Druze tensions threaten Lebanese government’s stability

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is trying to mediate between the two Druze sides, himself being a close ally
of Hezbollah and a long-time friend of Walid Jumblatt.
Saturday 27/07/2019
Simmering tensions. Lebanese Druze sheikhs attend the funeral of one of two aides of Refugee Affairs Minister Saleh Gharib, who were killed in an incident that Gharib called an assassination attempt, in Ramlieh, Lebanon, July 5. (Reuters)
Simmering tensions. Lebanese Druze sheikhs attend the funeral of one of two aides of Refugee Affairs Minister Saleh Gharib, who were killed in an incident that Gharib called an assassination attempt, in Ramlieh, Lebanon, July 5. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - For the third consecutive week, the Lebanese government has been unable to meet because of sharp disagreement among its Druze components.

Lebanese Refugee Affairs Minister Saleh Gharib, a member of the small but powerful Druze community, barely survived an attack June 30 while passing through a Druze district in Mount Lebanon. He is a member of Emir Talal Arslan’s Democratic Party, which blamed the assassination attempt and the death of two of Gharib’s guards on their Druze rival, Walid Jumblatt.

Arslan and Gharib are close to the Syrians, Iran and Hezbollah. Jumblatt stands on the opposite end of the political spectrum, along with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Gharib is one of three Druze ministers in the Hariri cabinet, the other two being Education Minister Akram Chehayeb and Industry Minister Wael Abou Faour, who are Jumblatt loyalists.

If the government does convene, Gharib could take the floor to blame the attack on Jumblatt, prompting the two Jumblatt ministers to walk out of the session. If Hariri does nothing to challenge or silence Gharib, it is highly likely that Jumblatt’s men would walk out on the entire government.

Although Hariri and Jumblatt are close allies, supporting Gharib and Arslan are Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is trying to mediate between the two sides, himself being a close ally of Hezbollah and a long-time friend of Jumblatt’s.

While insisting that his men are innocent of the shootings, Jumblatt agreed to let them stand before court as “witnesses” rather than “suspects.”

Before that court convenes, however, all sides need to decide what kind of legal authority will be mandated to investigate the attack, a sticking point that has prevented Hariri from convening his cabinet. If not solved in a manner that pleases all sides, it might lead to a collapse of the cabinet.

Jumblatt is demanding that investigations be handled by Internal Security Forces (ISF), an intelligence branch he trusts and whose commander, Imad Othman, is an affiliate of the March 14 Alliance. Hariri seems to agree with that suggestion but cannot endorse it publicly, given his position by which he needs to stand neutral.

The ISF is pro-Hariri and within its ranks Hezbollah and Talal Arslan have little influence.

Arslan insists on referring the case to the Higher Judicial Council, headed by Justice Minister Albert Sarhan, an Aounist representing the Free Patriotic Movement.

Although clearly supporting Arslan’s suggestion over that of Jumblatt, Bassil is toying with the idea of a multifaceted investigation, handled by General Security, the ISF and Army Intelligence. Such a committee would be so complex that it would gradually challenge, and then dilute, the influence of the ISF over the interrogation, eventually manipulating the final verdicts.

Bassil has rallied 14 ministers in favour of such a suggestion and is trying to reach out to ministers representing Berri’s Amal Movement, despite two years of icy relations between Bassil and the Lebanese speaker.

Bassil is setting his differences with Berri aside to establish a united front against Jumblatt. He recently toured southern Lebanon, showing up in Amal strongholds, and gave an interview to Berri’s NBN Channel, ending a 2-year boycott.

Berri refuses to take sides among his Druze friends. If he does not comply with Bassil, the Aoun-led camp will reach out to Public Works Minister Youssef Finianos of the Marada Movement, another component of the Hezbollah-led coalition. His vote would tip the balance in a deeply polarised cabinet. However, it is unlikely that Finianos would vote against any Hezbollah-mandated legislation although his boss, Suleiman Frangieh, is furious with Hezbollah for bypassing him for the presidency and giving the post to Aoun.

If the pressure gets too high, and if the interrogation ends up in the hands of the Aounists, Jumblatt will withdraw his two ministers from the Hariri government, leading to an automatic collapse.

He is discussing a joint walk-out with Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, who feels under-represented in the cabinet despite his impressive bloc in parliament and over-muscled by his Christian rivals in the Free Patriotic Movement.

Geagea joined the cabinet unwillingly, accusing Hariri of being too soft on Hezbollah. He demanded a series of “sovereignty” seats that were ignored by Hariri — under pressure from Hezbollah — and was forced to settle for five not-so-important seats, including deputy prime minister and the portfolios of social affairs, labour and administrative development.

Since then, Geagea has been under pressure from his own constituency on why he is party to such a Hezbollah-led cabinet, where clear favouritism is practised towards their main Christian rivals.

If Geagea walks out of the cabinet with Jumblatt, that would raise the number of departing ministers to seven out of 30. That would be a nightmare for Hariri, who wants to avoid it at any cost, explaining, perhaps, why he seems more comfortable with delaying the weekly cabinet meetings.

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