Political Leadership in Lebanon and the Jumblatt Phenomenon

Tipping the Scales of Lebanese Politics

Political Leadership in Lebanon and the Jumblatt Phenomenon : Tipping the Scales of Lebanese Politics - Sebastian Gerlach


For observers and scholars of contemporary Lebanese politics, an understanding of Lebanon’s complex political dynamics is hardly possible without a thorough analysis of the role of Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the country’s Druze community. Notwithstanding his sect’s marginal size, Jumblatt has for almost four decades greatly determined the course of domestic developments. Particularly between 2000 and 2013, the Druze leader developed into a local kingmaker through his repeated switch in affiliations between Lebanon’s pro- and anti-Syrian coalitions. This study argues that Jumblatt’s political behavior during this important period in recent Lebanese history was driven by his determination to ensure the political survival of his Druze minority community. Moreover, it highlights that Jumblatt’s ongoing command over the community, which appears to be impressive given his frequent political realignments, stems from his position as the dominating, traditional Druze za’im and because the minority community recognized his political maneuvering as the best mean to provide the Druze with relevance in Lebanon’s political arena.


For observers and scholars of contemporary Lebanese politics, a thorough understanding of the country’s complex political dynamics is hardly possible without analyzing the role of Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community. Indeed, Jumblatt has, despite the marginal size of his sect, for almost four decades played a pivotal role in the political arena of Lebanon. Widely considered the kingmaker in Lebanese politics,1 Jumblatt particularly influenced the course of domestic politics between 2000 and 2013 by repeatedly switching affiliations between the opposing pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian coalitions in Lebanon. More precisely, Jumblatt went from a being a close ally of the Syrian regime during the 1990s to the figurehead of the anti-Syrian March-14 movement following the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Thereafter, in 2009, he unexpectedly reconciled with Damascus and enabled the formation of a pro-Syrian government in 2011. In 2013, he changed camps yet again and ever since has been a vocal critic of the Assad regime and its allies in Lebanon.

Considering the pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian camps’ fundamental differences in outlook regarding the future of Lebanon, it stands out that the Druze sect, Jumblatt’s sole power base, obediently followed his political U-turns. This may seem surprising, because Lebanon’s history abounds with political and communal leaders who failed to preserve their followership after altering their political orientation.2 In this respect, it is even more puzzling that Jumblatt was able to maintain the support of his Druze community, known for its negative attitudes towards the prominent Shi’ite- March-8 member Hezbollah, when reconciling with the pro-Syrian forces in 2009 and enabling the establishment of a pro-Syrian government in 2011. 

Yet academia has so far paid little attention to the Druze za’im (leader) and his maneuvering in Lebanese politics. While some scholars have published narrative accounts of Jumblatt’s personal background and environment,3 analytical work on his political actions is rare and perspectives on his leadership patterns are practically non-existent.4 This paper offers a contribution to both the studies of Walid Jumblatt and broader contemporary Lebanese politics. Examining the greater period from 2000 until 2013, and particularly Jumblatt’s reconciliation with the pro-Syrian camp in 2009, it seeks to understand why Jumblatt repeatedly switched affiliations between the opposing pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian coalitions. Moreover, it aims to identify how the Druze chieftain was able to maintain political legitimacy among his Druze followers while doing so.

The argument of this analysis is twofold. First, it is contended that Walid Jumblatt’s decisions to change political camps were informed by his determination to ensure the political survival of his Druze minority community. Second, the Druze followed Jumblatt both due to his command over the community as the dominating, traditional Druze za’im and because they recognized his political maneuvering as the best mean to provide the minority community with relevance in Lebanon’s political arena.

This analysis has two central implications that are important for the studies of Lebanese politics. As a contribution to understanding Walid Jumblatt and his leadership, it helps to comprehend the unparalleled role the Druze za’im has played in Lebanon’s political arena for almost four decades. Accordingly, the analysis of this paper may also help predict future developments in Lebanese politics, with particular reference to the Druze community. Moreover, following up on the observation of Marvan Rowayheb, that “there are few good analytical studies on individual political leaders in Lebanon,”5 this analysis is a contribution to understanding leadership in Lebanese politics in general. Hence, it adds to the comprehension of the political culture of a country whose politics are largely shaped by individual political figures. 

This paper proceeds in four main parts. It will begin by briefly sketching defining characteristics of Lebanon’s history and politics. Next, it will conduct a synopsis on the Druze sect in Lebanon until the Lebanese civil war and provide an overview on Walid Jumblatt’s early years as Druze za’im. Then, the paper will analyze Jumblatt’s leadership style during the period of 2000 until 2013. Lastly, it will conclude with a prognosis concerning Jumblatt’s possible future political maneuvering, particularly in terms of adapting to changing conditions in neighboring Syria. 

A Divided Nation: Lebanon’s Contemporary History and Politics

Modern Lebanon and its controversial sectarian political system stem from the reorganization of the Middle East after World War I. As part of the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, the Lebanese nation came into being as an artificial political entity carved out of the Levantine region. Eager to apply divide-and-rule politics in order to facilitate control over its dominion,6 the French mandate conceived Lebanon as a multi-sectarian nation and implemented a confessional political and bureaucratic system designed to give each of Lebanon’s sects a proportional share of influence in the new state.7 However, in a bid to favor its longtime regional protégés, France ensured disproportionate Christian control over the state at the expense of all other confessions. In so doing, French policies not only institutionalized segregation between Lebanon’s sects and established a political structure that was inherently divisive, but also created a highly uneven power balance which marginalized major communities within the nascent state.8

The flawed sectarian system induced critical tensions among the Lebanese and eventually plunged the country into a vicious civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. After gaining independence in 1943, the Lebanese political establishment agreed on maintaining the French-imposed sectarian state.9 However, domestic and regional developments of the 1950s and 1960s, including a growing Muslim population and the influx of Palestinians into Lebanon, put an increasing strain on the confessional system and weakened the Lebanese state. As a result, mounting sectarian tensions escalated and led to the outbreak of a 15 year-long civil war in 1975. While this conflict was, from a domestic perspective, predominantly characterized by Christian-Muslim competition over control of the state, it was also marked by Lebanon’s emergence as a primary décor for regional power politics. In particular, the country’s rival neighboring states of Israel and Syria faced off against each other in the Lebanese arena and supporting opposing Lebanese factions intervened heavily in the conflict. Over the course of the war, the Israel-supported Christian warring parties were increasingly put on the defensive whilst Syria and its local allies, first and foremost the Lebanese Shi’ites, gradually gained the upper hand and finally took hold of Lebanon in 1990.10 

Lebanon thus came under Syrian tutelage during the 1990s. While the resolution of the civil war saw the implementation of an adjusted sectarian power-sharing formula aimed at creating a more balanced political system,11 the Lebanese were not able to truly determine their own fate following the war. Rather, Syrian occupation turned the country into a de-facto protectorate. Masterminding Lebanon’s domestic politics, Damascus began to brutally suppress any opposition to its rule but also allowed handpicked allies, most importantly the Shi’ite parties Amal and Hezbollah, Sunni leader Rafik Hariri, and Druze Walid Jumblatt, to extend their power bases and profit from the reconstruction of Lebanon.12 

However, in 2005, Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon. In the early 2000s, domestic resistance to Syrian influence gained momentum as the new Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, began to alienate Rafik Hariri and Walid Jumblatt. At the same time, mostly due to U.S. foreign policy changes, international pressure on Damascus to terminate control over Lebanese politics intensified. In February 2005, tensions escalated when then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a bombing allegedly orchestrated by the Syrian regime. Consequentially, following massive popular demonstrations, Syria was pressured to withdraw from Lebanon.13 

Despite this development, Lebanon was not yet able to escape the clout of its powerful neighbor. Against the backdrop of the Syrian question, Lebanese society and politics split into two opposing camps: the pro-Syrian, Shi’a-controlled March-8 coalition and the anti-Syrian March-14 alliance, led by the Sunni Future Movement and Walid Jumblatt.14 As tensions between the two blocs increased, the domestic power balance tipped in favor of the pro-Syrian elements in the late 2000s. Though the March-14 movement won the national elections of 2005 and dominated the government, it proved incapable of implementing the political changes necessary to distance Lebanon from Syrian interference. Especially Hezbollah, with its strong military wing, continued to act as a state-within-a-state. Attempts to diminish the influence of the Shi’ite party eventually resulted in a ‘mini civil war’ in May 2008, when Hezbollah occupied Beirut and induced the collapse of the March-14 government.15 

Following the 2008 Beirut clashes, the March-14 project collapsed. Since shifts in the international political landscape had removed pressure on Syria to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs, the anti-Syrian forces were marginalized. This setback became evident with the formation of a national unity government in July 2008. In fact, the construction of this government accorded official veto power over Lebanese politics to the March-8 camp. Moreover, in July 2009, Walid Jumblatt’s surprise defection from the March-14 alliance dealt a critical blow to the anti-Syrian movement. The defeat of March-14 was made final when the Druze chieftain enabled the formation of a March-8 government in 2011.16

Since then, the Syrian civil war and regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran have continued to re-shuffle the cards in Lebanon. In 2013, the March-8 government collapsed and was replaced by another national unity government that stayed in power until December 2016. Today, Lebanon suffers first and foremost from sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi’ites whereby the impacts of the latest political developments remain to be seen.17

The Druze of Lebanon and Kamal Jumblatt

The Lebanese Druze faced a difficult integration into the newly created Lebanon after World War I. In general, the Druze are an ethnoreligious minority in the Middle East which primarily lives in contemporary Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.18 Residents of Mount Lebanon since the Middle Ages, the Druze community of modern Lebanon had traditionally been the dominant force in the poorly accessible mountainous region. However, in the 19th century, increasing clan rivalries among the Druze and a mounting conflict with Mount Lebanon’s growing Maronite community led to a decline in Druze power. Most importantly, the French-backed Christian victory in the Maronite-Druze civil war of 1860 resulted in the collapse of the formerly dominant Druze feudal system and paved the way for Christian domination over Mount Lebanon.19 As a result, after the creation of modern Lebanon in 1920, the Druze were politically marginalized, and the newly implemented sectarian system allowed the former lords of Mount Lebanon only minimal political influence.20

Nevertheless, during the first decades following Lebanon’s independence, the Druze were able to regain political prestige under the leadership of Kamal Jumblatt. An Arab nationalist and stout supporter of the Palestinian cause, Kamal Jumblatt criticized the overwhelmingly pro-Western outlook of the Maronite-Christian elites and disdained the flawed sectarian system. Thus, as the founder of the officially secular – yet mostly Druze – Progressive Socialist Party (PSP),21 he gradually emerged as the most significant Lebanese opposition leader to the ruling Maronite establishment.22 

The beginning of the Lebanese civil war marked both the heyday and end of Kamal Jumblatt’s power. By the 1970s, Jumblatt had not only become the dominating figure of the Lebanese Druze, marginalizing other clans,23 but he had also built an impressive power base that comprised leftist-Christian, Lebanese-Muslim, and Palestinian elements. After the outbreak of civil strife in 1975, which initially pitted Jumblatt’s leftist, pan-Arab coalition against the Maronite-Christian front, the chieftain quickly gained the upper hand. Yet, while Damascus had previously supported Jumblatt to counterbalance the pro-Western Maronites, his growing dominance posed a threat to Syria’s own political agenda. Hence, in 1976, Syria intervened in Lebanon on behalf of the Christian establishment and soon contained Jumblatt. Facing military defeat and both international and domestic isolation, Kamal was eventually assassinated in March 1977 and the Druze revival abruptly stopped.24

The Lebanese Civil War, the Ascent of Walid Jumblatt, and the Druze-Syrian Alliance

Born in 1949 as Kamal Jumblatt’s only son, Walid Jumblatt belongs to a prominent Druze dynasty. Originally hailing from the Aleppo region in northern Syria, the Jumblatt-clan emigrated to Mount Lebanon in the 17th century and began to play an active role in communal politics only shortly thereafter. During the inner-Druze conflict for supremacy of the 18th and early 19th century, the Jumblatts emerged together with the rival Yazbaki-clan at the forefront of Druze political life and became an influential force in Mount Lebanon. Although the general decline of the Druze community after 1860 also diminished the Jumblatt’s importance in modern Lebanon, Kamal Jumblatt helped keep the dynasty at the forefront of domestic politics. Interestingly, during his youth in the 1960s and 1970s, Walid was not interested in participating in his father’s activism. Educated at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Walid refrained from any political involvement. Rather, he worked as a journalist at the famous Lebanon leftist daily An-Nahar and was known for being a playboy who frequently broke with Druze tradition, for example by marrying a non-Druze woman.25

Nevertheless, following his father’s assassination in 1977, Walid Jumblatt became the primary chieftain of the Lebanese Druze community and was forced to navigate the Lebanese Druze through the turmoil of the civil war. The prominence of the Jumblatt-clan and Kamal Jumblatt’s standing among the Druze provided Walid with initial legitimacy in the community.26 However, his position became more complicated as the young za’im faced increasing sectarian conflict during the 1980s. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, allied Christian-Maronite militias moved into traditionally Druze-held territories south of Beirut and intended to expel the Druze from their ancestral homeland. In response to this threat to the Druze community’s very existence, Jumblatt launched an all-out campaign against the Christian militias following Israel’s sudden withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983. During this conflict, the so-called Mountain War, lasting from 1983 until 1984, Jumblatt’s forces drove the Christians out of the Druze heartland and the young chieftain gained a decisive victory.27

The outcome of the Mountain War not only preserved the Druze but also contributed crucially to Jumblatt’s communal standing, making him the uncontested leader of the Druze minority. Firstly, Jumblatt’s authority went unquestioned as the credibility of the rival Arslan-clan, which had become the dominating family of the Yazbaki, was undermined given their long-term collusion with Maronite elites.28 Moreover, the Mountain War had elevated Jumblatt’s PSP as the main defender of the Druze and enshrined the party as the primary political voice of the community.29 In this respect, due to the de-facto disappearance of Lebanese state authority over the Druze regions during the civil war, Jumblatt began to use the PSP to oversee the fiefdom’s administration and established a sophisticated, feudal patronage network which, from then on, would serve as the foundation of his communal power.30

Jumblatt further secured his political role in the Lebanese arena and the well-being of his Druze community by forging a strategic alliance with the Syrian regime. Already in 1977, shortly after the assassination of his father, Jumblatt decided to reconcile with the Syrian regime. Although Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was alleged to have ordered the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt, Walid visited Damascus and mended fences with the autocrat. Acknowledging that the survival of the Druze was only possible by acquiring a powerful foreign sponsor, Jumblatt allied himself with the Syrian regime. Over the course of the Lebanese civil war, this relationship between Jumblatt and the Syrian regime deepened. Most importantly, Damascus provided significant logistic support to the Druze chieftain, enabling him to further establish his fiefdom in the Chouf and Aley.31 

The importance of this alliance continued even after 1990. Syria’s control over the Lebanese political system enabled Jumblatt to fortify his control of the Druze community. Benefiting from gerrymandering of electoral districts and receiving access to state resources in the form of important cabinet positions,32 Jumblatt strengthened his patronage network. In turn, his network helped him keep the community united under his leadership. For instance, to prevent the Arslan-clan from regaining influence, Jumblatt co-opted a numerous Yazbaki activists and offered them positions in his various organizations.33 Among these individuals were Marwan Hamadeh and Gaza Aridi who, on behalf of the PSP, held important government posts throughout the last 25 years and remain some of Jumblatt’s closest advisors.34 Having carved out an important place for both himself and his community, Jumblatt thus emerged from the civil war as the Druze’s uncontested communal leader. 

Walid Jumblatt leaves the Syrian Sphere of Influence

Walid Jumblatt’s honeymoon with Syria cooled down considerably during the late 1990s. Following its total occupation of Lebanon in 1990, Damascus had organically pursued a policy of mutual coexistence with its Lebanese allies, granting them considerable leeway with regards to domestic politics. This approach had given Jumblatt and the Druze community significant political influence, despite the confirmation of the Druze’s marginal status in the adjusted sectarian power-sharing formula implemented in 1989. However, power shifts in Syria during the mid-1990s changed this modus operandi. Eager to systematically eliminate opposition to his succession, Bashar al-Assad, son and heir apparent to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, started out on a process of purging the upper echelons of the Syrian regime from possible threats. In addition, Bashar tightened control over Lebanon out of fear that the close ties between Lebanon’s pro-Syrian clients, in particular Rafik Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, and major figures of the old Syrian elite would pose a danger to him. Finally, in 1998, he arranged the election of his protégé Emile Lahoud as president of Lebanon and sidelined Hariri and Jumblatt politically, excluding them from the newly formed government.35

Jumblatt responded to these drastic changes by turning against Syria in a strategic manner. Alarmed by his waning influence and afraid that the Assad regime would orchestrate his defeat in the parliamentary elections of 2000, Jumblatt began to position himself as an outspoken critic of Syria’s interference in Lebanon. He formed alliances with the mostly Christian opposition to Syria in a bid for votes from Christian voters in Aley and the Chouf.36 In August 2000, this shift paid off when the Druze leader and his new allies won a landslide victory alongside Rafik Hariri in the parliamentary elections. Thereafter, with Hariri being reinstated as prime minister, Jumblatt was allotted an important role in the new government.37 

Following this success, Jumblatt remained a critic of Syria and was rewarded for his stances with great domestic popularity. Unlike Hariri, who pursued reconciliation with the new Syrian leadership, Jumblatt further distanced himself from his former patron and called for fundamental political change in Lebanon. As a result, Jumblatt’s standing in Damascus declined drastically. The Syrian regime pursued a strategy designed to undermine Jumblatt’s standing, declaring him a persona non grata and courting Druze rivals of Jumblatt.38 However, these attempts proved unsuccessful. Instead of turning against him, both Jumblatt’s Druze and his newly gained Christian followers expressed massive support for him. In late 2000, thousands of Druze, as well as many Christians, held a massive rally at the Jumblatts’ ancestral home despite warnings from Syria.39 Moreover, prominent Druze religious figures expressed their support for Jumblatt, declaring that the “sheikhs and members of the Druze community are very upset and angry about what Jumblatt has been subjected to.”40

Considering Syria’s grip on Lebanon, it appears impressive that Jumblatt maintained his domestic standing after having renounced ties with his former patron. Indeed, the Assad regime’s inability to sideline the Druze za’im can be attributed to Jumblatt’s well-established feudal power base in the Druze community and to the Druze’s trust in the political capacities of their leader. 

More precisely, Jumblatt maintained authority primarily because he was able to rely on the above-described patronage system that he had crafted during and after the civil war. For instance, in 2000, Jumblatt’s main rival, Syria-supportive Talal Arslan, only got elected into parliament “thanks to Jumblatt’s not placing a Druze challenger in his path.”41 Likewise, knowing that a strong Lebanese state would have come at the expense of his dominance over the Druze, Jumblatt had even after 1990 opposed government authority in the Chouf and Aley.42 Therefore, having had successfully marginalized opposition within his community and monopolized administrative authority over the Druze throughout the 1990s, Jumblatt could alter his political stances towards Syria without fearing substantial repercussions arising within the Druze community. 

Moreover, it can be inferred that Jumblatt’s previous successful protection of the Druze created a strong sense of followership which was immune to outside interference. Indeed, Jumblatt’s decision to establish himself as a critic of the Syrian role in Lebanon reflected his previous efforts to safeguard the Druze community. Against the backdrop of Lebanon’s highly sectarian state, Jumblatt’s decision to join sides with the Christian opposition coincided with the Druze political reality in Lebanon. As Michael Young notes, “after 1992 Jumblatt revived a time-honored belief that his community’s future was inexorably tied to that of the Maronites.”43 In an increasingly Sunni-Shi’a dominated Lebanon, Jumblatt knew that the small Druze population could only remain a political factor if it renewed its relations with the sidelined Christians and thus entered their struggle against Syrian domination.44 Hence, acknowledging Jumblatt’s previous strategic successes, the Druze were given a strong incentive to stand behind their leader despite his break with Damascus.

Walid Jumblatt at the Forefront of the Cedar Revolution

Reaffirmed in his position, Jumblatt continued to step up his criticism of Syria’s inference in Lebanon in the mid-2000s. He started to openly condemn the political role of Syria’s proxy Hezbollah. Moreover, Jumblatt continuously denounced the Syria-backed policies of President Emile Lahoud and his political entourage. When the Assad regime forced the Lebanese parliament to extend Lahoud’s presidential term for another three years in 2004, Jumblatt and Hariri undertook more tangible steps against Syria. Encouraged by wide-ranging international support,45 they formed a broad anti-Syrian coalition and openly called for the total withdrawal of Syria’s military and intelligence units.46 

Following the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005, Jumblatt emerged as the primary leader of the anti-Syrian opposition. Emboldened by the international support for the anti-Syrian project and the electoral victory of the newly formed March-14 coalition in the 2005 parliamentary election,47 Jumblatt attempted to position himself as a true national leader and engineer sustainable change in Lebanon. In particular, he began to drastically lash out at Hezbollah, accusing the organization of aiding Syrian interference and trying to take Lebanon hostage: 

“Hezbollah’s ideology is the biggest threat to Lebanon’s future and peaceful coexistence and democracy… Hezbollah has a plan and this plan is to bring the country under its control. It had built strong institutions, a military arsenal, and a network of communications [that are] much better than the ones of the Lebanese state.” 48

He further declared: 

“Hezbollah is a tool in the hands of Iran and Syria… Its weapons are a big threat to Lebanon’s internal stability and should be brought under the control of the Lebanese state.” 49

In fact, Jumblatt understood that a new Lebanon marked by true national coexistence and ensuring the safety of the Druze minority could only be achieved by removing Syria’s influence on the country and undermining the superior position of Syria’s allies, first and foremost Hezbollah. Ever since the creation of the Shi’a militia, Jumblatt had feared its staunchly Islamist agenda, which posed a real threat to the Druze community. The relationship between the Druze and Hezbollah had thereby been “characterized by total political dissonance, an absolute conflict of interests between those who aim at preserving the status quo of a pluralistic society [the Druze] and those seeking, from the point of view of the former, its ultimate dissolution [Hezbollah].”50

While Jumblatt was the head of the March-14 movement in 2006 and 2007, the situation had become even more precarious for the Druze. Leaked US cables reveal that Jumblatt was not only concerned that Hezbollah intended to become a permanent state-within-a-state. He also increasingly feared Shi’ite population growth and Hezbollah’s massive efforts to purchase land in traditionally Druze and Christians areas in the mountain regions southeast of Beirut (primarily the Chouf).51 More precisely, he was afraid that Hezbollah intended “to cut the traditional Druze territory in half and install a Shia population loyal to Hezbollah.”52 Hence, the Druze chieftain was determined to reduce Hezbollah’s power, and, in 2008, tensions between Jumblatt and the Shi’a militia escalated. As Hezbollah and its March-8 allies had brought the March-14-dominated government to a standstill and disputes between both camps over the successor of Emile Lahoud further paralyzed the country, Jumblatt publicly revealed clandestine information on Hezbollah’s communication networks and urged the Lebanese government to dismantle these activities. In response, Hezbollah invaded both Beirut, defeating private security forces aligned with Saad Harri’s Sunni Future Movement, and the Chouf and Aley District, battling Druze fighters belonging to Jumblatt.53 

Jumblatt’s authority among the Druze appeared to have been ambivalent during his time as spearhead of the anti-Syrian coalition. On the one hand, Jumblatt scored considerable victories in the municipal elections of 2004 and the parliamentary election of 2005 while the results of his Druze rivals were rather mediocre.54 This can be interpreted as a clear sign of support for Jumblatt’s political shift, as the Druze, as aforementioned, considered his new approach beneficial for the community’s long-term well-being. On the other hand, Jumblatt was eager to receive continued financial support from the international Arab sponsors of the March-14 movement, most importantly Saudi Arabia, in order to maintain his feudal patronage network and outspend his Druze rivals. For instance, US cables reveal Jumblatt’s criticism of Saad Hariri for not supplying him with the same amounts Rafik Hariri had used to,55 and state that Jumblatt almost ran out of cash in mid-2006.56 Thus, it seems that Jumblatt’s patronage network was challenged during this period and that his feudal authority was at least to some extent under pressure. 

Nevertheless, given Hezbollah’s expansionist agenda, it can be argued that Jumblatt’s fierce anti-Hezbollah stances generally matched Druze public opinion and that the Druze thus firmly supported their za’im. When the Shi’a militia entered Aley and the Chouf in May 2008, the Druze rallied behind Jumblatt and fervently battled the intruders. Even fighters belonging to Talal Arslan, who had joined the Hezbollah-led March-8 camp and continued to be an ally to Syria, joined the combat on behalf of Jumblatt and fought against Hezbollah.57 Likewise, the emergence of the radical Druze group Dai Ammar, which received attention during the 2008 clashes due to its grim resistance towards Hezbollah, highlights the Druze disdain of Hezbollah. Vowing to protect the Druze people and homeland at any cost, the group’s standpoints were far more radical than Jumblatt’s policy.58 Therefore, it can be concluded that the Druze were ready to follow their communal chieftain and remained loyal throughout the mid-2000s, even as conflict shook the community.

Walid Jumblatt tipping the Scales

However, in the aftermath of the 2008 conflict, Jumblatt recognized that the weakness of the March-14 project could seriously endanger the Druze community. The ‘mini civil war’ of 2008 had not only revealed the inability of the anti-Syrian movement to bring about real change in Lebanon, but had also demonstrated the continuous strength of the pro-Syrian camp. Recognizing the defeat of March-14 and particularly the Druze’s powerlessness, Jumblatt, in discussions with U.S. diplomats, accused Hezbollah of trying to remove the Druze from the Chouf, yet acknowledged that the Hezbollah-led March-8 camp had won.59 Commenting on his decision to prevent his militiamen from going after defeated Hezbollah fighters, he remarked: 

“I am avoiding war… because I don’t want the Druze to be ‘cleansed’ from the Chouf. I don’t care if I lose my personal prestige in the process… I’m a politician. Setbacks happen. We must accept it and move on. They [Hezbollah and its March-8 allies] have humiliated us, but what can we do now?” 60 

The March-14 defeat was indeed serious. The Doha agreement of May 2008, a meeting involving all major Lebanese factions aimed at dispersing tensions and creating a new political modus vivendi, underlined the defeat of the anti-Syrian project and implied that “a new political geography had been created in Lebanon in which the Shiite community controls access to political power in Lebanon and no government can rule without Shiite approval.”61 Moreover, the departure of the hawkish Bush administration and the coming to power of Barack Obama, who promoted a rapprochement with Damascus, combined with attempts by Saudi Arabia to improve ties with Bashar al-Assad showed Jumblatt that international support for his endeavors was crumbling.62

Therefore, in a strategic attempt to protect the Druze, Jumblatt decided to abandon his staunch anti-Syrian orientation. Aware of the collapse of international support for the March-14 project and of an imminent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria, which would have forced Saad Hariri to alter his stances towards Damascus, Jumblatt wanted to avoid Druze isolation at any cost.63 He knew that the Druze could not bear a lasting conflict with the Shi’ites and their Syrian patron. 

Rather, Jumblatt reconciled with the pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon. After he had realized that it was impossible to break Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon, he decided that it was better for the sake of Druze survival to side with the winning party.64 Having officially remained committed to the movement until June 2009, in order to manipulate the alliance to secure victory in the parliamentary elections of the same year,65 Jumblatt finally declared his departure from the anti-Syrian collation in August 2009. Entirely shifting his rhetoric, he remarked, that “protecting the Druze will be realized by means of the broad Arab horizon… Their protection lies in Arabism and in Syria – without which they will be trampled.”66

Accordingly, throughout 2009 and 2010, Jumblatt worked relentlessly on reconciliation with the pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon, first and foremost Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime.67 In 2011, Jumblatt finally formed a tactical alliance with the pro-Syrian camp. Contributing to the breakdown of Saad Hariri’s national unity government in January, he enabled the formation of a March-8 government in June of the same year.68 

The Druze followed Jumblatt unenthusiastically this time. In a closed-door meeting with several important Druze sheikhs in June 2008, Jumblatt struggled to win the religious authorities for his policy of reconciliation.69 In addition, Jumblatt’s support for the formation of a March-8-led government “left his community at a loss for words and many of its members torn between conflicting sentiments” whereby “Druze in the Chouf Mountains were up in arms [over Jumblatt’s stances].70 Considering the community’s general suspicion against Hezbollah’s practices and the clashes of May 2008, these attitudes are not surprising. 

Yet Jumblatt had to face neither serious criticism nor Druze opposition to his approach towards Syria and March-8. Rather, the community stood behind their za’im and “many of Jumblatt’s followers said they understand his tactic.”71 

Clearly, Jumblatt’s well-established feudal standing made it impossible for anyone to seriously challenge his authority. Since 1983, Jumblatt had been the uncontested communal leader of the Druze and, over the decades, his authority had essentially marginalized any other voices in the community.72 Besides, the only real existing opposition to Jumblatt, the Arslan-clan, was already a Hezbollah ally and in fact coordinated Jumblatt’s reconciliation with the pro-Syrian camp.73 Thus, he enjoyed substantial room for maneuvering with regards to Druze communal politics and made use of this freedom when switching sides after 2009. Nevertheless, it would be too simple to just ascribe the support to Jumblatt’s feudal sway.

Rather, the Druze leader’s overall success at safeguarding the community and providing it with political relevance constituted the main reason behind his status. In the sectarian power-sharing system of modern Lebanon, the numerically inferior Druze have been allotted only minimal powers. Being given eight parliamentary seats and no guaranteed prominent position in the state or the bureaucracy, the community is formally deprived of any political clout. However, Jumblatt’s acumen had constantly placed the Druze at the center of Lebanese politics, allowing the community to play a role that greatly exceeded their formal powers. Considering that Jumblatt tipped the scales between the March-14 movement and the March-8 camp after his defection from the anti-Syrian camp, his reconciliation with the pro-Syrian forces implied that the Druze once again exerted disproportional political influence.

Thus, Jumblatt has succeeded at deeply enshrining his role among the Druze, who depend on his skills in order to compensate for their formal political insignificance. Indeed, as Abbas Halabi notes, “only the presence of Walid Jumblatt is compensating for this general weakness through the political and social mobilization that he generates.”74 Jumblatt himself recognizes this pattern and replied once when asked about his political motivation: “I have these 200,000 Druse I have to look out for.”75 The apparent ‘weather vane,’ Jumblatt essentially never changed his fundamental political principle of protecting the Druze at all costs, a behavior rewarded by his people with absolute followership. 

The latest episode of Jumblatt’s performance was detectable after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, when Jumblatt turned anew against Syria. Once again, he criticized the Assad regime and condemned Hezbollah for intervening in the conflict against Lebanese interests and committing war crimes.76 In 2014, Jumblatt and Saudi Arabia engineered the formation of Tamman Salam’s national unity government. In doing so, Jumblatt once again occupied a political role that was larger than the Druze’s formal role in Lebanese politics.77 As of today, Jumblatt is still a critic of Damascus, but he has been keen to grant himself considerable political flexibly within Lebanon’s domestic political arena.78

Conclusion and Outlook

In 1977, Walid Jumblatt succeeded his late father, Kamal Jumblatt, as the primary za’im of the Lebanese Druze. Today, almost 40 years later, Walid continues to be the uncontested leader of his community. Over the last four decades, he has established a firm position within in the Druze community through his feudal patronage network. Moreover, during this time, Jumblatt has continuously won over his Druze followers and has created an approach to domestic leadership which, despite its seemingly unpredictable flip-flopping, has always been guided by a steady will to safeguard his community. 

Based on the results of this analysis, it can be predicted that Jumblatt’s determination to protect his people will continue to determine his policies in the future. Thus, considering the current course of the Syrian civil war, it is very likely that the Jumblatt za’im would shift his outlook again if the Assad regime was to reemerge as the dominant political player in the Levant. This time, however, the path to reconciliation would be cleared by Walid Jumblatt’s first son, Taymour, who will run for parliament in the general elections of 2017 instead of his father.79 After forty years at the forefront of Lebanese politics, Walid seems ready to gradually retire and let his offspring continue his legacy.80 Hence, the prospects for future Druze politics appear to be set, and Taymour’s marriage with the daughter of a prominent Shi’ite family81 can be interpreted as a sign to which political side the Jumblatts’ will mostly likely lean in the near future. 

This study has also exemplified the importance of leadership in Lebanon and has therefore highlighted the importance of studying Lebanese political leaders for understanding the country’s politics. Thus, considering that studies on Lebanese political leadership are rare, it calls on academia to conduct further research on the topic. Moreover, having shed light on a za’im who stands out among Lebanon’s leaders, this analysis has also underlined the impacts of individual political acumen. 

Therefore, this paper concludes with an appeal to Lebanon’s political class to create a more capable Lebanese state. Considering the country’s manifold challenges and its recurring political stalemates, Lebanon is in dire need of stronger institutional structures that move political power away from sectarian chieftains and enable political practices which truly serve the public interest.

Sebastian Gerlach is currently a first-year MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), concentrating in Middle East Studies. Having studied and worked in Egypt and Lebanon, he is particularly interested in the Levant and Lebanese domestic as well as communal politics.