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Securing the Saudi Vote in Lebanon

4 MINS READJun 10, 2016 | 09:02 GMT
Securing the Saudi Vote in Lebanon
Saudi Arabia and Iran have jockeyed for influence for some time in Lebanon, whose failure to select a president makes it particularly vulnerable to exploitation. The rise of Ashraf Rifi (pictured) may give Riyadh the edge.
(JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon has been in a state of upheaval for years. Since former President Michel Suleiman left office in 2014, the country's two main political blocs have failed dozens of times to agree on a suitable successor. The Sunni-dominated March 14 Alliance, backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Shiite-dominated March 8 Alliance, backed by Iran, remain at loggerheads over the country's future leader. Throughout the negotiations, Hezbollah, a powerful force in the March 8 Alliance, has been a particular sticking point, renouncing any candidate but its own, Michel Aoun. Saudi Arabia and Iran, meanwhile, are using their influence to ensure that Lebanon's next president represents their interests. As increasingly hard-line leaders in the March 14 Alliance take a tough stance on Hezbollah, Lebanon's political scene is perhaps more polarized than ever.

The shift became apparent after May municipal elections in Beirut and in the northern city of Tripoli. According to the results of the elections, March 14 Alliance leader Saad al-Hariri's popularity is at an all-time low. Al-Hariri took a conciliatory approach to Hezbollah, even going so far as to nominate March 8 Alliance member Suleiman Frangieh last December to possibly fill Lebanon's long-vacant presidency. But Hezbollah was not as open to compromise. The group rejected al-Hariri's candidate and maintained its support for a different March 8 Alliance nominee. For many Sunni voters, the foiled attempt at cooperation reaffirmed both the futility of trying to negotiate with Hezbollah and the need for a leader who will stand up to the group.

Saudi Arabia agrees. Al-Hariri's placatory attitude toward Hezbollah did little to advance Riyadh's objectives in Lebanon, and the group continues to stalemate efforts to install a new president. Consequently, Saudi Arabia is looking to other Sunni leaders to supersede al-Hariri and better promote the country's interests. So far, the most promising prospect is Ashraf Rifi, whose municipal list won out over al-Hariri's in the Tripoli election. Rifi, a former police chief, has already demonstrated his opposition to Hezbollah. Earlier this year, he resigned as Lebanon's justice minister in protest over the group's disproportionate influence in the country.

In addition to his views on Hezbollah, Rifi embodies Saudi Arabia's other goals for Lebanon. For instance, he hopes to unite the March 14 Alliance's Sunni and Christian constituents, facilitating Riyadh's ambition to hold sway with both communities. Furthermore, he is trying to reinstate the alliance between the Future Movement and Lebanese Forces parties. After al-Hariri proposed Frangieh for presidency in lieu of Samir Geagea — Lebanese Forces' leader and the March 14 Alliance's original pick — ties between the two parties deteriorated. Al-Hariri hoped that Hezbollah would back Frangieh and pave the way to a new president. Yet to restore his coalition's unity and strength, which Frangieh's nomination undermined, Rifi is advocating a return to Geagea as the March 14 Alliance's selection. Though Saudi Arabia initially approved of Frangieh as a nominee, it now appears to advocate a harder line with Hezbollah.

Among Lebanon's Sunni population, Rifi is quickly gaining ground; in the Tripoli elections, the country's Muslim Brotherhood affiliate withdrew its support for al-Hariri in favor of Rifi. But it is unclear whether Rifi will be able to win the favor of Lebanon's Christian community. No Christian candidates appeared on his winning municipal list. In fact, Rifi has capitalized on the belief among Sunnis that Shiites and Christians hold inordinate power in the country, gaining staunch Sunni support as a result. Rifi may have trouble finding common ground with other religious communities, and his rise to prominence in the Sunni community could exacerbate sectarian divisions in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, al-Hariri's hands may be tied. During a recent meeting with al-Hariri, French President Francois Hollande advised him to endorse Hezbollah's presidential candidate, Michel Aoun. France understands that more instability awaits Lebanon if the March 14 Alliance does not cede to some of Hezbollah's wishes. For Lebanon's Sunni community, however, compromise is no longer an option. And for Riyadh, neither is al-Hariri — for now. 

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