Michael Young/What Christians mean to Walid Jumblatt

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What Christians mean to Walid Jumblatt
Michael Young| The Daily Star

28 August/14
Walid Jumblatt has faced a wave of criticism in recent days over his comments on the presidential election. For the Druze leader, Lebanon needs a president quickly, and he recently observed that the presidency did not belong solely to the Christians. On Monday, in a speech in Bsharri, the parliamentarian Strida Geagea expressed her “surprise” at Jumblatt’s comments, asking “would [he] accept that the head of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, discuss the number of Druze parliamentary seats with the speaker of Parliament?”
Geagea’s comparison was very odd. In constitutional terms, the president is “the symbol of the nation’s unity,” so Jumblatt, like anyone else in the country, is entitled to talk about the presidency without this in any way undermining the foundations of the National Pact, as Geagea implied. If a vacuum in the presidency negatively affects Lebanon’s stability, then it is not Maronites alone who are entitled to address and remedy the situation. But reactions such as Geagea’s also show a lack of understanding of what sustains Jumblatt’s power. The Druze leader, while he exerts control over Christians in the areas he represents, is also dependent on their being effective political actors nationally. Once Christians are marginalized – so that major national decisions are taken principally by Sunni and Shiite representatives – Jumblatt and the Druze will be too.
That’s why, at their last meeting, Jumblatt warned Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, that Christians and Druze were leaving Lebanon, implying that a presidential void would only heighten insecurity and accelerate the process. And it is why Nasrallah, who has shown little sympathy for the rules and compromises of the sectarian system, and no appreciation that a Christian cushion between Sunnis and Shiites benefits both communities at a time of rising mutual tension, evaded an answer. The Maronite relationship with Jumblatt is a complex one. Many have not forgotten that the Druze leader, when he sought to improve his relationship with the Shiite community and the Syrian regime in 2009, apparently leaked a video taken on a portable telephone in which he referred to the Maronites as a “bad type” or “bad seed.” The description was harsh, even if Jumblatt’s reversal was understandable at the time, coming at a moment when Saad Hariri, at the Saudis’ instigation, was about to begin a reconciliation process with President Bashar Assad.
The paradox of Jumblatt leadership is that it has tended to work against the Maronites while depending upon them. Kamal Jumblatt was instrumental in bringing Camille Chamoun to power in 1952, though he was soon caught up in a bitter rivalry with the president. And when Fouad Chehab succeeded him in 1958, Jumblatt became a staunch ally, serving several times as a minister. The Jumblatts’ ability to gain from inter-Christian divisions has been a recurring feature of their strategy; but their preference for nonpartisan presidents has also been very clear.
That is why Jumblatt made such a big deal of his political alliance with President Michel Sleiman. To Sleiman’s credit he immediately understood this, and saw that the presidency gained by allying itself with Jumblatt in the political center. This explains why one of Sleiman’s last high-profile visits was to Mukhtara. It served as an endorsement of Jumblatt’s role as a balancer in the system and someone who could counter the extremes. Significantly, Sleiman saw a similar role for the presidency.
Jumblatt and the Druze would potentially pay for Sunni-Shiite conflict on two levels: They would be caught up in a battle taking place all around their mountains, and even several areas within. This would devastate the already vulnerable mountain economy, spurring a Druze exodus. And such an exodus would effectively terminate the Jumblatt leadership.
That explains why Jumblatt, whose militia was responsible for the expulsion of Christians from the mountains in 1983, took the lead in bringing them back once the war had ended. Economically speaking, the Christian return helped revive the mountain, while the Jumblatt leadership only lost by being perceived as having only narrow Druze appeal. Jumblatt has always sought to portray himself as the leader of a broad coalition of Druze, Sunnis and Maronites, and his insistence on keeping Henri Helou in the presidential race is a sign of this.
That is why Strida Geagea’s comments showed impetuous disdain for Jumblatt’s approach to confessional politics, even as her remarks revealed that the Geageas have not forgiven the Druze leader for failing to back Samir Geagea’s candidacy. Jumblatt’s perennial quest to keep alive his traditional family domination in the mountains has earned him many enemies, not least among Christians who may form a majority there. Walid Jumblatt may not be a modern democrat but he has done two things in the areas he controls that are worth remembering. He has chosen for his lists non-Druze who have local legitimacy and a measure of representativity; and he has preserved confessional coexistence. It has been in his political interest to do so, but that does not make his efforts any less credible.
Rarely a day goes by without Christians lamenting their future in the Middle East. If so, those who claim to worry about the Christians must realize that in a country where they still hold a major political post, the community as a whole loses if the presidency remains empty and comes to be regarded as unnecessary. When Jumblatt echoes this, he is not ignoring the National Pact. He is reminding Christians of its importance.
***Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.