x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jumblatt denies move to opposition

Druze leader says he wants to be independent and has not applied to join the Hizbollah-led March 8 grouping.

BEIRUT // The decision by the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt on Sunday to leave the majority alliance that won Lebanon's parliamentary elections in June has disrupted efforts to forge a consensus cabinet. But it should not be seen as a move against his former allies, Mr Jumblatt and his followers said in media interviews yesterday. The decision by Mr Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party and his allies in the Democratic Gathering to align with President Michel Suleiman's bloc will not include a formal alliance with the Hizbollah-led opposition. Although the majority would still hold a three-seat margin in the 128-member parliament if Mr Jumblatt joined with the opposition, a shift along those lines would have greatly increased the difficulty of forming a cabinet.

However, Mr Jumblatt denied any intention to change the current status quo in that balance of power. "The majority will remain a majority," Mr Jumblatt told local media in remarks published yesterday in several newspapers and aired on news television channels. "I want to be independent ? I did not apply to join March 8," he said, referring to the Hizbollah-led opposition. The news that his long-time ally had abandoned the so-called March 14 political alliance reportedly irritated prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, who almost immediately departed Lebanon for an unscheduled holiday in France without making any public statements about the matter. His behaviour fuelled speculation that he might withdraw as the designated prime minister, but prominent figures in the majority and opposition denied that Mr Hariri would bow out.

Mr Jumblatt, however, used the media attention that came on the heels of Sunday's decision to leave the March 14 movement, which formed as a popular uprising against Syrian control of Lebanon in the wake of the 2005 murder of Mr Hariri's father, Rafiq, a popular former prime minister, to explain that he planned to support the independent bloc of parliament loyal to the president. He said he had no plans to hurt the majority's quest for a national unity government.

"There is a sufficient number of deputies in the Democratic Gathering to vote with the majority," Mr Jumblatt said, adding that "this government is a national reconciliation one, and somewhere in this title there's a sign that the president is the guarantor, so let us therefore join the president in forming this government". Rami Rayess, a spokesman for Mr Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, told New TV that the departure from the majority was final, "but it's not to join another group".

But even as he moved to quell concerns about the effect his decision would have on Lebanon's surprisingly stable current political environment, Mr Jumblatt did repeat his demand for three seats in the 30 person cabinet, although it is unclear which faction would allocate him his share of seats. He was to have received the seats from the March 14 movement's share of 15 seats - the opposition will have 10 seats and the president five - prior to Sunday's political betrayal but now it remains unclear where those seats will come from.

Lebanese political sources close to both March 14 and Mr Jumblatt said his votes in parliament and the cabinet would generally adhere to the president's agenda, although he would support the opposition's position towards armed resistance to Israel and plans to support the majority on "day-to-day governing matters". "He'll vote to allow Hariri to become prime minister but he will also vote to protect the weapons of the resistance," said one political figure that asked to remain anonymous while discussing Hizbollah's weapons.

"The fighting between his supporters and Hizbollah made him realise the danger that his positions against the resistance and Syria were putting the Druze community into. But realistically, Walid Beyk [Mr Jumblatt] has always been a supporter of resistance and an opponent of Israel, so regionally, this move makes more sense than Sheikh Saad [Mr Hariri] would like to admit." A series of sectarian clashes between March 14 and the Hizbollah-led opposition in May 2008 saw widespread fighting in the Druze-controlled Chouf Mountains between the PSP and Hizbollah. Although they initially fought to a draw, the much larger and better-armed Shiite community would pose a serious military threat to the Druze community should any fighting resume.

One Hizbollah supporter said it was these clashes that led Mr Jumblatt to move to protect himself and his community in an attempt to emulate his father, Kamal Jumblatt, a famous socialist leader and philosopher who was killed by the Syrians during the Lebanese civil war. "People have to understand that Walid is not Kamal, but now he is trying to play his father's game," said Ali Zorik, a barber in the Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut.

"He is going back to the left and speaking about labour rights, suddenly starts speaking about the peasants. This is Walid Jumblatt since he took over the PSP, he had never been stable and is always looking for a safe path for him and the Druze. Protecting the sect is his priority. I think after May 7 last year, the Druze realised they don't want any problems with the strongest party in Lebanon, the Shiite and Hizbollah."

On Monday, according to sources in the PSP, Mr Jumblatt met with the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, who invited him on a state visit to Iran later this summer. And in keeping with his new approach, he reportedly turned down an offer to meet with the new Obama administration in Washington. mprothero@thenational.ae