Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jumblatt shifts with the wind, but so do Lebanese fortunes

It has often been said that where Lebanon goes, Mr Jumblatt follows - although on many occasions the contrary has been true. If so, a look back at his actions in the past few weeks will give us a better sense of the trials and errors this week that have heightened tension in Beirut.

The importance of Mr Jumblatt is that after the 2009 elections, it was his parliamentary bloc that could hand the majority to the Hariri-led March 14 coalition or, conversely, to the rival Hizbollah-led coalition. While the Druze leader's candidates were elected as allies of March 14, Mr Jumblatt was then preparing to move closer to Syria, after having been its most ardent foe following the assassination four years earlier of Rafik Hariri. The acrobat in Mr Jumblatt sensed that because of the Syrian-Saudi reconciliation in early 2009, Mr Hariri would be pushed by Riyadh to reconcile with Syria; therefore, Mr Jumblatt had to do so too, or he would be left hanging out to dry.

From that moment on, Mr Jumblatt was helpless. He had a Canossa to climb in order to regain Syrian approval (and the humiliations came hard and fast), and knew that his community was exposed militarily to Hizbollah, which had attacked Druze mountain villages in May 2008, to Mr Jumblatt's alarm. His parliamentarians were tallied with those of the majority led by March 14, but it was a matter of time before Syria would ask him to go all the way in his new alignments.

Two weeks ago the Hariri government was brought down when Hizbollah's ministers and their allies resigned. This was precipitated by two developments: continuing discord within the government over Hizbollah and Syria's demand that Mr Hariri take measures to sever Lebanon's relations with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to identify and try those involved in the Hariri assassination; and the breakdown in a Syrian-Saudi dialogue over Lebanon that, from Damascus's and Hizbollah's perspectives, was meant to facilitate this severing of relations. But Washington warned the Saudis that they should not endorse steps against the tribunal, and the dialogue ended.

To form a government, the president consults with parliamentary blocs, takes a poll and determines who has the most votes. After the recent government collapse, Hizbollah and its allies vowed that Mr Hariri would not return to office, fearing he would continue stalling on the tribunal. Mr Jumblatt, in contrast, announced that his bloc would nominate Mr Hariri as the most representative Sunni. Consultations were delayed, however, and within days Hizbollah had exerted pressure on Mr Jumblatt to give his votes to the opposition's candidate. Last week, the Druze leader yielded, announcing that he would side with the candidate of "Syria and the resistance", which many people took to mean Omar Karami, a former prime minister.

No comments: