Courtesy Reuters

The world has been riveted by Egypt in recent weeks, captivated by the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Yet just prior to the beginning of Egypt's revolution, events in Lebanon dominated international headlines. In mid-January, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah withdrew from Lebanon's government, forcing the collapse of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's coalition. Hezbollah targeted Hariri for his support of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the UN investigation into the February 14, 2005, assassination of his father, former Lebanese Prime Minster Rafiq Hariri. By toppling the government, Hezbollah hoped to end Lebanon's endorsement for the tribunal, whose indictments -- to be publicly released soon -- are widely expected to implicate high-level members of the organization.

At the center of the battle between Hariri and Hezbollah stands Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community. Once a prime supporter of Saad Hariri and the anti-Syria, anti-Hezbollah March 14 alliance formed after Rafiq Hariri's death, Jumblatt has since abandoned the March 14 camp and joined Hezbollah's orbit, helping it to form a new goverment led by the Lebanese billionaire Najib Mikati, Lebanon's current prime minister. Jumblatt's role in Lebanon's recent turmoil serves as a palpable reminder that amidst the conventional discussions of Sunni-Shiite divides and regional proxy wars in Lebanon, the Druze tend to be overlooked. Jumblatt and his community, however, are likely to play a vital role in determining the outcome of the tribunal process.

Jumblatt's ability to determine the direction of Lebanese politics is unique for a minority leader in the Middle East. Minorities, both religious and ethnic, exist in fair numbers across the region and often play a quiet role in the domestic politics of their respective nations (notable exceptions include the Alawites in Syria, who have ruled the country for decades, and more recently, the Kurds in northern Iraq, who enjoy political influence under Iraq's democratic regime). The outsized influence of the Druze community in Lebanon is thus nearly unparalleled. Yet in managing his role as a kingmaker, Jumblatt is simply perpetuating the part played by the Druze community in Lebanon since time immemorial.

Comprising about five percent of Lebanon's population, the Druze community is an Islamic sect that emerged in the eleventh century. It is often considered heretical by Sunni and Shiite Muslims, because some Druze traditions and beliefs differ from their respective interpretations of Islam. Based primarily in the strategically significant Chouf mountains of southern Lebanon, the Druze have survived by relying on a strong military tradition. At one time, they were a leading force in Lebanese politics. In the sixteenth century, for example, the Druze leader Fakhr-al-Din II played a critical role in establishing the borders of a self-governing Lebanese state. But later, in 1860, the Druze community's military success in a war with Lebanon's Maronite Christians facilitated the entry of Western powers -- notably France -- into Lebanese territory to protect the Maronites. Although its relationships with Lebanon's Sunni, Shiite, and Maronite populations have ebbed and flowed over the last century and a half, the Druze have established their place in Lebanese political affairs.

The Jumblatt family has dominated Druze politics for hundreds of years and is known in Lebanon as the "lords of the Chouf." Given that its reign in the Druze community enjoys substantial support, the Jumblatt leadership has few significant concerns about intra-Druze politics. This dynamic has traditionally permitted the Jumblatts to focus on areas of concern beyond their community. In modern times, they have concentrated on navigating the complex political reality of modern Lebanon by moving among their various communities as well as regional and international actors, often changing the balance of power in the country through their shifting alliances.

The role of the Druze as kingmakers in Lebanon solidified itself under the leadership of Kamal Jumblatt, Walid's father. Propagating a program rooted in socialism and secularism, Jumblatt senior founded the Progressive Socialist Party in 1949 and sought to appeal to Lebanese beyond his Druze power base. He quickly demonstrated his ability to steer Lebanese politics as the Druze leader when the modern state of Lebanon was founded in 1943. He helped propel the resignation of Lebanon's first president, Bechara el-Khoury, in 1952 and then Camille Chamoun in 1958 -- both times due to his discomfort with what he saw as their attempts to expand the importance of the presidency in Lebanon -- with the latter incident provoking U.S. military intervention to preserve Chamoun's rule. As a powerful parliamentarian, Jumblatt (and his bloc) also served as the swing vote in 1970, enabling Suleiman Franjieh to win the presidency over the favored candidate, Elias Sarkis.

Coupled with his emphasis on pan-Arabism and support for leftist causes, the charismatic Jumblatt managed to become an influential force both within Lebanon and abroad. Yet as the Druze became embroiled in Lebanon's civil war soon after it erupted in 1975, Jumblatt's collaboration with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then Syria's enemy, epitomized his unwillingness to follow the Syrian regime's desires -- a reluctance soon to be his undoing. In the war's first phase, Damascus supported Lebanon's Maronite Christians as they sought to counter Palestinian forces, but the Druze hampered Syria's plans. Assasinated in 1977, Jumblatt is commonly thought to have been killed at the behest of Syria's leadership.

To date, Walid Jumblatt has managed to avoid the fate of his father (and several other relatives who were also killed for their political positions). Coming to power during his twenties in the midst of Lebanon's civil war, Jumblatt quickly established a reputation as a pragmatic confessional chieftain. Soon after his ascension, he traveled to Damascus to meet with the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, the man suspected of orchestrating his father's untimely death. Jumblatt pledged allegiance to the Syrians in an effort to protect himself and his community. With the aid of Syria and other Middle Eastern regimes such as Libya, Jumblatt and his Druze militia became a feared fighting force during the Lebanese civil war. They played a pivotal role in opposing U.S. efforts by targeting the Lebanese government and military, institutions the United States sought to strengthen by deploying marines to the country. When Israeli soldiers, who had first invaded Lebanon in 1978 and then again in 1982, withdrew from the Chouf mountains the following autumn, Jumblatt and his followers attempted to fill the vacuum by attacking Lebanese forces in the area and establishing a presence in the Druze stronghold. The Druze proved their military prowess early on, capturing more than 50 soldiers from the Lebanese military in battle. Their success contributed to the fall of the Lebanese government six months later. Although some elements of Jumblatt's militia were integrated into the Lebanese Armed Forces and much of its weaponry passed to Syria at the end of Lebanon's civil war, it has maintained some capabilities and structure should they be needed again.

Rafiq Hariri's assassination in 2005 once again placed Jumblatt and the Druze at the center of Lebanese politics. As word spread that Syria was responsible for Hariri's death, Jumblatt built on his burgeoning criticism of Damascus and publicly broke his alliance with his former allies. He sided with the nascent March 14 movement, an amalgamation of Lebanese parties and leaders that had begun coalescing in the wake of Hariri's assassination to protest Syria's ongoing occupation. Jumblatt gave March 14 much-needed backing and legitimacy, facilitating international efforts to support the expulsion of thousands of Syrian troops who had maintained a presence in Lebanon since 1976. Jumblatt's tour of foreign capitals as a representative of the revolution spoke to his uncanny ability to shift positions and alliances without a second thought. In one telling example, he met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006 -- the Rumsfeld who survived a failed attempt by Jumblatt's militia to shell his convoy during a visit to Beirut in the early 1980s as U.S. President Ronald Reagan's Middle East envoy.

Jumblatt remained an important face of March 14 for several years. Yet he would soon recalibrate his community's support for the bloc. In early 2008, Jumblatt pushed the Lebanese government to target two critical aspects of Hezbollah's capabilities: its independent telecommunications network and its special access at Beirut International Airport. Hezbollah viewed Jumblatt's pressure as a strategic threat and decided to take measures into its own hands by turning its guns on Lebanon itself and occupying large swaths of Beirut. Trapped inside his residence during the takeover, Jumblatt witnessed the inability of the Sunni leader Saad Hariri to respond to Hezbollah's intimidation. Jumblatt understood that he would endanger his community by opposing Hezbollah any further.

Aware that his survival, as well as that of the Druze, depended on accepting the reality of Hezbollah's rise, Jumblatt began to extricate himself from his erstwhile March 14 allies. With the United States unable to intervene and provide political cover from Hezbollah and Syrian re-encroachment, he lowered his anti-Syria rhetoric and even met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2010 to reestablish the Druze-Syrian partnership. More recently, Jumblatt revealed the extent of his concern in the days before entering his new alliance with Hezbollah, allegedly telling his compatriots that he was under severe pressure to back Hezbollah's coalition and that should he choose to support Hariri, the Lebanese Druze would be in grave danger. When danger approached, Jumblatt's responsibilities as protector of his community outweighed his post-2005 role as a national leader.

Indeed, operating under the perpetual dual fears of assassination and community destruction, Lebanon's Druze community has remained loyal only to itself, striving for survival in a fragile state plagued by a weak government whose diversity is ceaselessly manipulated by external actors. Druze support for Jumblatt has yet to waver seriously despite the leader's many twists and turns. It is this dominance over the Druze population that enables him to play such a commanding role in Lebanese politics. Underestimating Jumblatt or the influence of his tiny community, which he ruefully refers to as "last of the Mohicans," would be shortsighted. Whether or not one agrees with the direction of Jumblatt's support, it is clear that he and the Lebanese Druze community will continue to play a significant role in determining Lebanon's political future.

  • MARA E. KARLIN was Levant Director at the Pentagon in 2006-7 and Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in 2007-9.
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