Rifi: Tripoli's new strong man

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Minister of Justice, Ashraf Rifi (R), while he was head of the Internal Security Forces. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Ghassan Saoud

Published Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ministry of Justice, like the Internal Security Forces (ISF), is firmly in Ashraf Rifi’s grip. His heavy-handed actions appeal to the people of Tripoli, who have been frustrated by politicians’ empty promises of big projects for the city that don’t materialize.

On Tripoli’s streets, General Ashraf Rifi’s posters are now plastered not just on public property, but on apartment balconies and roofs as well. Rifi’s transition from sponsoring Tripoli’s street fighters to becoming minister of justice is a significant event in this man’s life, according to those who knows how much he exploited his former position as general director of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) for his political aspirations.

There is now an ongoing competition between the pictures of Rifi and MP Mohammed Kabbara and their supporters in Tripoli’s markets. Kabbara bears more similarities to Rifi than some might think. Neither Rifi’s father nor Kabbara’s were MPs. Neither one owns a bank and neither man’s grandfather was a Mufti. Not only that, both men are far from being religiously devout, a trait that the city’s traditional notables are known for, such as former prime ministers Omar Karami and Najib Mikati. Also both men share the same political ideology, namely, providing services and telling the masses what they love to hear. All of this means that their playing field is identical. Neither Rifi nor Kabbara count on trade unionists, intellectuals or former partisans. Both men go after poorer citizens only occasionally helped by Mikati. Perhaps that is what makes the competition between them so fierce.

Kabbara knows that there are five Sunni parliament seats up for grabs in Tripoli. The electoral victory of Mikati, former Minister of Finance Mohammed al-Safadi, and MP Samir al-Jisr is guaranteed irrespective of the alliances in the city. Rifi is expected to win the fourth seat, which means that Kabbara has to compete with 20 candidates for the remaining seat. He must compete against two former MPs, Mustafa Alloush who, unlike Kabbara, belongs to the Future Movement (FM), and Misbah al-Ahdab, who belongs to the club of March 14 notables.

There are elaborate discussions in Tripoli about former Prime Minister Saad Hariri offering Jisr moral compensation for excluding him from the government by asking him to accompany him to Egypt. No one, however, was concerned with Kabbara’s sentiments. He had hoped that his son-in-law, Ziad al-Qadiri, would be appointed to the cabinet so he can regain the ability to offer services and therefore regain his influence in the city.

In addition to Mikati, Kabbara and Rifi, the Karami family, represented today by former Minister of Sports Faisal Karami, enjoys historical influence. The Future Movement on the other hand is only good for distributing aid or asking for a loan. But when push comes to shove, Tripoli residents resort to one of these four figures for help if they face some kind of crisis.

Therefore, if Mikati agrees to make an alliance with Karami and Kabbara, he can put an end to Rifi’s rising star. Also if Rifi decides to be humble and accept an alliance with Mikati and Kabbara, he can deal a serious blow to the Karami leadership in their main stronghold of Tripoli. If, however, they are divided in pairs, Rifi and Karami on one side and Mikati and Kabbara, on the other, they could very well rip apart Tripoli’s social fabric.

In the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood of Tripoli, the recent rain disrupted the work of the very few merchants that are still able to make a living. The closed shops allude to the stagnation in the area. The economic crisis plays an instrumental role in enabling gang leaders to recruit more fighters despite their failure to achieve tangible victories.

From one garage to another, people’s undocumented conversations are about the recurring civil strife in the city. Here, too, there are nouveaux riches who have profited from Rifi’s patronage. One Salafist leader now owns more than nine residential apartments in Abu Samra in Tripoli. He recently bought a large plot of land in al-Quba area to build a residential complex on it. One of the neighborhood gang chiefs takes advantage of the truce between one combat round and another to tour Europe. Another gang chief bought a residential apartment for his family in al-Maarad in Tripoli as far away from the neighborhood where he fights as possible. Future Movement MPs fight amongst each other so their supporters can get food, social assistance, and other goods meant for Syrian refugees.

Rifi’s priority is still Tripoli according to one of his associates. Imitating the Karami family as opposed to Mikati, he puts the ministry at the service of his leadership. Among the trade unionists generally, and the lawyers and doctors specifically, it is hard to find Rifi supporters except for attorney Tarek Shandab who went from suing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and others left and right, to defending Omar al-Atrash who was arrested in connection with a recent wave of deadly bombings in Lebanon.

As for the security system that he worked so hard to lead single-handedly, he handed it over to retired Colonel Amid Hammoud as soon as he took over the Ministry of Justice. According to security sources, Hammoud is supposed to begin a serious arrangement for this system under Rifi’s supervision excluding undisciplined elements. Tripoli’s security forces can be summed up in two main groups. One with Saudi affiliations headed by Hammoud and the other led by Salafist leader Hussam Sabbagh.

On the popular level, it seems clear that Rifi benefited from the anger of March 8 supporters over his appointment as minister to make the residents of Tripoli feel that they achieved a victory. He also benefits from the public frustration with those of whom much was expected but did not deliver while Rifi, of whom nothing was expected, surprised people. In this context, no one cares about his cover up of violations perpetrated by his family, or how one of his properties infringes on the coast which is public property.

When talking about Rifi and the people under his patronage, one remembers former MP Mohammed Bek Hamza nicknamed, “Mohammed the conqueror.” He was one of the strong men of the 1958 crisis who appealed to the first intelligence man in the history of Lebanon and Syria, Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, so he supplied him with weapons and asked former Prime Minister Rashid Karami to include him in his electoral list in 1960. Karami accepted reluctantly, thinking it is the best way to end the influence of the Mokadem family in the city as Hamza was their son-in-law. Hamza went from driving a bus to driving the masses. His crowning achievement in parliament was launching a new sewage network in the city. The people celebrating had barely made it home and used the bathrooms when the drains were blocked and sewage water flooded the city.

Time seems to repeating itself once again in Tripoli.

Rifi responds to Assad

Rifi does not miss an opportunity to raise his voice and appeal to the masses. Yesterday, he decided to respond to Bashar al-Assad so he tweeted: “It’s none of the business of the president of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to choose a president for Lebanon.” He stressed: “The time of tutelage is over and we will not accept for anyone to mess with Lebanon’s sovereignty and its institutions.”

Yesterday before the cabinet meeting, Rifi said: “The situation with the government statement is not going well.” He pointed out that “things are moving in the direction of the resignation of Prime Minister Tamam Sallam.”

He added: “If the government statement does not mention Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria and eliminating their checkpoints in al-Labweh and Arsal then surely I will voice my reservations.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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