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Alex Rowell

The battle for Rifi’s successor

A poster in Tripoli shows Future Movement leader Saad Hariri (L) and ISF head Ashraf Rifi, with the slogan, “Such are the men”

That former Prime Minister Najib Miqati brought down his own cabinet on Friday over a failure to agree on the leadership of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) is testament to the extraordinary political significance of the position. As NOW reported last week, MPs from the March 14 coalition as well as the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) had urged cabinet to extend the term of current director-general Major General Ashraf Rifi, who is seen as a political ally of theirs. When the cabinet majority loyal to March 14’s rivals Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement opposed the idea in a session last Friday, Miqati announced his resignation.

 

March 14 is still attempting to extend Rifi’s term, presenting parliament speaker Nabih Berri with a proposed draft law Wednesday that would put the issue to parliament in its next session. But in the event that such efforts fail – as Rifi himself has suggested they will – then a fierce battle over Rifi’s successor may follow.

 

In the wake of Miqati’s resignation, allegations emerged from sources including PSP leader Walid Jumblatt that the March 8 coalition had pushed for controversial former ISF head Gen. Ali al-Hajj to replace Rifi. Indeed, al-Hajj himself proclaimed his entitlement to the position on Saturday. ISF sources, by contrast, told NOW that, according to internal procedure, the post would go to Rifi’s deputy, Inspector Gen. Roger Salem.

 

From March 14’s perspective, few candidates could be less welcome than al-Hajj, whose tensions with the Future Movement date back over more than a decade. Head of security for former PM Rafiq Hariri since 1992, Hajj had come to be distrusted by Hariri over time due to his close ties with Syrian military intelligence. He was thus fired in 2000, after which Syria appointed him head of the ISF in the Beqaa. By 2004, he had risen to the ISF premiership, and incurred Hariri’s further suspicions by reducing his personal protection unit from 40 officers to 8. When Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb the following year, al-Hajj was accused of tampering with evidence at the crime scene, and was arrested in a pre-dawn raid on the orders of Detlev Mehlis, commissioner of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) into Hariri’s killing. Though he was eventually released from prison in 2009 due to lack of evidence, there remains a conviction in March 14 and other circles that he was not fully innocent, with Walid Jumblatt saying Friday that he continues to “consider him politically involved in [Hariri’s] assassination.”

 

Accordingly, should al-Hajj secure nomination to the post, it would likely provoke major objections from March 14. “Al-Hajj cannot take over this position,” Future MP Ahmad Fatfat told NOW. “If we imagine the scenario of al-Hajj coming back to power, we are imagining the return of the Syrian intelligence dominance era.”

 

On the same question, Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab – who, as an early opponent of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, has had his own run-ins with the Damascus regime – told NOW that, “unfortunately, March 8 is trying to put their hands on all the security institutions in Lebanon, and this is not correct and not viable.”

 

Without a cabinet currently in place, however, it’s unclear how al-Hajj would actually obtain nomination. On Wednesday, NOW met with former judicial police commander Gen. Anwar Yehya at the ISF’s military beach club in Ras Beirut, who said ISF rules clearly dictate that, as the next-highest ranking official after Rifi, Inspector Gen. Roger Salem will take over as director-general when Rifi steps down on April 1, until Salem himself reaches the maximum age of 59 on June 13. Al-Hajj’s claims that he outranks Salem, Yehya added, were invalidated by an April 13, 2005 decree to cancel al-Hajj’s ISF position and move him to the Interior Ministry.

 

“The only way for al-Hajj to become director-general is if a cabinet is formed and it meets and agrees to appoint him by a two-thirds majority,” Yehya told NOW. By implication, the March 8 coalition would need to make up at least two-thirds of the next cabinet – a prospect that looks improbable amid the various current proposals for non-partisan “unity,” “salvation,” and technocratic cabinets.

 

Assuming al-Hajj is not appointed, there remains the question of who will replace Salem in June. Yehya told NOW that, as next-highest in rank, the post would go to Brigadier Gen. Ibrahim Basbous, who will remain eligible for office for another year at his current rank, and two more if he is promoted to Major General.

 

While Yehya declined to discuss the political leanings of Salem and Basbous, he remarked that Rifi is unlikely to have appointed successors to whom he is personally opposed.

 

If this is the case, the ISF may well remain amicable to March 14 for the foreseeable future after all.

 

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

The Internal Security Forces, hitherto considered a March 14 asset, may soon be headed by a staunch March 8 ally. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

“Al-Hajj cannot take over this position,” Future MP Ahmad Fatfat told NOW. “If we imagine the scenario of al-Hajj coming back to power, we are imagining the return of the Syrian intelligence dominance era.”