Two major reconciliation agreements are currently under way in Lebanon, ending a month-and-a-half of gripping political tension in the tiny Mediterranean country. Both involve prominent Druze heavyweight Walid Junblatt, head of the Social Progressive Party. One was reached at Baabda Palace on August 9, ending a bloody feud between him and rival Druze leader Emir Talal Arslan. Another is currently being made with President Michel Aoun.
Ending the Junblatt-Arslan feud
On July 30, armed men opened fire at the entourage of Refugee Affairs Minister Saleh Gareeb, a member of Arslan’s Democratic Party and a protege of the Lebanese president, while driving through the Qabrshamoun village in Mount Lebanon. Two of his bodyguards were killed — a crime that Arslan tried blaming on Junblatt loyalists. He threatened to take up arms to protect his followers and take revenge, at a press conference: “This will not pass!” For years, Arslan and Junblatt have been at opposite ends of the political spectrum, competing for Druze leadership, although they were former comrades who were closely related, and who had inherited leadership from their fathers, who were also close friends and allies. In today’s world, however, Arslan was pro-Syrian and Hezbollah-backed, while Junblatt was part of the pro-Western March 14 Coalition. Arslan saw the Qabrshamoun incident as a blessing in disguise, hoping that it would help him discredit a traditional enemy and shatter his reputation within the Druze community.
He demanded creation of a judicial council to investigate the crime, headed by Justice Minister Albert Sarhan, an Aounist. Junblatt argued that such a body would never be neutral, given that Arslan, Sarhan, and Aoun were all members of the rival political camp, which has an axe to grind with him. The Lebanese president, never too fond of Junblatt, put his full weight behind Arslan, threatening to use his considerable powers to enforce the council as a fait accompli, regardless of what Jumblatt thought about it. The Aoun-Junblatt relationship dates back to the civil war and it was never smooth nor warm. More recently, Junblatt has been extremely critical of the powerful role that Aoun’s son-in-law, Gibran Basil, has been playing in Lebanese politics, acting as a “shadow president” with Aoun’s full backing. Junblatt snapped that not only would he refrain from complying with such an impartial investigation, but even walk out on the entire Lebanese government, where he controls the portfolios of industry and education. Such a walkout would make it automatically unconstitutional, forcing it to resign while creating a power vacuum that all sides would have a hard time filling, putting the entire Aoun administration in jeopardy.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri played the go-between, trying to defuse the situation in a very neutral manner, despite Hariri’s alliance with Jumblatt and Berri’s friendship with Arslan and the Syrians. A Junblatt walkout would be a nightmare for Hariri, who struggled to form this cabinet last January. It only saw the light after Junblatt agreed to relinquish one of the three portfolios that were earmarked for his party, giving a Druze seat to Saleh Ghareeb, the targeted minister at Qabrshamoun. To accommodate Jumblatt, Hariri talked Aoun into dropping the judicial council idea, referring the case to a regular court instead, whose final verdict would need approval of the Lebanese government. Junblatt agreed, saying that his men would stand before court as witnesses only, rather than “suspects.”
Arslan unwillingly accepted, especially after a high tone statement was issued by the United States Embassy in Beirut, calling for a “neutral” and “unpoliticised” investigation, carefully worded phrasing that seemed to be mirroring Jumblatt’s conditions. On August 9, Arslan and Junblatt were brought together for a reconciliation meeting at Baabda Palace, attended by Aoun, Hariri, and Berri. The very next day, the Lebanese cabinet was finally reconvened, after a one-month absence, and all Druze ministers agreed to refrain from mentioning the Qabrshamoun incident.
Rapprochement with the Lebanese president
When heading to the Baabda Palace meeting, Jumblatt purposely drove through Qabrshamoun, sending a message all parties that despite all attempts at incriminating and marginalising him, he was still the uncontested leader of the Druze community. He emerged from the entire ordeal, literarily unscratched, stronger and more influential than ever. He then went a step further with his symbolism, welcoming the Lebanese president to Beitaldine, a small town perched high within the Chouf district, where the Junblatt family has reigned for centuries and where Aoun was planning to spend his summer. At the gates of the famous castle at Beitaldine, a plaque read: ‘Renovated by Walid Jumblatt in 1990’, another stark reminder to Aoun, on where he was staying and who was in-charge of the place. Jumblatt then sent a senior delegation to welcome Aoun to Beitaldine, headed by his daughter. By Druze tradition, a family member is always expected to welcome an important guest visiting any Druze home — and the entire Chouf district, Jumblatt seemed to be saying to everybody in Lebanon — was home to the Jumblatt family.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.