Is Saad Hariri’s grasp on Lebanon’s Sunni community faltering?

A poster depicting Sunni politician Ashraf Rifi (C) is seen among posters of Lebanese candidates that were running in Tripoli's municipal and mayoral elections, Lebanon, May 30, 2016. (Reuters)

Lebanon’s municipal elections this year unfolded with several plot twists and turns, as well as some more predictable outcomes.

Municipalities across the country have typically been elected with the usual suspects - such as the Saudi-backed Future Movement lead by Saad al-Hariri - being placed on the ballot.

This year proved to be different, as a number of different coalitions and parties rivaled the traditional Hariri list, namely that of former Future Movement-affiliated and former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi.

Rifi’s list secured 18 out of the 24 seats allocated on the municipal council in the northern city of Tripoli - a Sunni stronghold that has long been loyal to the Hariri coalition - in a move dubbed as the “Rifi Tsunami” by Lebanese newspaper Al-Joumhouriya.

This shift in power ushers in a new era of leadership among Sunnis in Lebanon. Election results in the capital Beirut and in Tripoli further solidified the fact that the Future Movement's  leader Hariri’s popularity is at an all-time low.

“Rifi has the presence and power to change the electoral equation by making alliances with Islamist powers in the North [of Lebanon],” political analyst Amine Ammourieh told Al Arabiya English this week.

“Then he can secure seats in Tripoli, Akkar and other northern cities – thus establishing himself in the political playing field in Lebanon,” he added.

Lebanon's former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri greets his supporters after casting his ballot at a polling station during Beirut's municipal elections, Lebanon, May 8, 2016. REUTERS

Lebanon's former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri greets his supporters after casting his ballot at a polling station during Beirut's municipal elections, Lebanon, May 8, 2016. REUTERS

Civilian-led grassroots campaigns such as ‘Beirut Madinati’ and ‘Baalbek Madinati’ have tried, and failed, to secure seats in their respective municipal councils, but succeeded in placing a dent in a political system driven by sectarianism and corruption.

Foreign interference

According to Ammourieh, external forces are pulling the strings in regards to swinging Sunni leadership in the country, thus allowing Rifi to pressure Hariri.

In a television interview on a political talk show, Lebanon’s interior minister Nohad al-Mashnouq indirectly criticized Saudi Arabia for the current state of affairs in the country and for Hariri’s decline in popularity among the Sunni community.

Mashnouq also attributed this decline to Hariri’s determination to keep lines of dialogue open with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah party.

Political analyst Ahmad Ayyash placed Future Movement’s municipal election loss in Tripoli down to Hariri’s “persistence on forming alliances with traditional forces in Tripoli, which are going against public opinion – which, in turn, is leaning towards confrontation in Syria and with Hezbollah.”

The GCC and Saudi Arabia’s recent categorization of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization goes hand-in-hand with Rifi’s opinion of the political party and militia.

This was made clear after the infamous Michel Samaha trial in January. The former minister of information - who is known as having ties to Hezbollah - was found guilty of smuggling explosives from Syria into Lebanon and planning attacks within the country in August 2012.

He was released on bail in January 2016, in a controversial move that caused a stir in the country. Rifi, who was the justice minister at the time, threatened to resign if Samaha was granted bail. Rifi later followed through with his threat.

Lebanon's Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi speaks in his office in Beirut in this May 8, 2014 file photo. Rifi on February 21, 2016 announced his resignation, blaming political rivals Hezbollah and their allies for the country's political crisis, which has seen it without a president for 21 months and paralysed state institutions. REUTERS

Lebanon's Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi speaks in his office in Beirut in this May 8, 2014 file photo. Rifi on February 21, 2016 announced his resignation, blaming political rivals Hezbollah and their allies for the country's political crisis, which has seen it without a president for 21 months and paralysed state institutions. REUTERS

“He was expecting all who were part of his coalition [the Future Movement] and those leaning towards a similar political ideology to back him, such as Future Movement-backed ministers, but that did not happen,” Ayyash told Al Arabiya English. “Thus, a lesion was formed, which lead to Rifi’s resignation and his distancing from the coalition.”

“Now we are talking about a problem that has been going on for months, with rifts showing between members who pledged their allegiance to the same coalition that Rifi supports.

"Rifi's line of action in confronting political realities in Lebanon - which Hezbollah has a firm hold on - was more decisive,” Ayyash added.

New face, same tactics?

Lebanon has been classified as the most corrupt Arab country in the world, as well as ranking number 127 (out of 140 countries) in terms of public trust in its politicians according to the Global Competitiveness Index 2015-2016.

This has been evident through the garbage crisis that has plagued the country for over a year, as well as the generally bitter political mood among citizens.

“With regards to Lebanon, the country does not need any more sectarian leaderships but rather proper, political leaderships,” Ammourieh said of Rifi’s rise in the political arena. “Unfortunately, even the political leaders are fueling sectarian mentalities.”

While that may be the case, some view Rifi’s entering of the political fray as a welcome addition, with regards to establishing a healthy democratic process in the country.

“His [Rifi’s] presence is a positive one because we need voices, even though they are in opposition to other parties,” Ayyash said. “Politics – in any country – cannot work without confrontation, opposing sides and different mindsets.”

“We are witnessing a new era,” he continued. “Whether it is good or bad is up to the Lebanese people to determine. The fact of the matter is, Rifi has risen in the political ranks. Can we deal and negotiate with him regardless of who supports him and who backs him?”

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Last Update: 09:05 KSA 12:05 - GMT 09:05
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