Meeting the clans of Lebanon

Powerful families operate above the law in some areas of the country, using their own armed gangs to kidnap rivals.

Members of the ''military wing'' of the Meqdad family on Al Meqdad Street in Dahyeh. [Issam Abdallah/Al Jazeera]
The Meqdad's 'military wing' said they do not take orders from groups such as Hezbollah [Issam Abdallah/Al Jazeera]

Beirut, Lebanon – The kidnappings of more than 20 Syrians and a Turkish national carried out earlier this week by the “military wing” of this country’s Meqdad clan has unveiled the extent to which certain families have the capability to take the law into their own hands.

Originating from Arab tribes in the region, the clans of Lebanon are considered to have a rich history, and whose bonds can never be broken. From the fifth century until the 18th, the clans were based between Tripoli and Beirut, and then subsequently moved to Lebanon’s Bekaa region where they continue to reside.

Today’s clans share an ancestor – the Hamadiyeh clan. Tracing down the generations from the Hamadiyeh, there are two main branches, the Chamas and the Zaaiter. Within the Zaaitar clan, there are the Meqdads, Haj Hassan, Noon, Shreif, and the Jaafar. Within the Chamas clan, there are the Allaw, Nassereddine, and Dandash.

According to Saadoun Hamadeh, author of The History of Shia in Lebanon, the country began with 80 or so tribes, which have now been whittled down to between 30 and 35.

“The sizes of these tribes range from very big, to very small,” he told Al Jazeera. “They are based predominantly between the Bekaa, in Baalbak-Hermel, and Mount Lebanon.”

 Lebanese clan kidnaps Syrians

As-Safir journalist Saada Allaw – of the Allaw family – said the clans “don’t count their family members in the conventional way”.

“They say, for example, we are 15,000 rifles, which indicates how many people are willing and able to carry weapons.”

‘Military wings’

The Meqdads, who claim to have “10,000 able-bodied men”, recently announced the “success” of their military wing’s operation in response to the kidnapping of a family member in Syria. While they originate from the Bekaa, their presence is much more noticeable in Dahyeh, a southern suburb of Beirut.

Hussein “Abu Ali” Meqdad, a member of the Meqdad family, told Al Jazeera the armed wing of the clan consists of “1,500 bodies, and another 1,000 on stand-by”.

“In Lebanon, every family needs to protect itself while there is no government,” he said, as way of explanation.

“What needs to be understood is that this is not something that we ‘created’ recently; all clans in Lebanon have been training with weapons since at least the 1980s,” he concluded.

For Allaw, the term “military wing” is more of a media stunt. “Every clan has members who are willing and trained to take up arms if needs be, it is not a specialised ‘wing’,” she said.

The training of family members comes from a variety of instructors affiliated with different armed groups. According to Abu Ali, when certain family members become involved with specific factions, relatives pass on the training received.

“The weapons we get from the souk,” he said with a smile. “Heavy weapons.”

Tenuous relations

According to Allaw, what needs to be understood is that the bond between clan members is very different from the sectarian bond found within certain political parties, “which is why there are different sects within the clans … When groups like Hezbollah and Amal tried to enter these areas in the 1980s with sectarian ideals, they were rejected.”

Historically, the relationship between the clans and the political parties is tenuous at best. In the 1980s there were heavy clashes between Hezbollah, Amal, and the clans of the Bekaa. “When Hezbollah first started, they tried to control the clans – but they couldn’t, which led to many clashes,” said Allaw.

“In the past, the clans were very open to secular parties over sectarian parties, such as the Communists, the Baath Party, and the Syrian Socialist National Party,” she added.

Author Hamadeh said that the clans “are the least attached to political parties, including Hezbollah and Amal”.

“They abide by certain rules that they themselves have created, and have their own judge to look over their feuds,” he said. “The state does not get involved.”

It was when Lebanese Shia started becoming the targets of sectarian tensions around 2005 that the clans reportedly began showing more compassion for Hezbollah and Amal.

“Today it is not unusual for one of the political parties to mediate a feud between the clans to prevent bloodshed,” said Allaw.

Abu Ali was keen to point out that parties such as Hezbollah do not give orders to clans such as his. “We have our own organised hierarchy, and we do not accept orders from anyone, including Hezbollah,” he said. “We control our own members.”

Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha

Source: Al Jazeera