Friday, February 24, 2012

Will Walid lead?

One evening, in January 2006, while I was interviewing Walid Jumblatt in Mukhtara, his telephone rang. He spoke for around five minutes, while an extra 10 were set aside for a succession of increasingly florid goodbyes. Closing the phone, Jumblatt apologized. “Those were Druze from the Golan calling me,” he explained.

At the time, Jumblatt was a virtual prisoner of his residences, as his conflict with the Syrian regime was in full swing. And yet, I thought, this had not prevented Syria’s Druze—under Israeli occupation, perhaps, but keen to stress their loyalty to Damascus all the more for it—from calling an arch-enemy of Bashar al-Assad to inquire about his health. The incident was not much to go on, but it did indicate to me that the Lebanese Druze leader perhaps had more influence among his Syrian coreligionists than most non-Druze knew. 

In recent months, Jumblatt has intensified his condemnations of the Assad regime, and its brutality. This week, in an editorial in his party’s weekly Al-Anbaa newspaper, Jumblatt urged the Druze in Syria to take the side of the revolution. “Beware you Arab strugglers in the Druze mountain against yielding to the Shabbiha in confronting your brothers in Syria and becoming like Israel’s border guards.” This was a reference to those Israeli Druze often stationed at Israel’s border crossings, and who are notorious for their harshness.

This week Jumblatt called for, and participated in, a vigil at Samir Kassir square in downtown Beirut in support of the Syrian uprising. Alongside him were several of his Druze parliamentarians. Jumblatt’s stance has contrasted starkly with those of two other Lebanese Druze leaders, Talal Arslan and the rather less elevated Wiam Wahhab, who have continued to endorse Assad rule.

Jumblatt’s maneuvering is revealing. Undoubtedly, there is an element of political and sectarian calculation in his actions. If the Syrian regime collapses, the Lebanese Druze leader would appreciate gaining a greater say in the affairs of the Syrian community. There are an estimated 200,000 Druze living in Lebanon. Jumblatt’s ability to extend his sway over a sizable portion of the 300,000 Druze in Syria would not only contribute to his own political survival and that of his son as traditional leaders, it would also provide Lebanon’s vulnerable Druze with significant demographic and geographical depth. 

There are protective reasons as well for Jumblatt’s power plays. If Syria’s Druze were to fall on the wrong side of a post-Assad order, they might suffer dire consequences. In the worst case this could produce an exodus, as it has among minorities in Iraq. A natural destination for Syria’s Druze would be Lebanon. Their arrival in large numbers would represent a heavy economic burden for Lebanon’s community, in an underdeveloped mountain. It might also exacerbate relations between Lebanese and Syrian Druze, and between the Druze and other communities. It would fall on Jumblatt to care for the refugees, a responsibility he would really prefer not to take on.

That is perhaps a reason why Jumblatt has opposed the Assads so vociferously, when he might have been safer remaining on the fence for a bit longer. Evidently, he believes that being ahead of the curve will buy Syria’s Druze—many of whom have participated in the regime’s repression—a measure of protection. Jumblatt has been joined by Muntaha al-Atrash, the daughter of renowned Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who fought against France from 1925 to 1927.  

An irony is that even as Jumblatt has praised the emancipatory impulses of those rebelling in Syria and elsewhere, he has been focused on maintaining his authority over his own community. The Druze leader has been enthusiastic about the Arab revolts, but not enough to see them repeated against Jumblatti domination.

And here we should read a third explanation into Walid Jumblatt’s exertions. As the Druze leader sees things, it’s better for him to ride the desire for radical change in the Arab world to his advantage, rather than cede ground to those who will use the fall of Arab despots as a basis to demand an end to paternalistic communal leaderships. To be fair to Jumblatt, he has done better for the Druze than the Assads, ben Alis and Qaddafis have for their societies, but he also knows that the fragrance of transformation can be heady.

Jumblatt also knows that the rancorous Assads have nothing to lose by getting rid of him. He goes out less than he used to, gambling that they are so busy eliminating their own citizens as to have little time to eliminate adversaries abroad. Jumblatt is playing a risky game, one with the potential to pay great dividends, or bring ruination.

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