Monday, May 19, 2014

In the name of the son - Walid Jumblatt won’t retire in these momentous times

Walid Jumblatt’s remarks to the Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat that he was seriously thinking of staying out of parliamentary elections this year were not the first sign that the Druze leader is preparing a transition to his son Taymour. But Jumblatt’s words notwithstanding, he will remain with us for the foreseeable future.

And yet there are a number of issues that preoccupy Jumblatt and may help explain why he tends to leave a door open, at least in theory, for an exit from the political scene.

As he looks around him, Jumblatt can see that his power is being seriously questioned as communal dynamics take on a direction he cannot control. Since the elections of 2009, and particularly after the removal of Saad Hariri as prime minister, Jumblatt has managed to keep his head above the water only by maneuvering into a central role in the political system.

It was he who helped oust Hariri by helping to bring in Najib Miqati as prime minister. This allowed him to play an axial role through his ability to give a majority to one alignment or the other in parliament, depending on how his bloc voted. By the same token, when Miqati stepped down Jumblatt played a key function in endorsing his successor Tammam Salam, who, like Miqati, gave Jumblatt important service ministries essential to reinforcing the Druze leader’s patronage power.

But these tactical successes could not hide changes elsewhere, and indeed perhaps helped reinforce them. For one, Jumblatt’s pivotal political role provoked much resentment among other politicians, who did not feel the Druze leader merited the power he had accumulated. Jumblatt’s disloyalty toward Hariri significantly damaged relations between the two.

At the same time, Jumblatt can also see that the growing sense of marginalization in the Maronite community is turning to his disfavor. Last year the Maronites led opposition to the 1960 election law, which is essential to Jumblatt’s political survival. While the result was a rift between Hariri and Samir Geagea over the so-called Orthodox proposal, this has since been papered over. But Jumblatt knows there will be another divisive debate over an election law later this year. While the parties are still divided over such a law, the impulse to reach a compromise may well lead to the abandonment of the 1960 law.

Geagea and Hariri are not the only ones who regard Jumblatt as a political irritant. Michel Aoun, too, would welcome nothing more than an opportunity to cut the Druze leader down to size. That is why Aoun has refused to try to persuade Jumblatt to vote for him in the presidential election. The general has made it clear he much prefers an arrangement with Hariri.

It is also why Jumblatt regards a potential Hariri-Aoun deal over the presidency as posing a political threat to him. Not only would he be shunted aside: both men share a yearning to reduce his power. Moreover, two-thirds of the electorate in the Shouf is Christian and Sunni. If Aoun were president and Hariri prime minister, they could use their offices and communal power to weaken Jumblatt in his core district.

Until now, no Hariri-Aoun deal has been reached and may never be. But Jumblatt will not rest until it is definitely buried. However, with Aoun, Hariri, and to a lesser extent Geagea all aligned against Jumblatt, and with the centrists momentarily neutralized by the departure of President Michel Sleiman, the Druze leader’s only option is to lean more on his relationship with Hezbollah. Regional developments may prove him right. 

By most accounts the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany are moving toward a long-term deal with Iran over its nuclear program. While obstacles remain, American officials are optimistic about a successful outcome, and view this as an opening for the United States to address a host of regional issues with Tehran.

The Saudi decision earlier this week to invite Iran’s foreign minister to Riyadh suggests the kingdom is aware that it must either board the train of an Iranian-Western rapprochement, or it may be left on the platform. If Iran emerges as a main interlocutor of the West to resolve regional tensions, above all Syria, Riyadh will have to adapt to the new situation.

Jumblatt may be marginal in this bigger picture, but he cannot afford to miss the possibilities for his own political survival. If Iran gains in regional influence, then it’s more than likely that the Druze leader will reinforce his ties with Hezbollah, even if he also tries to maintain a good relationship with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the statement that he might step down may have been an effort to signal again to the Saudis that his son is on the way, further legitimizing him as a future interlocutor.

An Iranian-Saudi accord could do two things in Lebanon: calm tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and lead to a broader understanding to jointly manage domestic political relations in the country – of which the election of a new president may be a consequence. Jumblatt benefits from Sunni-Shiite harmony, which would facilitate his primary aim in the coming years: to hand over to Taymour, who must take on the Sisyphean task of preserving the traditional Jumblatt leadership in a Lebanon where this increasingly appears anachronistic.

So Jumblatt will be around for some time yet, to navigate through a period of fascinating transformation in the Middle East. His gift is adaptability, but not everyone has it. In the next year we will see who calculated correctly in Lebanon, and who didn’t.

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