Since his term ended on April 1, the former head of the Internal Security Forces, or ISF, Gen. Ashraf Rifi has been considering his options, even as his case has epitomized the institutional deadlock gripping Lebanon. Two questions are interesting when it comes to Rifi: First, will he go into politics, as many expect? And second, is there any chance he will be reinstated as the head of the ISF?
Both questions underscore the vacuum in Lebanon that has prevailed for the past year. After Wissam al-Hassan was assassinated in October, Lebanon’s most cohesive security apparatus was left without any obvious successor to Rifi, who was nearing retirement age. Moreover, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s effective exile from Lebanon following his ouster in January 2011 – an exile partly self imposed, partly encouraged by his political foes – has left the March 14 coalition, and especially Lebanon’s Sunnis, leaderless.
The possibility that Rifi will be reinstated at the head of the ISF remains very uncertain. A number of March 14 politicians have demanded that his reappointment be included in upcoming parliamentary discussions. They have linked this to the extension of the mandate of Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, which is set to expire in September when he reaches retirement age.
The primary cause for the collapse of the Mikati government was the issue of extending Rifi’s term. When Prime Minister Najib Mikati failed to garner a majority for an extension, he submitted his resignation. Roger Salem succeeded Rifi as interim chief, but had to step down in June as he too had reached retirement age. Salem was then replaced by Ibrahim Basbous. However, a final appointment awaits the formation of a new government.
Legally, Rifi’s reinstatement presents complications. The draft law raising the retirement age for military and security personnel is to be discussed in Parliament. This law, if passed, would automatically extend the Army chief’s mandate as of September. While the law would also theoretically allow for Rifi to return to the ISF, any appointment remains the prerogative of Lebanon’s executive authority, in other words the Cabinet.
Consequently, even if an extension was approved, it is unlikely that Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, who is still struggling to form a Cabinet, would find a way to reappoint Rifi without risking a new government collapse. When I asked Rifi recently if he would accept such an arrangement, he suggested that his days as the head of ISF were now behind him. Any talk of reinstating him was therefore counterproductive.
The political role that Rifi can play is potentially more constructive. Rifi is widely respected for his accomplishments at the head of the ISF. During his term, over 40 Israeli spy cells were reportedly uncovered and Fatah al-Islam was disbanded. In January 2008, the ISF was instrumental in uncovering and analyzing the mobile telephone networks used by the assassins of Rafik Hariri. Wissam Eid, the officer behind the discovery, was murdered after the evidence was handed over to international investigators.
And last August, the ISF uncovered a bomb plot said to be planned by the former minister Michel Samaha, in which senior Syrian regime officials were implicated. Their intention was allegedly to target Sunni political figures and ignite sectarian tensions. Indeed, some believe that the revelation may have cost Wissam al-Hassan his life.
While the politics of compromise are inevitable in Lebanon’s pluralistic political system, Ashraf Rifi’s uncompromising attitude in favor of the Lebanese state and its institutions might represent a game changer. In October, when the six-month period that bars former security and military officials from running for office ends, Rifi will be eligible to stand for elections. His future participation could otherwise be envisaged through a cabinet appointment.
Rifi’s formal integration into the March 14 system, and specifically that of the Future Movement, may lead to his independence being curtailed. March 14 is an ailing coalition that is struggling to maintain public appeal and credibility, and Rifi may see no interest in allowing himself to be transformed into a mere accessory of the coalition, particularly in Tripoli, where he remains popular and could become a major political force. So, Rifi may gain much more by striking out on his own, even as he maintains friendly ties with March 14.
Tamer Mallat is the editor in chief of ArabsThink.com and a law student at Sciences-Po in Paris, where he is president of the Arab World association. He tweets @tmallat. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.