“There is no god but God!” protesters chant as they march through Tripoli’s old town.
The Islamist party Hizb ul-Tahrir assembles its supporters every Friday after prayers, and on Syria’s “Day of Dignity” – the day following the Syrian uprising’s one-year anniversary – black flags bearing the party’s standard are being handed out to an eager crowd.
“No-one is doing anything to help our brothers in Syria. Europe, America – they have no answers,” a young man shouts over the loudspeaker rallying the faithful.
“Syria will be free – and we will be there when that happens.”
Sectarian divides in Lebanon’s second largest city mirror those in neighbouring Syria, and loyalties are being severely tested.
Base of operations
A large Sunni majority in the city, which feeds into the growing Free Syrian Army network, smaller Alawite and Christian populations, and increasingly vocal Islamist groups all vie to support their respective allies just over the border.
And as the violence continues, each have established Tripoli as a base of operations for their work in Syria.
“Islam will save the people of Baba Amr, of Idlib and Deraa,” the man continues.
“The Alawites,” he says, referring to the sect to which many of the senior echelons of the Assad regime belong, “they are apostates – and they are killing Muslims all over Syria.”
The religious nature of Syria’s uprising is difficult to gauge, but a number of Islamist groups, from Hizb ul-Tahrir to the Muslim Brotherhood, are said to be supporting a growing number of individual local militias, gangs and brigades in Syria’s restive towns and cities.
Groups supporting the Damascus government have long warned of a Islamist “threat”, and Tripoli’s Alawites make similar arguments.
“Salafis think democracy is forbidden,” says Ali Feddah of the Arab Democratic Party – the Tripoli-based political party which supports Syria’s Baath regime and its Alawi constituents.
“The West does not realise its money and support is going to arming an Islamist uprising.
“Look at Tunisia, at Egypt and now Libya – Islam is sweeping through this so called Arab Spring, and now this conspiracy is hitting the last true democracy in the region.”
Ali’s office is in the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsin, which is protected on a Friday by Lebanese military checkpoints to ensure there is no repeat of violence in the city in February in which three people died.
Ali Feddah’s office is adorned with pictures of the Assads, and in pride of place a portrait of his brother is displayed. A brother killed, Ali says, by Islamist terrorists in Syria.
With the chant of the protesters in the distance, Ali continues.
“Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding these people – they are sending money and arms to Tripoli. But we can send help also. As for we Alawites in Tripoli, we are not scared,” Ali Feddah continues. “We trust in Dr Assad to protect us. We are not scared for the future – Syria has withstood imperialism before and we will withstand it this time also.”
“The fall of the president would mean the fall of Syria. And that will not happen. Syria is Bashar al-Assad.”
Across town in a deserted coffee shop, a Syrian activist agrees to meet me. The danger of militant Islam is an argument he has heard time and again.
“We are ordinary people – not terrorists or criminals. Everyone is affected – my uncle was killed only recently,” he says as he scans the area for Syrian agents.
He doesn’t believe the country will collapse when the system falls.
“The Free Syrian Army is getting stronger everyday. Here in Tripoli we have a growing number of senior officers who have defected. We want to establish a system that is ready to lead.
“Toppling the regime is our aim. We don’t want any transition or dialogue – why should we speak with someone who has killed so many of us? It might take a lot longer than six months but the Syrian people have been scared for 40 years.”
Caught in the middle
With Islamist pitted against Alawi, Syrian operatives scouting for FSA members and a growing refugee problem, members of the city’s large Sunni population are somewhat caught in the middle.
The stories they hear and images flooding in from nearby Homs are clearly disturbing, but worries that a power vacuum would provoke a civil war arouse painful memories.
“We had a long and bloody war here and we don’t want this to happen again,” says Bader Hassoun, owner of the city’s well-known soap factory Khan Saboun.
“But this is going to go on for some time. All the leaders of the different groups are trying to make problems with one another. It’s just how politics works here in Lebanon. Businessmen like me can rise above these silly fights – war is not good for business – but simple people can allow themselves to be drawn into other people’s battles,” Mr Hassoun said.
Already witnessing the growing flood of refugees, Mr Hassoun is concerned that Syrians forced to beg and steal will swamp Lebanon and drive away business.
“There are 25 million people in Syria – if only 2% of their population arrives here in Lebanon, it will be a disaster for us,” he says.
“They should be careful. About 80% of my business is outside of Tripoli. If it gets much worse, people like me will do what the Lebanese do best in troubled times – leave.”