Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is one of the great survivors of Lebanese politics. However, his recent decision to abandon former Prime Minister Saad Hariri may come back to haunt him.
Jumblatt shifts with the wind, but so do Lebanese fortunes
Always watch Walid Jumblatt carefully. The Lebanese Druze leader has been at the heart of Syria and Hizbollah's attempts to prevent the return of Saad Hariri as Lebanon's prime minister. It has often been said that where Lebanon goes, Mr Jumblatt follows - although on many occasions the contrary has been true. If so, a look back at his actions in the past few weeks will give us a better sense of the trials and errors this week that have heightened tension in Beirut.
The importance of Mr Jumblatt is that after the 2009 elections, it was his parliamentary bloc that could hand the majority to the Hariri-led March 14 coalition or, conversely, to the rival Hizbollah-led coalition. While the Druze leader's candidates were elected as allies of March 14, Mr Jumblatt was then preparing to move closer to Syria, after having been its most ardent foe following the assassination four years earlier of Rafik Hariri. The acrobat in Mr Jumblatt sensed that because of the Syrian-Saudi reconciliation in early 2009, Mr Hariri would be pushed by Riyadh to reconcile with Syria; therefore, Mr Jumblatt had to do so too, or he would be left hanging out to dry.
From that moment on, Mr Jumblatt was helpless. He had a Canossa to climb in order to regain Syrian approval (and the humiliations came hard and fast), and knew that his community was exposed militarily to Hizbollah, which had attacked Druze mountain villages in May 2008, to Mr Jumblatt's alarm. His parliamentarians were tallied with those of the majority led by March 14, but it was a matter of time before Syria would ask him to go all the way in his new alignments.
Two weeks ago the Hariri government was brought down when Hizbollah's ministers and their allies resigned. This was precipitated by two developments: continuing discord within the government over Hizbollah and Syria's demand that Mr Hariri take measures to sever Lebanon's relations with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to identify and try those involved in the Hariri assassination; and the breakdown in a Syrian-Saudi dialogue over Lebanon that, from Damascus's and Hizbollah's perspectives, was meant to facilitate this severing of relations. But Washington warned the Saudis that they should not endorse steps against the tribunal, and the dialogue ended.
To form a government, the president consults with parliamentary blocs, takes a poll and determines who has the most votes. After the recent government collapse, Hizbollah and its allies vowed that Mr Hariri would not return to office, fearing he would continue stalling on the tribunal. Mr Jumblatt, in contrast, announced that his bloc would nominate Mr Hariri as the most representative Sunni. Consultations were delayed, however, and within days Hizbollah had exerted pressure on Mr Jumblatt to give his votes to the opposition's candidate. Last week, the Druze leader yielded, announcing that he would side with the candidate of "Syria and the resistance", which many people took to mean Omar Karami, a former prime minister.
By Sunday, however, it was apparent that Mr Karami could not win against Mr Hariri. Mr Jumblatt's 11-member bloc was divided, with several parliamentarians promising to vote for Mr Hariri. Hizbollah agreed to what appeared to be a Syrian decision to replace Mr Karami with a more credible candidate: the former prime minister Najib Miqati. However, Mr Hariri warned that he would resist any effort by the opposition, Hizbollah in particular, to marginalise him politically despite his being the most legitimate Sunni leader.
At the end of two-day parliamentary consultations on Tuesday, Mr Miqati got the nod. He had sought to present himself as a compromise candidate, however Mr Hariri rejected this, warning that he and his allies would refuse to participate in a government formed by Hizbollah. Sunnis all around Lebanon began protesting against the decision to name Mr Miqati.
The fate of Mr Jumblatt is instructive in this regard. The Druze leader voted for Mr Miqati, but four of his bloc members abandoned him. Mr Jumblatt dissolved his Democratic Gathering bloc and renamed his remaining parliamentarians the National Struggle Front. However, he now will have to face the consequences of his actions. Two of Mr Jumblatt's Druze parliamentarians were elected in Sunni-majority districts and more than 30 per cent of the electorate in the Shouf (one of two electoral districts effectively controlled by the Druze leader) is Sunni. The Sunnis will not soon forget Mr Jumblatt's disloyalty, when his better instincts initially were to bring Mr Hariri back to office.
Hizbollah and Syria have placed themselves in a volatile situation, by opening up a Pandora's box of sectarian resentment. Even when the March 14 coalition was a majority, it never sought to impose its own candidate as speaker of parliament, a post reserved for the Shiite community. Under the circumstances, it will be tricky for Mr Miqati to form a broadly representative government, but there is still debate in the Hariri camp over whether to go back on a boycott. If the prime minister-elect can take office, his cabinet may still be viewed as a Hizbollah creation. Talk of a team of technocrats has circulated, but it would have little of the political cover required to take the contentious decision of cutting off Lebanon's ties with the special tribunal.
Mr Jumblatt's fortunes are a good illustration of what haste can do. The Druze leader has survived worse situations. However, in their hurriedness to cripple the tribunal, Hizbollah and Syria may have burnt valuable cards: Mr Miqati's repute has been gravely damaged and Mr Jumblatt was forced to take risks, potentially suicidal ones politically, in an endeavour whose outcome remains uncertain. And the dangerous aftershocks of the Miqati gambit are not yet over.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle