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Lebanese Sunni rivalry heats up as Rifi’s star shines

Ashraf Rifi says Lebanese billionaire Sunni leader Hariri is politically ‘finished’

Image Credit: AP/EPA
Ashraf Rifi, left, and Sa’ad Hariri
Gulf News

Beirut: “There are no channels of communication or any exchange of words or greetings,” declared former commander of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) Ashraf Rifi to the MTV television network as he confirmed that ties with Future Movement leader, the former Prime Minister Sa‘ad Hariri, had been “totally severed”.

“Hariri is finished,” said Rifi in what was an unprecedented political bombshell, adding that Lebanese Sunnis were “awaiting for a new Hariri”.

These sharp words from Rifi, who joined the March 14 coalition after he retired from the powerful ISF and even accepted one of the most critical government portfolios in the Tammam Salam Cabinet, shook the political establishment.

Although accustomed to polarisation, the winner of the early June 2016 Tripoli municipality elections — when he formed an alternative list that defeated Lebanon’s three Sunni billionaires (Hariri, Mohammad Safadi and Najib Mikati) — helped dejected Sunnis open a new page in politics, and permitted him to claim that Hariri had lost his influence in the community.

Rifi resigned from the government on February 21 to protest what he determined was the cabinet’s procrastination in referring the case of former Minister of Information Michel Samaha to the Judicial Council for a retrial. Few doubted his credentials or charisma — a fast speaker that compared favourably with Hariri’s more measured prose — as Rifi took to the airwaves and delivered a series of calculated attacks on senior officials. He said he was a fighter, and that he was ready to battle in order to protect both his principles and the rights of the Lebanese, especially those routinely neglected by the establishment. That message resonated loud and clear in the municipal elections, which Rifi swept to everyone’s surprise.

Buoyed by that victory, an emboldened Rifi took on Hariri, although he reiterated that he maintained ties with Future parliamentary bloc leader, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and other officials, including deputy Bahia Hariri, Saad’s aunt, and Interior Minister Nouhad Al Mashnouq.

On Tuesday, Rifi said he will no longer visit Bayt Al Wasat [Centre House], which is Hariri’s headquarters, adding that he was a Quraytam man not a Bayt Al Wasat Haririan, referring to the headquarters of the slain Prime Minister Rafik Hariri [Quraytam].

Interestingly, Rifi told MTV that senior officials in Saudi Arabia had asked him to “visit Bayt Al Wasat and rescind his resignation from the government”, and that he demurred as a matter of principle. Nevertheless, he emphasised that his relations with high-ranking Saudi officials was characterised by “respect”, and that Riyadh had not tried to “restrict” his political activities.

It was a foregone conclusion, nevertheless, that Rifi emerged as a valuable alternative to Saad Hariri, whose Saudi Oger company ran into serious financial trouble. What remained unclear was Riyadh’s intentions to cut traditional ties with Hariri and replace him with a rising star like Rifi.

On Tuesday, Rifi boasted about his growing influence in the Sunni community. “I am strong in Tripoli and my influence is spreading to Akkar, in which I will have candidates [in the scheduled Spring 2017 parliamentary elections]. I also have a presence in Western and Central Bekaa and I’m rivalling Hariri in Beirut’s third electoral district”.

Rifi ended his interview with two intriguing statements.

He commented on the Interior Minister’s decision to ask the government to ban the Arab Democratic Party and the Islamic Unification Movement faction, both of which were indicted by Judge Alaa Al Khatib for crimes committed on August 23, 2013, when the Al Taqwa and Al Salam mosques in Tripoli were bombed. Rifi noted that “Prime Minister Tammam Salam will not dare to put the disbanding of the two groups on the cabinet’s agenda”, but added: “If he refrains from doing so, I will not hesitate to attack him”.

Second, Rifi hailed the Lebanese Forces (LF) and its leader Samir Geagea, describing the LF chief as “our first ally”. While this was not the first time Rifi praised Geagea — in June 2016, he went so far as to plead for a restoration of the Hariri-Geagea alliance, describing the LF as a “permanent strategic ally in the Christian arena alongside other allies” — this was bound to further upset Hariri. Rifi and Hariri disagreed on the March 14 contender for the presidency, Sulaiman Franjieh, whom Rifi dismissed as a problematic candidate because of established ties with Syria.

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