Monday, January 24, 2011

Lebanon: Junblatt Chooses Survival Over Loyalty

As a member of a minority in Lebanon, Druze leader has a history of switching over to the side that best safeguards his interests

By Sami Moubayed
This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 25/01/2011

Due to the confessional system in Lebanon, neither Walid Junblatt, nor any of the more than 200,000 Druze he represents, can ever become president or prime minister. Those posts have to go to Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims respectively.

Junblatt knows that — perhaps too well — and now lives with the fact that if he cannot become ‘king' of Lebanon, then kingmaker would probably be second on his objective list. And for the past 34 years, Junblatt has done exactly just that, helping bring a colourful array of prime ministers to power, while ejecting others with remarkable speed.

That show of streetwise politics was portrayed, par excellence, last Friday when Junblatt abandoned his ally Sa'ad Hariri for Hezbollah.

It was a major reward for the opposition and a severe setback for Hariri. As far as Junblatt was concerned, it was "business as usual." The veteran Druze leader was doing what it takes for him to survive.

His community does not have a numerical majority, however, forcing Junblatt to rely on the blowing wind to enforce his will, whether it is coming from Damascus and Tehran, or Washington DC and Paris. 

At one point in 1977-2005, he did it through a strong alliance with the Syrians, but being the political animal that he is, Junblatt switched sides in 2005, when Syrian-US relations hit rock bottom, and began towing a line that was pro-Bush, and very much critical of Hezbollah.

Although having avidly supported Syria and helped legitimise Syria's presence in Lebanon in the 1990s, Junblatt did not blink when he switched sides after Rafik Hariri's 2005 murder, criticising the Syrians and Hezbollah with the same vigour with which he had praised them, for 15 years.

In 2009, he played a fundamental role in making Sa'ad Hariri prime minister. Junblatt, however, took yet another major U-turn in early 2010, heading to Damascus to mend broken fences with the Syrians and snuggling up to Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah.

Reportedly, the Syrians only forgave him when Junblatt apologised in public and agreed to place his political weight and that of his constituency, at the disposal of the Hezbollah.

Walid Bey — as his friends and allies respectfully call him — has finally abandoned the pro-western March 14 Alliance, which he helped create in 2005. He also lashed out at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that Hariri's team had helped create two years ago, accusing it of being used as a political tool against Hezbollah.

He has ensured that Hariri's chances of a second round at the premiership have sunk. Lebanon's Parliament after all (elected in 2009) is composed of 128 deputies, 57 of which are members of the Hezbollah-led opposition, while 60 are allies of Hariri. Junblatt controls 11 seats, meaning he can bring the opposition's lot up to 68.

Junblatt has realised from experience, that the West is not to be trusted. He had betted on the Americans during his cold war with Syria in 2005-08, but nothing concrete came out of the Bush White House.

Second, Junblatt realised, in May 2008, that no matter what the other camp says or does, Hezbollah has the upper hand, because it is numerically, logistically, politically, and militarily superior to all players in the March 14 Alliance.

What he did on Friday was basically cement his relationship with the "stronger player in Lebanon". Before meeting with Nasrallah on Friday, Junblatt waited to see whether the Emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani would achieve any breakthroughs in Damascus, given that both he and President Bashar Al Assad were trying to salvage the collapsing Syrian-Saudi Initiative for Lebanon.

Originally Junblatt had been of a view that changing Hariri, at this stage in particular, is very unwise because it would transform him into a national hero for Lebanese Sunnis. Forcing him out of the cabinet by having 11 of his ministers walk out on him this January, would do him a great service. Hariri would use and abuse it to tell his followers: "I have been toppled and wronged by the Shiites, and I need your support."

The best way to discredit Hariri is to keep Hariri in power, he felt, and let him commit blunder after blunder, which would slowly break his popularity base in Beirut. In the opposition, however, he cannot go wrong and people would rally around him because they sympathise with leaders who are out of office.

Junblatt, however, has seemingly changed his mind, for a variety of reasons. One is a Hezbollah decision that under no circumstances will they tolerate Hariri again. Second are recent leaks from Lebanon's New TV, in which Hariri spoke very negatively of the Syrians and of Hezbollah during recorded investigations into his father's murder.

It would be madness for Junblatt to continue backing a premier who has lost practically everything, and go down with him. He was neither embarrassed nor reluctant to back out on Hariri just like he backed out on Hezbollah in 2005. The political animal within him, apparently knows what it takes to survive the complex game of Beirut politics.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward magazine in Syria.

No comments:

Post a Comment