The unravelling of the Jumblatt-Hariri bonds

Hariri’s victories and many subsequent defeats have seen him transform into a different breed of politician.
Saturday 29/06/2019
A 2015 file photo shows Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt paying respects at the grave of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, in downtown Beirut. AFP, 2015. (Reuters)
Familial bonds. A 2015 file photo shows Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt paying respects at the grave of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, in downtown Beirut. AFP, 2015. (Reuters)

Lebanese politics is a unique spectator sport, giving its audience a peek into a cutthroat process that can bring even the most treasured alliances to a close. The recent showdown between Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt is a case in point.

Over the past week, Jumblatt, who heads the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), and Hariri engaged in a brutal war of words on social media, seemingly ending their decades-long political alliance and shattering the respect they once had for each other. While the two leaders’ fallout was not sudden or unexpected, the intensity with which it transpired shows just how much has gone awry on the Lebanese political scene.

Accused by many of being fickle and chameleon-like, Jumblatt is one of the most important politicians in modern Lebanese history and played a key role in bringing Hariri to power. In 1989, he supported the Taif Accord, a landmark agreement drawn up by his friend and future Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that laid the foundation for the country’s political future. After Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February 2005, Jumblatt played a key role in the “Cedar Revolution” that sought independent leadership for the country and justice for the late prime minister’s death. Jumblatt then went on to help Rafik Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad Hariri, fully assume the reins of power.

This series of events helped form a sacred, familial bond between Jumblatt and the young Hariri, but it wasn’t long before that was put to the test. Over the years, Hariri was pushed to accommodate requests from his other allies, which often came partially at the expense of Jumblatt and his small Druze quota in the archaic Lebanese clientelist system. Tensions between them intensified after Hariri entered into a political and financial arrangement with Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and the son-in-law of Michel Aoun.

Aoun’s subsequent election to the presidency was the death knell. It served as a victory for Aoun’s allies Hezbollah and Syria and meant the end of the Taif Accord as it previously stood, reverting Lebanon’s political arrangement back to its previous status, under which the president holds most of the power and the prime minister is given an ancillary role. This shift greatly vexed Jumblatt and other key supporters of the Taif agreement, such as House Speaker Nabih Berri, who soon found themselves deprived of the spoils of not-so-good governance.

Today, many view Hariri’s radical decision to effectively destroy his father’s legacy and empower the anti-Taif crowd as a desperate, last-ditch effort to cling to power. Yet this analysis does not fully explain why Hariri has alienated many of his traditional allies and, more importantly, formed an unshakable union with Bassil, who provides political cover for Hezbollah and their project of Iranian expansion.

Hariri’s critics, Jumblatt chief among them, have attacked the prime minister for failing to stand up for his office and relinquishing much of his power to Aoun and Bassil. There is much truth to these accusations and the arrangement is indeed highly damaging to Lebanon’s political future. But for Jumblatt and anyone who wishes to stop the tyranny of Aoun and his likes, it must be clearly acknowledged that Hariri is a liability rather than an asset.

Fourteen years have elapsed since Saad Hariri, then a young millionaire was forced into politics after his father’s death. Hariri’s victories and many subsequent defeats have seen him transform into a different breed of politician — one who views members of the old guard such as Jumblatt and Berri as inconsequential to the region and inconvenient to his own political ambitions.

Hariri’s recent public thrashing of Jumblatt illustrates this transformation. The old Saad Hariri who rose from of the ashes of his dead father bent on revenge is no more, especially after his fall out with the Saudi regime. Hariri now sees open confrontation with Iran and its local allies as uneven and unfruitful.

Many of Hariri’s early political blunders were chalked up to bad counsel, but it is now clear that the fights he picks with his traditional allies are his battles alone — and ones he will defend until the end. This has not gone unnoticed by Jumblatt, who, despite being ridiculed by Hariri and accused of deceit and deception, has shown remarkable restraint. He has urged his followers to refrain from responding to Hariri via the media — both in order to avoid ramping up sectarian tensions and because he knows trying to reason with Hariri to come in from the cold and denounce his pact with Bassil is an utterly futile exercise.

Going forward, anyone wishing for Hariri to change should demonstrate that they are willing to go all the way to make it happen, even if that means resigning from cabinet and forming a serious opposition movement that can hold Hariri and his sacred alliance with Bassil to account. Until this happens, both Hariri and Jumblatt need to look for a way to repair what remains of their relationship or simply declare it dead.