Friday, September 16, 2011

Jumblatt’s Sunni disposition

To write that Walid Jumblatt is shifting political direction is a conspicuous waste of perfectly good words. Changeability, we know, is par for the course with the Druze leader. And Jumblatt’s acrobatics, particularly his efforts to curry favor with a Sunni community from which he has been alienated for months, were always expected.

Jumblatt’s most recent foray into defending the Sunnis was his response to Patriarch Bechara al-Rai, who publicly warned last week that the Muslim Brotherhood might win out in Syria if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad were to fall. Jumblatt described Rai’s statement as “inaccurate,” and was rewarded with condemnation from the patriarch’s partisans. Jumblatt was right, but to compensate for his disapproval and preserve good relations with the Maronites, he prepared a warm Druze welcome for Rai on his tour of the North Metn and the Chouf, and will reportedly visit the patriarch soon.

There are two principal reasons why Jumblatt cannot endure lasting Sunni resentment: Lebanese parliamentary elections and the Druze leader’s view of the long-term interests of his community.

Jumblatt’s influence is closely tied in to the size of his bloc in parliament. The Druze leader knows well that his political representation is exaggerated, given his community’s scant numbers. What lets Jumblatt punch above his weight is the current election law, which allows him to dominate in the Chouf and Aley districts, and at one time gave him a significant say in Baabda. However, in the Chouf Sunnis form a third of the electorate (with the Druze and Maronites each making up a third), and in 2009 they were numerically the largest single voting bloc. For Jumblatt to have his way in the district, since he can never be sure of how the recalcitrant Christians will lean, he must guarantee that Sunnis stay on his side.

That’s not all. Two of Jumblatt’s closest Druze collaborators, the parliamentarians and ministers Ghazi al-Aridi and Wael Abu Faour, were essentially elected in 2009 on Sunni-dominated lists backed by Saad al-Hariri: Aridi in Beirut and Abu Faour in the West Bekaa. Were Jumblatt to enter the 2013 elections on bad terms with Hariri and the Sunnis, the pair would almost certainly fail to be re-elected, representing a major setback for the Druze leader.

In parallel, between now and election time expect Jumblatt to lead efforts to undermine an election law based on proportionality. Such a law would threaten the Druze leader’s tight hold on the mountains. Nor will he be alone. Lebanese election laws grant winning candidate lists all the seats in voting districts. This system favors major politicians and factions—who in turn perpetuate the system.

Beyond elections, however, Jumblatt has long regarded it a strategic necessity for the Druze to be allied with the Sunnis in Lebanon and outside. Quite sensibly, he has grasped that a minority like his only gains by tying itself to the community forming a majority in the Arab world. This partly explains Jumblatt’s reflexive recourse to Arab nationalist symbolism, but also his persistent efforts to situate his actions, when possible, in the context of an Arab consensus. During the postwar period, and until 2004, he managed to maneuver with ease because Saudi Arabia and Syria, and with them most Arab states, were on the same wavelength in Lebanon.

More prosaically, Jumblatt is well aware that a close affiliation with the Sunnis opens doors to Saudi Arabia and the vast resources allowing the Druze leader to exercise his power of patronage. Jumblatt sounded appropriately glum earlier this year when he announced that the Saudis had severed their ties with him following his break with Saad al-Hariri. That was indeed costly—and yet Jumblatt had positioned himself at the crossroads of a Syrian-Saudi deal to neutralize the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, urging Hariri to endorse such an arrangement. In the end it was to no avail.

For now Jumblatt is inching closer to the Sunnis, but he’s not there yet. He faces several obstacles. The first is that Syria and Hezbollah are not pleased with his realignment, so that his relations with both have noticeably cooled. However, the Druze leader will not permit a full-fledged divorce. The notion that he will return to March 14 seems almost absurd. Jumblatt aims to mend fences with Hariri specifically, but he has no interest in fully reintegrating a cumbersome coalition that would limit his latitude to pursue his own agenda.

Moreover, Jumblatt holds the balance of power in parliament. He can hand the majority either to March 14 or to Hezbollah and the Aounists depending on how his bloc votes. The Druze leader will not soon surrender such leverage, which requires him to play March 14 and the Hezbollah-Aoun alliance off against one another.

A second obstacle for Jumblatt is the uncertainty surrounding Saad al-Hariri’s intentions. Rumors have been swirling about the former prime minister’s political future, his cash flow problems and even his relations with Saudi Arabia. Whatever the truth, Hariri has been perplexingly absent for months, probably because the Saudis don’t want him in Beirut during the Syrian uprising. This makes planning difficult for his allies—and for Jumblatt, who needs to discern better where Hariri stands before preparing his next move.

It’s a sign of how bad things are in Syria that Walid Jumblatt is slipping out from the Assads’ embrace while still relatively confident that he is not a top priority for assassination. Nonetheless, the Druze leader must be careful. The Assads don’t forgive or forget. Jumblatt will pursue his balancing act with the precipice rarely far away.

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