“Valentine” is not a word that comes readily to mind in connection with Walid Jumblatt. “Warlord” has been a more common description since the 1970s, and more recently one hears the phrase “dead man walking” uttered in the streets of Beirut. But as Jumblatt stood behind a bullet-proof barrier before the hundreds of thousands of people who filled Martyrs’ Square in the Lebanese capital today, it struck me as I watched on television that this wild-looking, straight-talking, passionate, calculating, eccentric hereditary leader of the small Druze religious sect deserves not only our attention but our hearts.
At a time when the Bush administration’s commitment to democracy in the Arab world looks ever more situational and cynical, Jumblatt has taken a stand so far out in front of other Lebanese politicians, and so far beyond anything Washington is willing to commit to publicly, that it’s not surprising his admirers think he’ll be killed in the next few days or weeks or months. Jumblatt is calling not only for freedom in Lebanon, but in effect for the overthrow of the Syrian president he called today “the terrorist tyrant Bashar al-Assad.” As a close friend of mine and Jumblatt’s told me over the phone from Beirut this afternoon, “What Walid’s doing is very useful, but he’s doing it because he knows he’s finished and he’s got nothing left to lose.”
Most people in Europe or the United States read Middle East headlines as if they’ve just erupted out of nowhere, but Lebanon’s chronicles, if you pay attention, are full of deaths foretold.
The occasion for all the speeches in Martyrs’ Square today was the first anniversary of the murder of Lebanese billionaire and ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a Valentine’s Day massacre carried out with an enormous truck bomb on the sea front boulevard that killed 23 people and injured hundreds. Hariri and Jumblatt had been maneuvering, then, to force the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had dominated Lebanon for most of 20 years. Assad, by several accounts, was furious about their opposition. “You should know that I am the decision maker,” he allegedly told Hariri after summoning him to Damascus in August 2004. “Whoever works against my will, I will crush him.”
One of Jumblatt’s top associates, former economy minister Marwan Hamadeh, was the target of a car bomb attack five weeks later. I saw Hariri a few days after that, and he clearly understood that Damascus was on the attack. He might have thought Assad wouldn’t dare to try to kill him, but he took a lot of precautions. Hariri was traveling in a bullet-proof car in a six-vehicle convoy when the well-placed bomb took his life.
The shock waves that followed Hariri’s death surprised the Lebanese, stunned the Syrians, and seemed to vindicate the Bush administration’s calls for greater democracy in the Middle East—a stated purpose for the nightmare adventure in Iraq. One month after Hariri died, on March 14 last year, a million people poured into the center of Beirut to demand that the Syrians leave. By the end of the following month, the Syrian troops were gone. In May, Lebanon held the first elections in decades supposedly free of Syrian manipulation. Interim reports by United Nations investigators implicated mid-level Syrian officials in the Hariri murder along with their cronies in the Lebanese intelligence services.
But a year after the Hariri assassination, other nearby areas of the Middle East are in such turmoil that the Bush administration’s grand designs for democracy have started to sound as ill conceived as its plans to put people on Mars. Iraq remains a vast wound to the region and to American hopes. Egyptian elections were managed in such a way that moderates were discredited and eliminated, and the Muslim Brotherhood became the government’s biggest challenger. Iran’s silent majority remained so silent last year that the country elected the incendiary new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is now pushing forward to develop nuclear technology that could give Tehran atomic weapons. In the Palestinian territories, the democratic process replaced discredited peacemakers with the terrorists (or freedom fighters) of Hamas. Far from respecting that outcome, the United States and Israel are now reported to be doing everything in their power to undermine the new government.
As the momentum for democracy and freedom in the Middle East slowed down, the voices demanding change in Lebanon found themselves dangerously exposed, and the aspirations of spring gave way to assassinations in the summer and fall. Journalist Samir Kassir was killed; anchor woman May Chidiac was maimed for life; publisher and parliamentarian Gebran Tueni was killed.
Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, was elected to parliament in May, but has lived in Paris and Saudi Arabia for most of the last six months out of fear for his life. Jumblatt has spent most of the last year in the partially restored family castle at Mokhtara, high in the Shouf Mountains. When I saw him there last May, I noticed half a dozen vertical steel in-boxes on his desk. In each one stood a 9-mm pistol.
Make no mistake about Jumblatt. Through the 15 years of Lebanon’s civil war, and in the 15 years since, he’s had no shortage of blood on his hands. But the Middle East is not a place where tolerance is much respected, and those who would change it must first understand its brutal realities. For whatever complicated reasons, Hariri and Jumblatt and those closest to them came to the conclusion that freedom was the future, and Jumblatt is hanging on to that vision no matter what. “He knows that whatever he does, the Syrian regime will not forgive him,” says our mutual friend. “He figures that since there is no forgiveness, he’s a dead man walking—and that’s why he can say what he says, and do what he does.”
The question for the Bush administration’s advocates of democracy is whether they will embrace Jumblatt, or leave him up on his mountain, a dead man waiting. I suspect that’s what we’ll see. But I hope—and one has to hope—that he’ll be around next Valentine’s Day. Walid Jumblatt is a man with a lot of heart.