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Dispatches From a Small Planet: Lebanon/Syria, May 2005

FRONTLINE/World dispatches: Lebanon/Syria

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May 10, 2005
Syria: Measuring the Mood in Damascus

May 3, 2005
Sunday at the Castle With Walid

April 26, 2005
Border Town: Stopping the Insurgents

April 22, 2005
Part 1: At Home in the Garden of Eden
Part 2: The Warning

April 12, 2005
Notes from the Road to Damascus

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Lebanon - Muslims and Christians share political power in Lebanon, according to a system called "confessional democracy."
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Syria - Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, was elected in a referendum in which he was the only candidate.
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Dispatch 4

May 3, 2005

FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye and series editor Stephen Talbot continue their series of dispatches from the Middle East, where they have been reporting for the next broadcast of FRONTLINE/World on May 17.

This week, the two get an audience with the de facto opposition leader, Walid Jumblatt, at his ancestral castle in the Chouf Mountains southeast of Beirut. Jumblatt, in turns pugnacious and charming, talks about a new era in Lebanon and of the chances of disarming Hezbollah -- and is surprisingly pragmatic about Syria.

Sunday at the Castle With Walid
Walid Jumblatt

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt at his ancestral home in the Chouf Mountains, southeast of Beirut.
by Stephen Talbot

Walid Jumblatt is a political caricaturist's dream. He looks like an R. Crumb character -- bug-eyed, beak-nosed and bald, with a furry mustache and a fringe of untamed graying hair. He has a woeful demeanor, but a comic smile. He is the instantly recognizable face of the Lebanese opposition.

Educated at the American University of Beirut and in France, Jumblatt, 55, is a cosmopolitan man -- a one-time motorcycle-riding playboy who became a socialist, a member of parliament and the leader of the Druze, one of Lebanon's key minority groups.

It's Sunday morning, and reporter Kate Seelye, cameraman Vatche Boulghourjian and I are on our way to interview Jumblatt at his ancestral castle in the town of Moukhtara in the Chouf Mountains, a 90-minute drive southeast of Beirut. Aside from some lightning trips abroad to firm up international support, Jumblatt has been holed up in his fortress since the 2005 Valentine's Day assassination of his ally, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, fearful that he might be next. It is not an idle conceit. The Syrians had warned Hariri and Jumblatt not to oppose them politically, and the two men had discussed between themselves which one might be killed first. Jumblatt's father, Kamal, was assassinated in 1977 during the early years of Lebanon's civil war, and everyone assumes the Syrians were responsible for that murder too.

"The Syrians came into Lebanon on the body of Kamal Jumblatt, and they are leaving on the body of Rafiq Hariri," Marwan Hamade, an opposition member of parliament, had told us.

The switchback road to Jumblatt's retreat takes us into the rocky terrain of the Druze, a secretive sect, representing about 10 percent of Lebanon's 4 million people. They consider themselves to be Muslims, but most Sunnis and Shiites would disagree. They revere an 11th-century caliph who disappeared, and they are awaiting his return. The Druze share these terraced mountains and deep canyons with Maronite Christians.

Jumblatt answers questions

Walid Jumblatt answers questions, including many from his Druze supporters who have gathered in the courtyard of his heavily guarded home.
Politically, the Druze are a swing group, forming and breaking alliances with Muslims and Christians. Between 1975 and 1990, in Lebanon's brutal civil war, the Druze fought almost everyone at some point. Initially, the Druze clashed with Syrian troops. But later in the war, in a particularly bloody phase, Jumblatt secured Syrian weapons to ward off attacks by right-wing Christian forces. He formed this alliance with Syria even though he believed they had murdered his father.

As our Sunni driver keeps reminding me, "Mr. Steve, in Lebanon, no one is innocent."

When we arrive at the imposing gates to Jumblatt's castle, we are stopped by armed guards, who direct us into a waiting room. With so many visitors here, they have the drill down cold. It's like going through security at an airport. Within minutes we are cleared to enter, and we make our way up a long flight of stone stairs, past a beautiful tree-shaded courtyard and over a narrow, surging stream of cold mountain water. We are ushered into an elegant Oriental room whose walls bear formal photographs and oil portraits of Jumblatt's ancestors.

We'd been waiting for an interview with Jumblatt for two weeks, and it was beginning to feel like "Waiting for Godot." Jumblatt had an excellent excuse -- he was preoccupied with all the political intrigue and negotiating that was constantly going on behind the scenes as the Lebanese opposition coalesced and pressured the Syrian troops to leave. Then suddenly, late last night, we received word that he was ready to see us the next morning, just back from a trip to Paris where he met with the exiled Lebanese general Michel Aoun, a prominent Christian leader who is about to reenter the political scene in Beirut.

Now at last, here was Jumblatt, dressed in his usual jeans and blue blazer, shuffling into the room, drowsy after his night flight from Paris. He sits, he sighs, he stretches his long legs. He shrugs -- he likes to shrug -- and that's the signal. We begin.

Seelye talks to Jumblatt

FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye talks one-on-one with Jumblatt about Syria's troop withdrawal and an emerging new order in Lebanon.
Seelye asks, "Did you ever think you'd see the day when Syria would withdraw from Lebanon?"

"No, but this earthquake, the assassination of Hariri, caused their departure," says Jumblatt. "At the same time, I don't feel like all the Lebanese that are joyful. ... I don't want the Syrians to feel humiliated, defeated."

"You've toned down a bit," replies Seelye. "The last time I saw you, you were very angry about Syria turning Lebanon into a police state."

"Now it's over, now it's over," insists Jumblatt. "Now we have to think about the future. It's the start of a new era."

They say that Jumblatt is the weather vane of Lebanese politics, shifting alliances as soon as he senses a change in the wind. The wily politician cooperated with Damascus until the death of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in 2000. At that point, Jumblatt began to agitate for a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon. Now, suddenly, they are gone, and Jumblatt, already, is adjusting to the new order.

"I was raised as an Arab defending the Palestinian cause," explains Jumblatt. "I don't like it when in the streets of Damascus I could be considered as an enemy, as a traitor. I don't like it."

That may be self-protection, but it's also the new line: Syria has gone and that's great, but Syria is not our enemy. Lebanon has a long history with its larger, if poorer, neighbor, and Jumblatt doesn't want to be part of any U.S.-backed regime change in Damascus.

"Of course there should be change [in Syria], but gradual change," argues Jumblatt. "I don't like some people in Washington pushing for instability in Syria -- Instability in Syria will lead to instability in Lebanon."

As he speaks with Seelye, Jumblatt is alternately charming and pugnacious. He talks in short bursts of energy, in sentence fragments, then shrugs and falls silent, as if summoning up the words requires an act of will he isn't sure he can sustain.

Holding a fractious Lebanese opposition together through a difficult post-Syrian election will be an exhausting task, and no one knows that better than Jumblatt. The possibility of creating a united, democratic, peaceful Lebanon now exists, but there is absolutely no guarantee it can be achieved. Will it happen?

"Maybe" is the best he can muster.

Assuming that the opposition can force the discredited Lebanese government to hold elections on schedule, before the end of May, and that the reformers can win those elections as predicted, there are at least two immediate obstacles they will face. First, can they disarm Hezbollah, the Shiite militia, a virtual state within a state, backed by Iran and Syria? Second, can they ever modernize Lebanon's "confessional" political system, which is nominally democratic, but allocates power and positions along religious lines?

Jumblatt is clear that taking away Hezbollah's weapons is not going to happen anytime soon, even if the U.S.- and French-backed U.N. Security Council resolution 1559 demands it. Like most Lebanese, Jumblatt insists that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization, but a national resistance movement that managed to force Israel to pull out of southern Lebanon.

He does, however, suggest a solution. "Maybe they could be included, the militia of Hezbollah, into the Lebanese army."

As for changing Lebanon's faith-based political system, Jumblatt is less circumspect. "It cannot stay like that -- a confessional regime, a sectarian regime. If we, after the elections, go back to the old classical game, it will be a terrible frustration for the Lebanese, especially the young generation." He says he wants a system that is based on merit, not on whether a person is Christian, Muslim or Druze. "A secular system," he stresses, "separation of the so-called church and state."

"If we can do it?" He shrugs. "I don't know."

Jumblatt has a personal motivation for retiring the confessional system because the system bars him from any of the top offices in government. Under the current arrangement, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite. There's no room for a Druze, regardless of how popular a politician he may be.

"My father was struggling for that [a modern, representative democracy]," says Jumblatt, "but he failed." It's clear the son wants to leave a different legacy.

Jumblatt holds a press conference at his home

Long considered the weathervane of Lebanese politics, Jumblatt holds a press conference at his home. Since the murder of Rafiq Hariri in February, Jumblatt has had few public outings.
As the interview ends, Jumblatt slips out to meet hundreds of supporters, mainly, but not exclusively, Druze, who had gathered at his castle for a give-and-take with their leader. You know the expression "holding court"? Well, that's literally what Jumblatt is doing as he steps to a microphone in the courtyard and fields questions for more than an hour. There is genuine warmth here -- the crowd of men and women admire him, but also are comfortable enough to ask pointed questions and to expect real answers. Like Jumblatt, they are pleased that the Syrians have left their country, but they have fears and concerns about Hezbollah, about the economy, about falling off the precipice into another civil war.

Jumblatt cajoles, lectures, complains. "What do I know?" he responds to one questioner.

But Jumblatt knows a lot, maybe too much. Perhaps he is too fearful of assassination, too weary of political intrigue, too cognizant of all the pitfalls ahead to become a truly effective leader of the revitalized Lebanese opposition. Yet he also knows this is a historic moment.

"The new generation of Lebanese are united in Martyrs' Square," he tells us. "We have to give them hope. A new Lebanon, a modern Lebanon. Is it possible?"

He smiles ... and shrugs.

Watch full coverage of Kate Seelye's reports on recent events in Lebanon and Syria in the May 17 broadcast of FRONTLINE/World. (Check local listings.)
For more history on the complex relationship between Lebanon and Syria, and the role religion has played in political life, read two additional reports from correspondent Kate Seelye.
Lebanon's History of Occupation - In one form or another, Syria has exerted its influence over Lebanon for nearly a century.
Lebanon's Religious Mix - Hariri's assassination has united some sects and divided others.

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