Rebel with a cause

Walid Jumblatt is now seen as the opposition’s ‘point-man’ in Lebanon, with the international connections and domestic popularity to take the country forward. In an exclusive interview, he tells Massoud A. Derhally about his own plans, and who he believes killed Rafik Hariri.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  March 27, 2005

Rebel with a cause|~|ALWAYS-LOOKING-AHEAD-200.jpg|~|ALWAYS LOOKING AHEAD: Jumblatt is seen as a skilful political operator able to adapt to changing times.|~|WALID JUMBLATT'S surname means ‘the iron man’ in Kurdish, and to many Lebanese today that rings very true. Once a warlord in Lebanon’s 15-year civil conflict, Jumblatt — like many of his rivals and allies from that period — was then rehabilitated, becoming the leading Druze MP in the Lebanese parliament. He still has to deal with attacks from other MPs like Suleiman Franjieh, a Syrian loyalist, who openly accuse him of war crimes. “It’s not the first accusation,” he says. “I was at one time a warlord, OK, and he was a warlord — so what?” Walking round Jumblatt’s heavily defended, 400-year-old house in Moukhtara, it’s not difficult to sense his family’s rich heritage and how closely the 56-year-old is attached to it. Jumblatt’s ancestors were originally Kurdish — roots, his friends say, that he is very proud of. According to Lebanese University professor, Walid Arbid, his family emigrated from Syria to Lebanon during the 17th century at the invitation of Druze leader Fakhredine, before rising to political prominence under the leadership of Sheikh Bashir Jumblatt. Ten generations on, Jumblatt is still very connected to the past — a fact that a visit to his personal library testifies to. Pictures of him with his son Taymour and Fidel Castro are on the wall, along with relics of the civil war in one corner. There are also thousands upon thousands of books, categorised by religion, culture, philosophy and country; covering everything from the Arab world to Latin America and from Islam to communism. “He has a sense of where history goes in the region like nobody else,” says Chibli Mallat, his confidante and close friend. Today, Walid Jumblatt is many things to many people. Dressed in his trademark blazer and jeans for this interview, he has a passion for riding Harley Davidsons, gardening and caring for the environment. “He’ll go nuts if he hears someone cut down a tree,” says Ramzi, a close aide. But this image belies Jumblatt’s long-held reputation as a versatile political animal that has skilfully adapted to changing times. When his father, Kamal was killed on March 16, 1977, because of the common belief that he opposed Syria’s military presence in Lebanon during the civil war, Walid inherited his leadership and eventually played an important part in the conflict. When he recognised the changing tide in 1989, he supported the Taif agreement that ended the war. Now, aside from juggling the intricacies and workings of the country’s divergent opposition bloc, he continues to be openly defiant of its pro-Syrian government under president Emile Lahoud. “The obstacle is Lahoud,” he says. “How can we remove Lahoud? If Lahoud is to stay he will prolong the crisis, with all the possible consequences and with all the [intelligence] services still sponsored by the Syrians that can do any act of sabotage — this is my thesis,” he adds. When Lahoud announced he was seeking to extend his term in office last September, with the full backing of the Syrians, Jumblatt recognised that the country had come to a significant juncture. The Druze leader threw his weight behind his good friend Rafik Hariri, who was prime minister at the time. But when Hariri was assassinated on February 14, Jumblatt understood the country had come to a point of no return. Fearing for his life, he sought refuge in his mansion after leaving his villa in the Hamra district of Beirut. But at the same time, he became more vitriolic towards the Syrians and the government. In the process, Jumblatt moved to the fore of the opposition camp, which had mobilised after Hariri’s resignation a few months before. Ostensibly, he has now become the movement’s point-man — in Lebanon, everyone from journalists, politicians, taxi drivers and teachers want to know what he has to say, while his opinions are also sought on a regional and international level. And this is despite the workings of the Lebanese constitution, through which he can solely hold a ministerial role as only Shiites, Christians and Sunnis are allowed to have executive powers. “He’s not just a Druze leader,” says Mallat. “He is meeting heads of state that no other Lebanese leader, including the Lebanese president, reaches — and I think even internationally his access is unmatched. [But] he is constrained by the fact that in Lebanon the best he can be is a minister. He realises that under the system as it stands now; he’ll never be a president, prime minister or speaker.” Though he recognises this, Jumblatt is unwavering about ending Syrian rule in Lebanon and trying those responsible for the killing of Hariri. Before the interview, Jumblatt had just returned from a multi-city tour that took him to the Gulf, Europe and Russia where he met with state leaders. Criticism of Syria gained momentum throughout the trip and the Lebanese people were now looking to him for guidance, as the central figure of the country’s opposition. The tour, he would later say, sought no guarantees or promises, but was about setting the record straight. “I went there to explain my position. I didn’t go there for help. I just explained my position as the opposition and the need to have a good and friendly relationship with Syria — but without this kind of pressure and tutelage. And the basic issue was who killed Rafik Hariri,” he says. Though Jumblatt has demanded the resignation of the Syrian-backed government and the heads of the state security apparatus, as well as the withdrawal of the Syrian army, Jumblatt says that he’s never asked to meet with Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. “No [I don’t want to see him], it’s not a personal issue. These are the Lebanese’ demands. Let him listen to the Lebanese people. I think he should listen [and] see the Lebanese wanting freedom.” Instead, Jumblatt is now transfixed on ousting Lahoud, and goes as far as saying that the president was complicit in Hariri’s murder. “He’s a Syrian puppet — that’s it,” says Jumblatt, when asked what Lahoud represents. “The entire crisis started when some Syrian circles imposed him on us. All of the political crisis and the bloody, bloody attempts [to kill] MP Marwan Hamadeh and the killing of Hariri — he’s responsible.” When asked if he thought the Lebanese president had anything to do with the actual killing, Jumblatt says, “Yes. He’s covering all the various intelligence agencies, he should know about it.” The opposition movement itself, however, has not been immune to criticism — mainly that it has been so adamant about getting rid of Syria and bringing down the government that it has forgotten to put together a plan to carry the country forward after Syria leaves. But Jumblatt dismisses such criticism; pointing to the dividends the opposition has reaped since the assassination. “I think until now the cedar revolution [has been] able to [bring] down the government and [begin] getting the Syrians out — that’s not bad,” he says. “I think the Lebanese have said it’s enough. The killing of Hariri triggered this mass popular movement. Unfortunately, it was because of his death. The Lebanese [have] said [that] ‘we want to live in a civilised country [and] we don’t want killings or assassinations anymore’. The assassination of Hariri cemented the unity of the Lebanese and we are telling the Syrians ‘it’s time for you relieve pressure on us and let’s fix up a new deal’. But he’s gone now,” he adds. At the same time, it remains to be seen what exactly the opposition is all about — other than demanding that the culprits who killed Hariri be brought to justice and calling for the present government of Syrian loyalist prime minister Omar Karami to resign. “I am part of the opposition — I have to see with my partners in the opposition. We need a new president. We need to go to elections. This is very important for us,” says Jumblatt, when asked about the movement’s future plans. Though united on some fronts, the opposition is also not in agreement on other issues. The day before this interview, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Butros Sfeir held talks with US president George W. Bush. Sfeir, who is head of the 900,000-member Maronite Catholic Church, raised eyebrows when after the meeting with Bush, he said: “I firmly believe in the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe there will be a Palestinian State. I believe we’ll be able to convince Syria to fully withdraw from Lebanon or else she’ll be isolated. I believe those examples will serve as examples for others [of democracy] over time.” Though he initially said Sfeir was representing him during his visit to Washington, Jumblatt was critical of the patriarch’s inference that current events in Lebanon are connected to others elsewhere in the region. “All these situations are totally different!” he exclaims. “Afghanistan is a totally different situation and Iraq also. Up to now, Iraq [has] not [been] stable and we have to see if Iraq is to stay united. Lebanon is a different case … Lebanon is not the Ukraine, but we have been able to achieve unity,” he adds. Sfeir and other members in the opposition, such as former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel, would like to see the Shiite resistance group Hezbollah neutralised. Their argument goes that, as Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has no reason for being armed. No sooner had Sfeir held his press conference with Bush, Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah took to the airwaves and adamantly rejected any talk of being disarmed. Hezbollah, he said, “will never lay down its arms … I’m holding onto the weapons of the resistance because I think the resistance is the best formula to protect Lebanon and to deter any Israeli aggression”. Jumblatt agrees that the movement should stay armed. “We are not speaking about disarming Hezbollah,” he says. “We might need their weapons, we might not — it’s a question of dialogue. It also depends [whether] they join in the political process — and they should join later on, after the departure of Lahoud. They should be present in any cabinet. They are Lebanese,” he adds. Nevertheless, relations between Hezbollah and Jumblatt became jittery recently after he was depicted in one Hezbollah demonstration as a Jewish Rabbi. Immediately afterwards, Jumblatt announced he was cutting off channels of communication between himself and Hezbollah. Though the spat appears to have subsided, Jumblatt still takes issue with some of Hezbollah’s declared objectives. “We can engage in a dialogue. There are some issues to be discussed, some issues [with which] I don’t agree,” he says. When pressed about what issues they were, Jumblatt refers to the speech Nasrallah had given after Sfeir’s meeting with Bush. “He [Nasrallah] said ‘well if the Palestinians were to stay in Lebanon we’d have [a] partition [of Lebanon]’. I don’t agree. The Palestinians have been in Lebanon since 1948 and until we’ll have a viable Palestinian state… they will stay here. And nobody in the Christian community is thinking about partition. Nobody is fool enough to think about partition,” says Jumblatt. Switching quickly from politician to military tactician, he continues: “[Nasrallah] says the weapons of the muqawama of the resistance are necessary. I agree. But I do remind him also [that] when the Israelis came and invaded Lebanon and Beirut … we didn’t have rockets. We had individual weapons — the Kalashnikovs and the B7s and thanks to these individual weapons we got the Israelis out. Now he has some rockets for the strategic balance between Lebanon and Israel [and] we’ll see if these rockets are necessary or not — it’s a question of dialogue.” If Jumblatt’s demand that Lahoud resigns does come to fruition, another hurdle that the opposition will have to overcome is the choice between UN Resolution 1559, which calls for the remaining “foreign forces” to leave Lebanon and Hezbollah to disarm; or the Taif agreement, which provided the framework that ended the civil war and returned Lebanon to political normality. But if the president does resign, Jumblatt says there are enough MPs in parliament to take the job. “We don’t want Merrill Lynch brokers to be presidents. They could be brokers of something else. I don’t like it,” he says, however, when asked if Riad Salameh, the present governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, could be a contender. Many Lebanese would also like to see Hariri’s sister, Bahia, as the next prime minister. Jumblatt says that “it’s up to her to decide”, if she would assume the role. But would he endorse her? The Druze leader hesitates before giving a final answer. “Her speech at the mass demonstration [commemorating the one month anniversary of Hariri’s murder] was excellent,” he says. “She fixed the basic, should I say, prerequisites for the relationship between Lebanon and Syria, between the Lebanese and the resistance.” Pressed further, Jumblatt says that he would back Hariri, “if she accepts”. But one gets the feeling that the pragmatic politician’s ambitions do not end there. Much like his father, he has argued that religion and confessionalism should not play as important a role in the constitution as they have since the country’s independence in 1943. “I hope [it plays less of role], but we still have [the] Taif agreement,” he says. One can’t help but notice that, whatever transpires, he speaks of his father with a similar unswerving conviction — that of a Druze leader. “Yesterday was the 28th anniversary of his assassination,” says Jumblatt. “Now he can rest peacefully that his son did a good job. Finally.” For a brief history of the family Jumblatt and an interview with the chairman of Rafik Hariri's Future TV, Nadim Munla, buy Arabian Business, available from March 27, 2005.||**||

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