli. The reality is that the government shares the overwhelming responsibility with what is happening in Tripoli and we hope that they wake up to Tripoli's woes and listen to our demands before it is too late for the city.
RY: Regarding the Port of Tripoli, there have been criticisms that the employees are not native to Tripoli. I'm not sure if this is part of your jurisdiction -
REY: It's not.
RY: Then, let me move on to the next -
REY: No, no. Ask away.
RY: Well, it would make sense for Tripoli's natives to have priority especially with the large number of unemployed people in the city.
REY: There's a law that dictates that anyone who has residency in the city can apply to any position in that particular city. So, for example, a lot of the Municipality's employees are from areas outside of Tripoli, like Akkar. If a road is blocked or if there are fuel shortages, my employees cannot make it to the Municipality if they are coming from their family homes in Akkar. This causes manpower shortages which results in a decrease in the quality of the service. There needs to be a qualifier that mitigates this problem by mentioning that the person applying for a city job needs to be a native Tripolitan whose sole residency is in Tripoli to avoid the issues that I just discussed that pertain to this law.
RY: I want to conclude this interview by asking what your thoughts are regarding the future of Tripoli and if there are any plans for future projects for the city on file?
REY: There are many projects that we are working on, among them the traffic lights issue. Our goal was to have all traffic lights in Tripoli functioning. Another project is the train station renovation, historic artefact renovation, refurbishing of the Maarad, and so many more. We have so many projects on file.
RY: Are there any updates regarding any of these projects?
REY: At the moment, everything is on hold. The problem is a macro problem that requires a macro solution. I pray that the central government reaches a political solution urgently for the sake of not just Tripoli, but for the whole country. All we can do is work with what we have and continue working together, united, to face the many challenges ahead.
RY: Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Riad. May Allah (swt) give you success in your work and unite the political and business class in a way that can truly bring prosperity and wellbeing to the city.
REY: Ameen, and thank you for all your efforts.
About the Author:
R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Dallas, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others.