Lebanon’s ‘Kingmaker’ Walid Jumblatt is Keeping it in the Family
Son of the founder of Lebanon’s ideologically secular Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Kamal Jumblatt and grandson of Prince Shakib Arslan, Walid Jumblatt is the long-time leader of the Lebanese Druze community and took over the PSP leadership after his father was assassinated in 1977. In the parliamentary elections in May 2018, his son Taymour Walid Jumblatt replaced him as a candidate.
Born in 1949, Walid Jumblatt grew up surrounded by politics. He studied political sciences and public administration at the American University of Beirut until 1982, when he started working as a journalist for An-Nahar, then a centre-left newspaper. His first real political experience came a year later, when he formed the Syrian-backed National Salvation Front with the Maronite politician Suleiman Frangieh and statesman Rashid Karami to challenge the newly elected President Amine Gemayel, leader of the Christian Kataeb (Falange) Party. Jumblatt served as minister of public works, transport and tourism in the National Unity cabinet led by Karami, which was formed in May 1984.
He is married to Nora Jumblatt, the president of the famous annual Beiteddine Festival and a prominent humanitarian figure known for establishing schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The couple has three children.
He was initially pro-Syrian, despite believing that Syria’s former President Hafez al-Assad had his father assassinated in 1977 in order to face alliances between Israel and Lebanese political factions. However, his support for Syria faded following al-Assad’s death in 2000, and he increasingly rejected Syrian influence in Lebanon. He was not afraid to alienate other Syria supporters such as the Shiite party Hezbollah, even saying to the Chicago Tribune in August 2006, “Their fighters have done a good job defying and defeating the Israeli army, OK, but the question we ask is where their allegiance goes: to a Lebanese strong central authority or somewhere else?”
In the 2009 general elections, he won a seat as part of the March 14 Alliance, a coalition of political groups and independents formed in 2005 that are united by their anti-Syrian regime stance and opposition to the pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance.
Following the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, he claimed that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for creating the radical jihadist al-Nusra Front. In an interview with the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in February 2015, he said, “There are Syrians who were left with no choice but to join this group. They found it a way to triumph over the terrorism of the Syrian regime. What can I say to them? Shall I call them terrorists? I will not do that. They are not terrorists, despite the Arab and international claims in this regard.”
Despite frequently courting controversy, Jumblatt has often been considered a breath of fresh air in Lebanese politics, for example calling for the legalization of cannabis in 2014, saying in an interview with al-Jadeed television, “Never in my life have I smoked marijuana, but I support growing cannabis for medical use and to improve the living conditions of farmers in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley [where most cannabis comes from].”
His blunt manner has also seen him become something of a Twitter celebrity, after opening an account in 2014. His tweets on everything from his favourite foods and his dog Oscar to national and international politics has won him 728,000 followers.
He remains politically active, despite confirming Taymour as his political heir in March 2017. For example, he blamed Saudi Arabia for the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in November 2017. “The Lebanese have enough experience and knowledge to deal with their affairs through dialogue. We do not want dictates from across the borders that go against their interests,” he said. The same month, he called for discussions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who back competing factions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the last of which has become a central arena for a regional power tussle. Addressing Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, he said: “The challenges are tremendous and the modernization of the kingdom is an Islamic and Arabic necessity, but this mission cannot be successful while the Yemen war continues.”
Jumblatt remains an important and political figure and charismatic character who might keep on surprising people.