Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 5 Table of Contents
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May 2001 


dossier Walid Jumblatt
Head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP)

by Gary C. Gambill and Daniel Nassif

Walid Jumblatt
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt "appears today as an icebreaker, a bulldozer, a minesweeper, behind whom one already sees other free thinkers rallying more or less resolutely," wrote Issa Ghorayeb in an editorial published by the Beirut daily L'Orient-Le Jour last September.1 This assessment proved to be surprisingly accurate - in the months that followed, Jumblatt's open defiance of Damascus paved the way for scores of other prominent Lebanese Muslims to raise their voices alongside Christians in demanding that Syria end its military occupation of Lebanon.

However, it is not Jumblatt's courage in confronting Syria that has inspired the growing wave of Druze, Sunni, and Shi'ite opposition to the occupation. Rather, it is the fact that he has shown himself to be an astute forecaster of political developments in Lebanon. Over the last twenty years, Jumblatt has repeatedly lined up on the winning side in the tangled web of foreign and domestic struggles that have engulfed Lebanon. He is the weathervane of Lebanese politics.

Not surprisingly, after the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad in June 2000, Jumblatt was among the first Lebanese politicians to recognize that Syrian patronage would no longer be a trump card in Lebanese politics and quickly began consolidating his nationalist credentials. Spurning both threats and enticements from Damascus, he leaped to the forefront of a struggle that had been virtually a Christian-only franchise. He has not looked back.

The Jumblatt Clan

The Jumblatt clan has been at the forefront of Lebanese political life since the mid-19th century, struggling against the rival Yazbaki clan (particularly the Arslan branch) for leadership of the Druze community. Originally centered in Aleppo, Syria, the Jumblatts emigrated to Lebanon in the 17th century at the invitation of Druze leader Fakhr al-Din and settled in Mukhtara. During the Druze clans' struggle for political supremacy during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jumblatts opposed the ruling Shihab dynasty. By the mid-19th century, they had become established as one of the two dominant clans. However, the political ascendancy of the Jumblatts carried with it a tragic tale of political intrigue and martyrdom - four of Walid Jumblatt's direct ancestors died as a direct result of their political stances.

Sheikh Bashir Jumblatt was primarily responsible for the ascendance of the clan during the first quarter of the 19th century. But his ambitious challenge to the leadership of Emir Bashir al-Shihabi II, a Maronite who was appointed governor of Mount Lebanon, Jabal Amil and the Beqaa by the Ottomans, cost him his life. When war broke out between the Ottoman governors of Damascus and Acre in 1822, Jumblatt supported the former, while Shihabi backed the latter. This led to Lebanon's first Maronite-Druze conflict. In 1825, the army of Bashir II defeated the Jumblatt coalition at al-Simqaniya. Bashir Jumblatt was captured and executed.

Bashir's son, Said Beik Jumblatt, tried to reestablish the leadership of the Jumblatts, but was accused of fueling sectarian conflict between the Druze and the Maronites by the Ottomans, who sentenced him to life in prison, where he died of tuberculosis in 1861.

The leadership went afterwards to Said's wife, Bader Amin al-Din, and later to her son Nassib. Said's other son, Najib, of whom Walid Jumblatt is a descendent, died of disease at the age of 34. Nassib managed to win over the Ottomans, who gave him the esteemed title of Pasha and appointed him governor of the Shouf in 1884. After the outbreak of World War I, Nassib fell out of favor due to his pro-British sympathies and was replaced by Fouad Beik Jumblatt, the son of Najib (and grandfather of Walid Jumblatt). Fouad was later appointed to the same position by the French at the end of the war.

Under the French Mandate, an internal struggle within the Druze community pitted Fouad Beik Jumblatt, who supported the establishment of an independent Lebanese state and cooperated with the French, against the Arslans and the Nassib Jumblatt branch of the family, who promoted an Arab nationalist agenda and opposed the French. This division escalated into internecine violence by armed bands in the Shouf region, instigated in part by Rashid Tali'a, an exiled Lebanese-born Arab nationalist living in Transjordan who had served as the governor of the Syrian town of Aleppo under King Faisal before his defeat by the French. The violence led to Fouad Jumblatt's murder in 1921 by Shakib Wahab, a member of the Arslan clan.

Kamal Jumblatt was four years old when his father was murdered, and grew up in an atmosphere of tight security and fear due to his mother Nazira's continued support of the Lebanese state and its French patrons. When the Druze in Syria revolted against the French in 1925 , Nazira played a key role in keeping the Shouf mostly out of war and worked tirelessly to find common ground among the French authorities, the Maronites and the Druze.

After Lebanon's independence in 1943, Kamal Jumblatt emerged as charismatic figure whose single-minded ambition to become president of Lebanon (a position reserved under the terms of the 1943 National Pact to Maronite Christians) led him to adopt radical socialist ideology (in 1972 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the USSR) and demand the deconfessionalization of the political system, while continually shifting political allegiances to maximize his influence. During the early stages of the Lebanese civil war, Kamal Jumblatt and his Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) militia spearheaded the leftist-Palestinian alliance that sought to overthrow the Lebanese First Republic.

In February 1976, Syria publicly backed a reform proposal issued by Lebanese President Suleiman Franjieh. Jumblatt rejected the document, and ridiculed the Assad's regime's endorsement of it. He later explained that Syria's "minoritarian military dictatorship made them hostile to democracy."2 Later that year, Syrian military forces entered the country and, in September, clashed intermittently with Jumblatt's militia forces. While his Palestinian allies quickly came to terms with the Syrian presence, Jumblatt remained defiant and even approached his erstwhile adversaries in the Christian camp about the prospects of forging a united front against Syrian forces in Lebanon. His refusal to reconcile himself to Syrian hegemony over his homeland cost him his life in March 1977, when he was assassinated on orders from Damascus. Two weeks before his death, exiled Lebanese nationalist leader Raymond Edde warned Jumblatt that the Syrians would kill him and asked him to depart for Paris and help establish a Lebanese government in exile. He declined, saying fatalistically that "the Jumblatts are usually killed - they don't die in their beds."3

Walid Jumblatt's Ascendance

Leadership of the PSP passed to Walid Jumblatt upon his father's death, but few expected that he would last politically. Born in 1949 and educated at the American University of Beirut and in France, Jumblatt was not politically active in his youth. He had earned a reputation as a playboy, commonly wore jeans and a leather jacket, rode a motorcycle, and broke with tradition by marrying a non-Druze Jordanian woman.

At the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period, Jumblatt was summoned to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad. "How you resemble your father!" Jumblatt later recalled Assad saying upon his arrival, a not-so-subtle hint that the young Druze leader would share his father's fate if he did not come to terms with Syrian control of Lebanon. During a subsequent meeting, Assad reportedly pointed to an empty chair and remarked: "Your father, Allah have mercy on him, used to sit in that chair over there." The fate that befell Kamal Jumblatt would prove to be a powerful incentive for the young Druze leader.

Jumblatt's political inheritance was shaky from the start, as he lacked the political stature, experience, and charisma of his late father. Between 1977 and 1982, opposition to his leadership within the Druze community emanated both from the rival Arslan clan and the Druze religious establishment.

In June 1982, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon and quickly occupied the Shouf region. For a few months, Jumblatt remained at his home in Mukhtara and maintained contact with occupying Israeli forces, hoping to broker a deal whereby Israel would keep the Palestinians out of the Shouf and recognize Druze autonomy. To his consternation, however, Israel facilitated the entry of the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) units commanded by Samir Geagea into the area. Frustrated, Jumblatt left his home and moved to Damascus to secure support against the LF. Since the new Lebanese regime of President Amine Gemayel had forged political ties with the Arslan clan, Jumblatt was more than willing to join the National Salvation Front, a pro-Syrian alliance of militias opposed to the central government and the May 1983 non-belligerency agreement it signed with Israel.

Nabih Berri
Armed with massive amounts of Syrian-supplied Soviet weaponry, Jumblatt's militia began driving LF forces out of the Shouf in the fall of 1983. When Israeli forces pulled out of the area in August-September 1983, Jumblatt's forces overran sixty Maronite villages, slaughtering around 1,000 people and driving 50,000 out of their homes. in the mountainous areas east and west of Beirut. When Jumblatt's militia overstepped itself and attempted to overrun the Souq al-Gharb pass protecting the capital, Lebanese army troops commanded by Michel Aoun brought the offensive to a halt. Nevertheless, Jumblatt's victory made him the undisputed leader of the Druze community, a position which has not been seriously contested to this day.

The PSP scored a major strategic victory by obtaining an outlet to the sea in the Iqlim al-Kharoub region. This, however proved to be a double-edged sword, as it obstructed Shi'ite aspirations to build an autonomous enclave in southern Lebanon contiguous with Shi'ite neighborhoods in the southwestern portion of Beirut. Periodic fighting between the PSP and the Amal militia of Nabih Berri persisted in West Beirut and surrounding areas throughout the remainder of the civil war despite their mutual alliance with Syria, engendering a deep-rooted animosity between the two leaders that continues to this day.

Throughout the war-torn 1980's, Jumblatt remained within the Syrian fold, supporting the Assad regime's efforts to torpedo any reconciliation agreement that did not explicitly grant Damascus political and military control over Lebanon. However, unlike Berri, Jumblatt maintained good relations with other external actors, most notably Libya and the Soviet Union, and even resumed back-channel contacts with the Israelis, in order to keep his options open.

Jumblatt was handsomely rewarded for his wartime services after Syrian forces captured Beirut in October 1990. The Assad regime saw to it that Jumblatt received cabinet-level positions in successive Lebanese governments and that electoral districts were gerrymandered to ensure his reelection to parliament in 1992 and 1996. According to an informed source, Jumblatt used this political power to achieve considerable wealth. During each of the last three election cycles, he received around $5-7 million from candidates wishing to join his electoral coalition.

Leaving Damascus

During the late 1990's, the son and heir apparent of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, began methodically undermining potential opposition to his succession. In 1998, he assumed control of the "Lebanon file" from Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam and brought about the ouster of Syrian Military Chief-of-Staff Hikmat Shihabi, fearing that they would use their political connections in Lebanon to undermine his authority. Both were key allies of Jumblatt and then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and so Syria's domestic political purge naturally had ramifications in Lebanon. In the fall of 1998, Bashar backed the election of Gen. Emile Lahoud as president of Lebanon, engineered Hariri's ouster as prime minister, and took away Jumblatt's cabinet portfolio.

In place of the pro-Syrian warlords who dominated previous Lebanese governments, the Syrians now granted power to the heads of security and intelligence services appointed by Lahoud, most notably Gen. Jamil al-Sayyid, the director-general of the General Security Directorate (Sureté Générale).

Jumblatt, cooling his heals in the "opposition" along with Hariri, became a vocal critic of this militarization of Lebanese politics: "If Lahoud is just counting on mingling the military with civilian affairs, and if he wants to rule out the old political class. . . this will lead to troubles inside Lebanon."4 Nevertheless, he avoided explicit criticism of Syria.

This began to change during the summer of 2000 as Bashar Assad took over full control of the Syrian regime from his father. Just days before the elder Assad's death, Syrian officials leaked to the press that Shihabi had embezzled millions of dollars from Syrian purchases of Soviet-built arms during the 1980's and would soon be indicted. After Shihabi hastily departed for Los Angeles, Jumblatt publicly defended his former Syrian benefactor. Syrian officials quoted in Al-Hayat lashed out at Jumblatt, noting that "corruption is the same everywhere and the corrupt always close ranks."5

It soon became clear that Jumblatt could not count on Syrian support in the upcoming parliamentary elections in August-September 2000. In order to secure votes from Christian residents of the Shouf, he forged electoral alliances with the Christian Kata'ib and National Bloc parties and negotiated a "political charter" with Amin Gemayel, who had returned to the country in July. Moreover, he began calling for a "correction" of Syrian-Lebanese ties and condemning Syrian interference in the political process. As a result, Jumblatt and his political allies scored landslide victories and obtained three cabinet positions (though Jumblatt himself declined to join the government). Hariri, who had reconciled with Damascus and regained its backing, returned as prime minister.

Syrian officials evidently expected the Druze leader to return to the fold after the elections. Jumblatt, however, was unwilling to dispense with the newfound popularity among the population at large that came with his public criticism of Syria. In November, when Christian members of parliament criticized the Syrian occupation during a televised debate, Jumblatt could not resist the opportunity to reiterate his objections to Syrian interference in Lebanese politics. "I do understand the importance of stationing some Syrian troops (in Lebanon) for strategic purposes and the requirements of Syrian national security in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict," Jumblatt told the parliament, "but I do hope the Syrian leadership will review some of the points which have nothing to do with strategic requirements." He added that Prime Minister Hariri's claim that the Syrian occupation as "necessary, legitimate and temporary" was too vague. "If the presence is necessary, let us decide its timetable."6

Syrian officials were shocked and quickly began measures to rein in their wayward ally. During the next parliamentary session, MP Assem Qanso, a member of the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Ba'ath party, told Jumblatt, "You have exceeded all limits," when he rose to address parliament. "The Israeli war is coming," said Qanso, warning him that "uncovered and covered [Israeli] agents . . . will not be protected from the rifles of the resistance fighters by any red lines or by seeking refuge in embassies," a remark interpreted in the Lebanese press as a veiled assassination threat. "We tell Walid Jumblatt that the Israeli war is at our door. Does he want to meet his ally [former Israeli prime minister] Shimon Peres?"7

Meanwhile, Syrian officials told the press that Jumblatt and other members of the PSP were "no longer welcome at an official level" in Damascus. As if to underscore precisely what this meant for his political future, a few days after Jumblatt's outburst in parliament, the Syrians invited Talal Arslan, his main Druze political rival, to Damascus for a red carpet visit.

Jumblatt was shaken by the Syrian countermeasures and canceled two public debates, but condemned what he called the climate of "political and intellectual terrorism that is being established in the country" and warned of " the danger of confiscating the modicum of freedoms left and of the consequences of responding to political statements with the language of threats and to the force of opinion with the logic of force."8 Hariri tried to mediate between Jumblatt and Assad, but the Syrian president was furious and refused to meet with the Druze leader.

Jumblatt's defiance of Syria was strengthened by a massive show of public support shortly after Qanso's assassination threat was made. Thousands of Druze, as well as many Christians, held a demonstration in Mukhtara on November 12 to condemn the threats and intimidation, despite the fact that Lebanese security forces set up road blocks to prevent the gathering. There was also an outpouring of support for Jumblatt among Syrian Druze. Later that month, amid outbreaks of sectarian unrest in southern Syria, pictures of Jumblatt "appeared in unprecedented numbers in Suweida, on walls, in shops, and on roadsides."9

In December and January, there were persistent rumors that a reconciliation between Jumblatt and the Syrian regime was imminent, fueled in part by reported meetings between Jumblatt's aides and Syrian officials. Jumblatt's defiance continued unabated, however, and the mutual public recriminations between Jumblatt and Syrian officials persisted throughout the Spring of 2001.

In a March 16 interview, Jumblatt denounced claims by Lebanese and Syrian officials that the two countries have a common destiny. "What do they mean by common destiny? Do they mean union? If so, union is not brought about in this way. It must be reached through plebiscites in both countries. We have a democratic system, whereas they have a one-party system," he said, adding that Arab unity should only exist "on the model of the European Union, where liberties and democracy are respected."10

Two days later, an unidentified Syrian official quoted by the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat retaliated with an acerbic barrage. "Syria knows that Jumblatt separated himself from the nationalist drive by deciding not to combat the 1982 Israeli invasion in the Shouf mountains," said the official. "He also distanced himself from the patriotic achievements of the Druze community in Lebanon and Syria." The official also accused him of backing the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and opposing the "non-sectarian and nationalist spirit" of President Lahoud.11

On March 19, Reuters reported that Syrian army units deployed into the Shouf and took up positions around Mukhtara (Syrian troop movements in the Shouf had been earlier been reported by the Lebanese press on March 8).12 Jumblatt told reporters that he would "rather not discuss" the matter, while carefully noting that he did not mind if Syrian forces deployed in the Shouf for "strategic purposes."13 However, news of the deployment caused an uproar during a parliamentary session devoted to budgetary matters. "What does the Syrian deployment in the Shouf today, with heavy weapons, mean? . . . I demand to know what the government's position is on these actions which take place on Lebanese soil," declared MP Albert Moukheiber, touching off acrimonious exchanges between pro-Syrian MPs and a handful of other Christian opposition deputies.14

mail bomb
At the end of the month, Jumblatt flew to London, ostensibly to attend an alumni function. As he was departing, he reportedly quipped "maybe never" when asked when he would be coming back. Speculation that he had decided to join the Lebanese opposition in exile soon arose, particularly after he continued on to France, where Michel Aoun has lived for the last ten years. He also called Patriarch Sfeir, who at that time was touring the United States, and joked that he "may as well end up in America."15 After a week, he returned home on the same plane as Dory Chamoun, a prominent Christian opposition leader.

On April 11, the pressure on Jumblatt reached a new, unprecedented level when a mail bomb exploded in the village of Bkheshtey, severely injuring the sister and niece of Druze MP Akram Chehayyeb, a senior aide to Jumblatt. Afterwards, Jumblatt solemnly told reporters, "It is not through terrorism that we will reach dialogue."16

Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that when Maj. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, the chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, called the beleaguered Druze leader earlier this month and invited him to Damascus to meet with Assad, Jumblatt accepted. On May 22, he arrived in the Syrian capital for the first time in eight months.

Jumblatt's Future

Whether Jumblatt's trip to Damascus signifies the end of his campaign to end Syrian hegemony in Lebanon remains to be seen. In Lebanon, public displays of congeniality are usually not a reliable indicator of intentions. It is premature to conclude that he is returning to the Syrian fold. Unlike Syrian proteges such as Berri and Lahoud, Jumblatt enjoys traditional political legitimacy and popular support within his own sectarian community. Few members of Lebanon's political elite possess both of these trump cards.

It is likely that Jumblatt will continue to bolster his anti-Israeli credentials as a hedge against Syrian efforts to discredit him. For example, on May 20, he visited Jordan and met with an Israeli Druze delegation to urge them to refuse military service in the Israeli army.17 Such publicity stunts should not be misconstrued as a pro-Syrian turnabout - indeed, they are politically necessary in order to effectively oppose Syrian authority in Lebanon.

Jumblatt's substantive political moves in the future will largely depend on whether overt opposition to Syria within Lebanese society at large continues to spread. If the nationalist current in Lebanon continues to gain ground, Jumblatt will probably remain a key player in the coalition of forces opposing Syrian authority. If it stumbles, whether due to internal fragmentation or external developments, Jumblatt is likely to abandon it.

How skillfully Assad handles the "Jumblatt file" in the future will also be an important factor. The Syrian president has a lot of carrots and sticks at his disposal, but he has wielded these tools very ineptly, repeatedly miscalculating the appropriate timing and intensity of initiatives designed to pressure Jumblatt. His decision on May 23 to send a Syrian Druze spiritual leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Bou Assali, on a high profile visit to meet with Talal Arslan is a case in point. Assad dispatched Bou Assali just one day after Jumblatt's trip to Damascus, rather than waiting to see if Jumblatt had changed the tone of his public statements. Moreover, the visit was too flagrantly antagonistic (Bou Assali refused to meet with Jumblatt and stated openly that this was because of the latter's political behavior) and displayed a striking lack of awareness of Jumblatt's popularity among both Lebanese and Syrian Druze.

Notes

  1 L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), 15 September 2001.
  2 Kamal Jumblatt, Hadhihi Wisayati (Beirut, 1978), p. 102. This political testament was published posthumously.
  3 This story was told by Russian journalist Igor Timofeev in his recent book Kamal Jumblatt: the Man and the Legend (Dar al-Nahar, 2000).
  4 Reuters, 8 August 1999.
  5 Al-Hayat (London), 6 June 2000 and 8 June 2000.
  6 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 7 November 2000.
  7 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 7 November 2000.
  8 Al-Safir (Beirut), 8 November 2000.
  9 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), 21 November 2000.
  10 L'Orient Le Jour (Beirut), 16 March 2001.
  11 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), 18 March 2001.
  12 See Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), 8 March 2001.
  13 The Daily Star (Beirut), 22 March 2001.
  14 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 21 March 2001.
  15 Naharnet.com (Beirut), 1 April 2001.
  16 The Daily Star (Beirut), 12 April 2001.
  17 Jumblatt was accompanied by his party's deputy, Doreid Yaghi, Information Minister Ghazi Aridi Wail Abou Fauour. The Israeli Druze delegation included Said Nafaa, Dr. Abdallah Shaheen, Amin Kheir al-Din, Hatem Halabi, Ahmad Faddoul, Nouhad Melhem, and Suleiman Daghash. Jumblatt also met with an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, Azmi Bechara.


2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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