The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on November 4 shocked many people. That’s because in the days before his resignation speech from Saudi Arabia, in which he lambasted Hezbollah for “directing weapons” at Yemenis, Syrians, and Lebanese, Hariri had supported compromise with the party. Last year, this approach had facilitated the election of Michel Aoun as president, despite his closeness to Hezbollah, in return for Hariri becoming prime minister of a “consensual” government, but which in reality was dominated by parties close to Iran and Syria.
The circumstances of the resignation were as puzzling. Hariri delivered his resignation speech live on Al-Arabiya, a satellite television channel close to the Saudi monarchy, and insisted that Iran’s “hands” in the region would be “cut off.” At a time of rising tensions between the kingdom and Iran, his comments suggested that the Saudi regime had orchestrated his decision to step down. Hariri and the Saudis had long been close, however the prime minister’s rapprochement with Hezbollah eroded this relationship. The fact that Hariri has not returned to Beirut since his resignation was interpreted as a sign that the Saudis were holding him against his will. In an interview on Sunday, however, Hariri announced he would fly home within days.
Whatever happens now, Hariri’s authority and credibility have been damaged. The man who stands to gain the most from all these developments is Ashraf Rifi, a onetime Hariri ally turned bitter rival after Hariri struck deals with Hezbollah. Last year, he successfully challenged Hariri’s leadership of Lebanon’s Sunnis in northern Lebanon, when he supported a list of candidates that defeated a Hariri-backed list in the municipal elections in the city of Tripoli, a Sunni stronghold. In the days since Hariri’s resignation, Rifi has become more active, posing as a growing force in the Sunni community.
There are several reasons explaining Rifi’s growing prominence. As head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces from 2005 until 2013, he acquired status as well as an experience of state institutions. Having been appointed justice minister in 2014–2016, he is a relatively new and iconoclastic figure in a political landscape dominated by more traditional politicians who have proven unable to deal with the country’s most pressing problems, such as failing electricity production and poor waste management. This provides him with credibility when he states that he wants to collaborate with Lebanese civil society to “change politics” and “put an end to corruption.” Finally, Rifi cultivates an image as a “man of the people,” someone proud to hail from a deprived family background, at odds with the increasingly elitist social base of Hariri’s Future Movement.
Yet Rifi is perhaps best known for his longstanding opposition to Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, and Iran. In the past year, as head of the government, Hariri refrained from criticizing the Shi‘a party too openly. Rifi, in turn, never missed an opportunity to do so. He resigned from the justice ministry in 2016 because of what he called Hezbollah’s “domination” of Lebanon, after that denouncing its construction of a “state within a state” and calling for it to be blacklisted as a terrorist organization. In contrast to “cowardly and frightened” politicians too prone to make compromises with Hezbollah, he branded himself as a soldier entering battle, who was “ready to sacrifice his life” for his ideals. Hariri’s resignation and the Future Movement’s ensuing reversal with regard to the Shi‘a party vindicated his approach. He is now the most vocal Sunni opponent of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and President Michel Aoun.
Rifi’s harsh critique of Hezbollah is certainly popular, with 59 percent of Lebanese holding “unfavorable” views of the party. This enabled him to spend the past summer laying the groundwork for the formation of a cross-sectarian front opposed to Hezbollah’s influence, through meetings with anti-Hezbollah Christian and Druze figures. This process accelerated after the Hariri resignation.
Rifi’s stance on Hezbollah is especially popular with Sunnis, 88 percent of whom reportedly hold negative views of the party. Rifi has also appealed to the sectarian grievances of his coreligionists. Even before Hariri’s resignation, he had stated that “the Sunni community, which is the largest group in Lebanon, is very poor and weak because of the concessions [to Hezbollah], which are not justified.” His populist discourse earns him admirers, as it also stirs Sunni pride.
Yet, despite his rising profile, Rifi so far has failed to show he can be a credible alternative to Hariri. A key reason is that he has not yet convinced Saudi Arabia, the traditional patron of Lebanon’s Sunnis, that it should embrace his bid for leadership. Rifi had “good relations” with Mohammed bin Nayef, who was the main rival of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the Saudi throne. That is perhaps why he has tried to compensate for this by courting the new Saudi leaders. He has written to the United Nations secretary general to denounce UN criticism of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, thanked the kingdom for standing up to Hezbollah and Iran, endorsed a decision to rename a long avenue in Tripoli for the Saudi monarch, and even put up banners in honor of the king’s appointed successor. Since Hariri’s resignation, he has featured frequently in pro-Saudi media. However, all this has yet to translate into official Saudi support.
Such outside backing, though, would be crucial in helping Rifi extend his influence beyond northern Lebanon. He has solidified his power base there, even buying a hospital in Tripoli to provide health services. However, he has also recently faced funding difficulties and, as a result, has had little to offer the majority of Lebanese Sunnis who live outside the northern port city.
There is a risk, however, that as Rifi increasingly competes for Saudi patronage to expand his base, his rhetoric will become ever more confrontational and sectarian, heightening Sunni-Shi‘a hostility. Rifi’s statements to a pro-Saudi newspaper after Hariri’s resignation, according to which the Lebanese stood ready to “confront” the “Iranian project in Lebanon,” may have been meant to secure Riyadh’s support, but they will also fuel mistrust of his agenda and inflame local tensions. That is why, as Ashraf Rifi seeks to become the new leader of Lebanon’s Sunnis, he must begin to tread more carefully.