Walid Jumblatt, or the poverty of low expectations

By Michael Young

It was a coincidence, but doubtless one many would find illuminating, that Walid Jumblatt was recently reading (and may still be) Rebecca West’s “The New Meaning of Treason.” For the prevalent view among many Christian voters today is that the Druze leader is a compulsive turncoat. A title he is far less likely to be caught with, however, is “Great Expectations.”

Why is that? Because Jumblatt is the rare Lebanese politician who can pretend to national stature, but instead consistently prefers to creep back into the recesses of tribal chieftainship, content with controlling his 200,000-strong Druze community while ensuring that others give him just enough leverage so that he can escape political obliteration. Beyond that, Jumblatt’s ambition falters, the oxygen becomes thinner; the man whose talents are unparalleled among the country’s politicians turns into a shifting manipulator, someone who in a few jagged phrases can demolish the sympathy he spent months carefully building up.

Odder still, or perhaps explaining everything, is how this jars with the political destiny of Jumblatt’s father, whose ego was boundless. Kamal Jumblatt regarded himself as a regional, indeed a universal figure, even as his minority status and Lebanon’s confessional system were glass ceilings against which he repeatedly and frustratingly hit up against. When he finally attempted to break through during the first two years of Lebanon’s civil war, he came too close to the flame: by challenging the sectarian system he also threatened Syrian interests, so Damascus had him liquidated.

Walid speaks of deconfessionalism, but deep down has many doubts. He echoes the rhetoric, but the project is too potentially threatening. Against his father’s hubris he deploys modesty and agnosticism. Frequently daring, Jumblatt can also be too cautious. He looks around and cannot believe that others will accept him as their enduring representative; and yet even the dubious Christians have again and again overcome a sense of betrayal to put their hopes in Jumblatt – first when they forgave him for having them massacred and expelled from the mountains in 1984; most recently after Hariri’s assassination, though Jumblatt had, until the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s mandate, spent three years sniping at the opposition. Then, just as everyone started to believe again, the pendulum swung the other way, the self-destructive streak reappeared, and the man who would have been king instead became a rogue, his evils at times alarmingly exaggerated.

Maybe that’s why Jumblatt won’t move beyond the Druze: he couldn’t stomach the high expectations, and it would undermine his taste for estranging those closest to him. Jumblatt has enough trouble with his own bantam community not to have to worry about the unruly Maronites, the spoken-for Sunnis and the too cumbersome Shiites. Yet were he to realize his power, the product of charisma born of cynicism, and use this to enforce a semblance of personal consistency, Jumblatt could shape Lebanon’s future as easily as did Hariri. He could speak to minority anxieties, profitably use his considerable political capital overseas, and go further in helping dissolve what remains of the war in the minds of his countrymen. Lying at the heart of a network of national relationships – sectarian, political, economic – Jumblatt is nonetheless a reservoir of wasted potential, those watching him realizing they’re in the presence of a dazzling but unreliable seducer.

For example, it is clear that the election law of 2000 was passed thanks to an under-the-table agreement between Jumblatt, Saad Hariri, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Hizbullah, who saw the legislation as an opportunity to protect or expand their power base. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir was kept in the dark on the deal, or key aspects of it. When the initial Hariri list in Beirut did not include enough Christian candidates representing the eastern side of the capital, despite promises made to Sfeir, the Maronite bishops issued their angry (in fact too angry) statement of last week. This was exacerbated by the patriarch’s justifiable sense that the dealmakers, as well as several Qornet Shehwan members, had lied when saying they would support a law based on the qada, or small electoral district.

Had Jumblatt better seen himself as a national leader, he would have avoided sneaking that transaction by. Realizing what fury the pact would provoke among Christians, whose expectations after 15 years of political suffocation were at a peak, he should have offered to talk to the patriarch, indeed insisted on it. The 2000 law offers distinct advantages in eliminating major Syrian allies, and Sfeir would have listened. Instead, the dealmakers sought to impose a fait accompli and Jumblatt must now address a surge in Christian bitterness that could weaken him in Baabda-Aley, eat into the popular vote he receives in the Chouf, and make his and Hariri’s plan to get rid of Lahoud much more difficult.

Describing the determination of An-Nahar publisher Ghassan Tueni, Karim Pakradouni once wrote: “Had he been a mayor, he would have transformed his village into a capital and his municipal mandate into a national mission.” Endowed with a national mission after Hariri’s murder, with his palace at Mukhtara temporarily transformed into an opposition capital, Jumblatt did the contrary: he went back to behaving like a mayor.

Jumblatt is surprised that the Christians are angry. He thinks that offering a seat to the Lebanese Forces in the Chouf bought him some goodwill (though Christians knew the ploy was partly designed to divide them). All is fair in love and politics, so Jumblatt’s astonishment may be defensible. However, the clandestine passage of the election law may have been a maneuver too far. With Michel Aoun back from exile (and pursuing a program of institutionalized Don Quixotism) and Samir Geagea soon to be released from his dungeon, the Christians of Aley, Baabda and the Chouf now have other leaders to look to. Nor will they soon forget how wantonly they were disregarded once the Syrians withdrew. Whatever Jumblatt’s true guilt, he will, unless he concludes a convincing electoral deal with Aoun in the coming days, pay the heaviest price. That’s because unlike Hariri, Berri and Hizbullah, he means the most to Christian voters.

Can Jumblatt change his spots? Probably not: the erratic survivor in him could not coexist with a principled statesman. However, Jumblatt has a clearer sense of what makes Lebanon what it is than most of his peers: he knows it’s more than a Christian refuge, as Geagea might argue; a mere services hub, as the Hariris like to imagine; a fount of anti-Israeli resistance, as Hizbullah fantasizes about; or a system capable of secular overhaul, as Aoun believes. At the midpoint of all these perspectives and somehow alienated from each, Jumblatt embodies the contradiction that is Lebanon, a contradiction born of crashing, clashing impulses. He can’t be Lebanon’s grand unifier because much as he often speaks to the country’s highest qualities, he is also a condensation of its worst defects.