Jumblatt, or the burden of reinvention


When Walid Jumblatt visited Hassan Nasrallah recently in a catacomb of Beirut’s southern suburbs, he took with him two books, Tariq Ali’s “The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power” and Ahmed Rashid’s “Descent into Chaos,” about America’s failure at nation-building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

Jumblatt’s message could be read in several ways. To fortify his improved relations with Hizbullah, he might have been telling Nasrallah that both had a common enemy in Sunni extremism, particularly that coming from South and Central Asia. Or he could have been warning that if Hizbullah ever went too far, the extremist counter-reaction would sweep everyone away. Whatever the Druze leader was trying to say, it was symptomatic of the ambiguities he is navigating through today.

Jumblatt’s realignment toward Syria has been the source of much speculation, and irritation, among supporters of the March 14 coalition. In some respects this is justified. Jumblatt is like a pendulum: When he swings in one direction, he tends to go all the way before he can start swinging back again. His reconciliation with Hizbullah and the Shiite community, understandable in itself, somehow had to be accompanied by the less understandable criticism of his Christian allies in the majority and his denigration of the “Lebanon first” slogan of Saad Hariri, so that in his interview last week with the pro-opposition daily Al-Akhbar, he declared that “Lebanon first” meant “the encirclement of Syria.”

Some believe that Jumblatt wagered on an opposition victory during the June 7 elections. It was probably more subtle than that. Jumblatt hoped to hold, with Nabih Berri, the balance in a new Parliament, through a “centrist” bloc friendly to Syria in which he would have played a leading role. In this way, Jumblatt could have situated himself at the nexus point of several relationships – that between March 14 and the opposition, between Hizbullah and Syria, between Syria and Iran, between the Saudis and the Syrians, between President Michel Sleiman and Michel Aoun, and certainly more – in order to continue playing a vanguard political role, thereby staying ahead of the curve and remaining relevant.

Jumblatt has been at the center of the political stage for so long that it’s difficult to grasp how intense has been his struggle against irrelevance. By any normal benchmark, Lebanon’s Druze would be an afterthought were it not for Jumblatt’s political gymnastics during the past three decades. It has often been said, quite correctly, that to understand the Druze lea­der’s behavior, we should memorize a simple theorem: Jumblatt’s actions are defined by two purposes, defense of the Druze and defense of Jumblatti control over the Druze. However, implicit in both clauses is that Jumblatt must labor constantly to persuade everyone that he and his community are major pla­yers, when everything suggests otherwise.

The elections were a setback for Jumblatt. His banking on a balancing role in Parliament was dashed when Hizbullah voted massively in favor of Aoun, in the process denying Berri, Jumblatt’s partner, any independent Shiite role. One of the subtexts in the voting was that Syria proved unable to gain ground with respect to its Iranian ally, so that the project of a “centrist bloc” closer to Damascus, as a counterweight to Hizbullah’s “pro-Iranian bloc,” went nowhere. Personally, Jumblatt also saw the size of his bloc shrink. He lost Ayman Shouqair in Baabda after having ceded seats to his Christian partners in both Aley and the Chouf, which is what has principally fed his rancor against them.

Jumblatt has spent more than a year preparing his realignment. For some time he sensed that the pillars of his post-2005 strategy were collapsing. The door to a settlement with Syria, which Jumblatt probably would have welcomed as early as late 2005, was closed early on. So the Druze leader came to depend on a combination of American support for March 14 during the Bush years, the rivalry bet­ween Saudi Arabia and Syria, the international probe of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, and the belief Hizbullah would not act militarily against its fellow Lebanese.

In May 2008 Hizbullah did precisely that, attacking Jumblatt in Aley and the Chouf. Washington stood by, unable to do anything. Meanwhile, the Hariri investigation remained in the doldrums and the release of the four generals in April persuaded Jumblatt that no leverage could be sought there anymore. Barack Obama’s decision to engage Syria, like the Saudi reconciliation with the Assad regime, left the Druze leader with no regional or international crutch to lean on against the Syrians. So Jumblatt decided he would reinvent himself as someone friendly to Damascus, hence his electoral calculations. When Hizbullah dented his ambition, the Druze leader had no choice but to stay the course.

Jumblatt began by declaring his opposition to any privatization plans for the new government, his tried and tested bargaining method with a prime minister to preserve his own share of the state patronage pie, the essence of political power in Lebanon. He then became more active on the Syrian front. Having failed to play the parliamentary balance, he could at least make it appear like he was the one lighting Saad Hariri’s path to Damascus. This he did by taking a series of steps to show the Syrians that he was back in their fold, of which mocking the “Lebanon first” slogan was but one example. He met this week with the Syrians’ Druze creation Wi’am Wahhab, after receiving in early July a delegation from Ahmad Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is really little more than a branch of Syria’s intelligence service.

This vanguard role has come with a price. Jumblatt is more isolated than ever from his March 14 allies, and he is increasingly distrusted by the Sunni community, which means that when he ascends to Damascus he will do so with few cards in hand to preserve his political maneuverability, and very much respectability. The Druze will doubtless follow him, but in their majority they are convinced neither by the rapprochement with Hizbullah nor the turnaround on Syria – particularly four years after Jumblatt declared that his antagonism toward its regime made him comfortable with respect to the memory of his father, whom the Syrians murdered.

Jumblatt’s shifts over the years have been dizzying, but his rationale has usually been sound. A Sunni-Shiite war would indeed sweep the Druze away, which is why he believes the community must be on good terms with both sides. Jumblatt can’t stand alone against Syria, hence his looming visit to Damascus, or Canossa. But once all is said and done, we should accept that Walid Jumblatt remains a man at the shadow’s edge, his acrobatics an effort to avoid being swallowed up by the darkness. If that were to happen, he realizes better than most, no one would ask twice about him or his community.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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american lebanese living in BEIRUT
american lebanese living in BEIRUT
14 years ago

Jumblatt, or the burden of reinvention I have to ask you one question — WHY when jumblatt seeks alliance with HEZBOLLAH and SYRIA – to strengthen himself and his people….it is looked at like a TACTIC and is justifed by you …..and it is simply “ok”. BUT – -when GENERAL MICHEL AOUN did this …(from a long time ago as he reads politics better than anyone) …he is always villified by you in yr articles ?????????? When I started reading yr article I was expecting the same kind of ATTACK you always use on AOUN — for allying with HEZBOLLAH…but… Read more »


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