Hariri consolidates his role as uncontested Sunni leader
Supported internally by his community and externally by Saudi Arabia, the Prime Minister now has more room to maneuver.
Hezbollah just did Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his political movement, Al-Mustaqbal, a favor. By implicitly attacking former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in its fight against corruption, Hezbollah seems to have unintentionally helped its rivals.
Hariri recently reconciled with former Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi, who he has been in a bitter feud with for the past three years, and travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he received a warm welcome and promises of political and financial support. With strong support inside the Sunni community and from Saudi Arabia, Hariri now has free reign to stand up to his opponents within the government and restore the equilibrium that Hezbollah and the March 8th camp have been working to tilt in their favor.
Siniora initiated the reconciliation between Rifi and Hariri, which took place on March 12. The move essentially circled the wagons within the Sunni community, which rallied behind Siniora after he was accused by Hezbollah of mismanaging public funds during his tenure as prime minister.
Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority in Lebanon, issued a firm statement saying that the corruption case against Siniora was a “red line” that shouldn’t be crossed. Al-Mustaqbal and former Prime Minister Tammam Salam both also rallied behind Siniora. With the Sunni community coming together, Rifi also voiced his opposition to the corruption case. He did not defend Siniora on a personal basis, but rather as a political and symbolic stance and backed Hariri for the same reasons.
“A smart move”
The consolidation within the Sunni community happened in the context of a by-election in Tripoli that is taking place on April 14 in the wake of a decision by the Constitutional Council to revoke pro-Hariri MP Dima Jamali’s membership to Parliament. Rifi, who was planning to take part in the election, finally decided to withdraw from the race, tipping the odds in favor of the pro-Hariri candidate, who is expected to win.
Jamali has strong backing from former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and former minister Mohammad Safadi, both major players in the northern capital’s political arena. The expectation is that she will have no trouble winning the campaign, especially because the opposing candidate, Taha Naji, a member of the anti-Hariri camp, still hasn’t decided to run.
Many observers of Tripoli’s political scene see Rifi’s decision to join forces with other key players in the northern city to support the Hariri camp as a smart move. “Well aware that his battle was a lost one, as shown through the latest legislative elections [and] not having received any financial support from Saudi Arabia, Mr. Rifi chose to position himself in a stance where he would have more to gain than lose,” writer and analyst Mohammad Allouche said.
By rejoining the Hariri camp, Rifi now has a better chance of advancing his political role in the future and a stronger platform that he can use to pursue his fierce battle against Hezbollah, his preferred political target.
The Saudi call to order
According to several sources, Rifi did not only reconcile with Hariri purely out of political pragmatism, but also because Saudi Arabia was encouraging him to do so. According to these sources, Saudi Arabia is reasserting itself in the Lebanese political scene. The kingdom’s efforts are aimed at sending a clear message to the Sunni community: it’s time to stop the infighting and instead unify in opposition to the increasing influence of Hezbollah.
“The decision of the reconciliation between Saad Hariri and Ashraf Rifi would have not happened spontaneously, but followed the advice of Saudi Arabia and went well beyond the Siniora case,” political analyst Karim Bitar says.
For Kassem Kassir, an analyst close to Hezbollah, Riyadh “does not want to surrender to the rise of influence (of the Party of God) within the Lebanese government. For the Saudis, the solution is to thrive in bringing order and stability inside the Sunni community.”
This message of unity might have been delivered to Hariri during his visit to Riyadh last week, where he also received promises of political backing and support to help get Lebanon out of its economic and financial crises. According to reliable sources, Riyadh is willing to finance development projects in Lebanon and even deposit foreign currency in the Central Bank.
“Like the West, which is unhappy to see the rise of Hezbollah’s influence on the Lebanese internal scene, Riyadh doesn’t any false illusions either: by unifying ranks within the Hariri Sunni front, Saudi Arabia is well aware that it can only feebly weaken the Shiite Party within the government. Hence the priority to reinforce Saad Hariri’s position,” says Allouche.
One thing is for sure: Hariri’s rocky relationship with Saudi Arabia, exemplified by his forced resignation in Riyadh in November 2017, is now in the past. Hariri has been reinstated as the leader of the Sunni community and can now depend on stronger and more consistent external backing.
Hariri demonstrated his new, stronger position by taking a firm stance on the issue of official representation at the Brussels conference regarding the future of Syria when he removed Minister of State for Refugees Saleh Gharib from the guest list.
“Saad Hariri has ignored Mr. Gharib’s complaints and sent a clear message communicating that only the Prime Minister, and no one else, is allowed to talk about this issue,” an analyst close to Sunni circles said.
(This article was originally in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 16th of March)