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Conciliations and reconciliations : how the Qabr Shmun affair was resolved

L’Orient-Le Jour reveals the underlying facts of the negotiations that put an end to the crisis born out of the clashes in the Mountain that paralyzed political life in Lebanon for most of the summer.

From left to right: Lebanese Democratic Party leader Talal Arslane, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt on Aug. 9, 2019 at Baabda palace. Photo Dalati and Nohra

August 8: Nabih Berri, the immovable Speaker of Parliament, was in his office in his Ain el-Tine residence when he received a phone call from Hussein Khalil, Hassan Nasrallah's political advisor.

A few hours earlier, in an unprecedented step, the American Embassy had just released a statement declaring that Washington "supports a fair and transparent judicial process without any political interference. Any attempt at a political exploitation of the tragic event of June 30 in Qabr Shmun must be rejected."

The high-ranking Hezbollah official, with his well-trimmed beard and soft voice, was not pleased. He made that clear to his interlocutor while at the same time seeking his intervention to find a quick solution to the Qabr Shmun’s affair, which had been straining the political situation in Lebanon.

On June 30, a shootout erupted in a village in the district of Aley killing two bodyguards of the Minister of State for Refugees Affairs, and ally of Talal Arslane, Saleh Gharib, and wounding an activist from Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). The incident occurred during a visit by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (CPL), Gebran Bassil, who is also the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun and a political ally of Mr. Arslane.

 

"Hajj Khalil has blamed Nabih Berri for covering Walid Jumblatt,” a witness who is part of the negotiations confirms, “while at the same time asking him to act as quickly as possible in order to avoid further American interference into Lebanese affairs. He insisted that he resumes his mediation in order to reach a compromise."

The political situation had been completely blocked for more than a month, and Berri had suspended his attempts at a conciliation due to the irreconcilable positions of the protagonists.

The veteran Lebanese politician immediately realized that the clash of Qabr Shmun was not just a trivial incident but an institutional crisis with serious repercussions during an already dire economic situation. He decided to act immediately and the same day requested an appointment with President Michel Aoun.

The reluctance of Baabda

The Speaker of the Parliament confirmed to L’OLJ that he suggested early on to his interlocutor the idea of organizing an immediate reconciliation between the protagonists–– Walid Jumblatt, Talal Arslane and Gebran Bassil––in the presence of the three highest officials in the country (President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and himself). Aoun supported the initiative, but believed that the timing was premature: the feelings were still running high, so no one was ready for such a meeting.

"We better wait until everybody calms down," he said. Berri gave up and told his team: "I am turning the engine off.” It was his way of saying that he has put off his efforts towards a reconciliation. According to sources close to President Aoun, the latter was reluctant to intervene. "I am not a tribal leader who settles issues between warring factions," he said. He favored a three-step settlement that would start by bringing the suspects before justice, a proper judicial process, and finally, a political reconciliation.

For a whole month, the case stalled and the conflict worsened. The government stopped meeting, and the controversy intensified around Arslane’s demand––backed by Gebran Bassil and the Hezbollah––to obtain the transfer of the case to the Court of Justice, a final authority with no chance for appeal.

For Jumblatt, the maneuver was clear: the objective was to destroy him politically by throwing him (or his acting deputy, Akram Chehayeb) in a prison cell, as was the case for Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, who spent 11 years in jail from 1994 to 2005.

Jumblatt decided to take the lead. "Yes I was the one who alerted the ambassadors," the Druze leader told L’ OLJ. “We met at the French Embassy along with the American, German and English diplomats as well as the Apostolic Nuncio, and I alerted them: ‘Be careful. You must clearly point out to Aoun that his duty is to enforce the law equitably. But the way Gebran Bassil is stirring the pot within the Court of Justice can only lead to chaos.’" The Americans issued their statement following this meeting.

The "worst friend"

Despite the strident outcry by some politicians against "American interference", the US statement was what restarted "the engine". On the evening of Aug. 8, Berri resumed his mediation, starting with Jumblatt. Shortly after 9 pm, he made a phone call to the man he humorously calls his "worst friend". Among veterans of Lebanese politics, they both have been major players for nearly 40 years and understand each other’s half-expressed thoughts. Over the years, they have been both allies and adversaries, and their respective militias often clashed during the civil war (1975-1990). Now, the two men consider themselves partners.

According to Berri, despite many statements he doesn’t necessarily approve of, Jumblatt “never lost his scope”.  And whether one agrees with him or not, he represents a considerable portion of the Druze community, which is a pillar of Lebanon. But when Berri called, Jumblatt did not answer his call. Jumblatt had shut off his phone because he was attending the performance of the Monday Blues Band at the Beiteddine Festival. He called back half an hour later. The Speaker of the Parliament told him that it was time to make amends with Arslane.

Relations between Jumblatt and Arslane have never been what one can describe as good. Perpetuating a rivalry between the two families dating back to the Ottoman era, Arslane is a challenger to Jumblatt's leadership within the Druze community. If the latter is close to March 14 and hostile to the Syrian regime, his opponent is well-backed by Hezbollah’s ally Syria as well as Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement. "They want to instate at any costs Talal Arslane as the main leader of the Druze mountain and break down Jumblatt. And when I say ‘they’, I am including Hezbollah and Bashar (al-Assad)," asserts the leader of the PSP.

Jumblatt begins by voicing his disapproval. "I handed some of my men to the justice, but Arslane did not do the same,” he says. Berri replies: "This is not the time to set conditions. This is the time for reconciliation… The situation is extremely serious. We must put the national interest above all else.” The conversation goes on. Finally, Berri reveals to L’ OLJ that Jumblatt has agreed to be part of a reconciliation meeting.

It is past 10 pm, but Berri calls Talal Arslane, who is also very reluctant. "I do not want to be reconciled. I ask that the case be referred to the Court of Justice, even if there has to be a vote in the Council of Ministers; even if the outcome is not in my favor.”

But this was precisely the vote that Berri wanted to avoid. He therefore insisted and maintained that a reconciliation is paramount and urgent. He asked Arslane to think it over until the next morning before giving him a definitive answer. Finally Arslane agreed, but he did, however, have one condition: "I want to be able to say everything before the reconciliation takes place," he said. Berri replied: "That is fine, as long as the conversation is genuine and is followed by a reconciliation.” As Talal Arslane was out of the country, it was not possible for L’OLJ to get in touch with him for confirmation regarding these comments.

The Speaker of the Parliament wanted to beat the iron while it was still hot. He notified the two Druze leaders, but the official invitations were sent by Baabda and the date was set for Aug. 9. "Everyone conveyed what he truly felt," said Berri.

“Do you want a reconciliation?"

The mood was cold. With Nabih Berri on his right and Saad Hariri on his left, President Aoun brought in Jumblatt and Arslane, who were waiting in different waiting areas. Each one took a seat at opposite ends of the table without greeting or speaking to the other, a reliable source from the Presidential Palace, who asked to remain anonymous, told L’OLJ. "There are people from both sides who were involved in this incident. It is necessary to allow the justice to do its job, but it is also necessary to go beyond the personal resentments and to appease people," the President said sternly. Then it was Talal Arslane’s turn to speak. He addressed the triumvirate, and for about 45 minutes he listed the grievances he held against his rival, without ever addressing him directly or even looking at him.

Jumblatt interrupted him: "But you do remember when your father (Majid Arslane) and my father (Kamal Jumblatt) went to Syria in 1954 to reunite the Druze of this country after a major fight erupted between them. Now, do you want a reconciliation or not?"

The presidency had prepared a statement about a ‘mussalaha’ (reconciliation), but Arslane insisted on replacing the term with ‘mussaraha’ (honest conversation). Following a great deal of discussion, ‘mussalaha’ was retained after the insistence of both the President and Berri, the Presidential Palace source said. The two men shook hands. Jumblatt left first and Arslane lingered for awhile longer with the president.

"The inter-Druze reconciliation was a necessary condition, but it is still not enough," the Speaker of the Parliament said. What was still needed was to put an end to the quarreling between Jumblatt and Hezbollah. On Sept. 7,  at his home in Ain el-Tine, Berri managed to gather Ghazi Aridi and Wael Abu Faour from the PSP and Hussein Khalil and Wafic Safa from Hezbollah. On Berri’s side was Ali Hassan Khalil, the Minister of Finance.

Everyone agreed that Berri was the one who predominantly spoke at the meeting, urging both parties to put aside their strategic differences, which are too deep to be resolved, and to limit their power struggles to internal issues. The gap was very wide, but the Speaker of the Parliament had already partially started to reduce it.

Ain Dara and the Shebaa farms

"Before the case of Qabr Shmun,” said Jumblatt, “I had told Berri that the situation could get out of hand and turn into chaos. Try to talk with Hezbollah because things cannot go on like this. We sometimes have radically different views: we have never accepted their intervention alongside Bashar, but we maintain that political differences should be resolved through dialogue.”

The disagreement was a major one. "It is true that in late April I made a statement with the intention of provoking them because, for the past two years, they have been constantly inciting me as well as inflaming the Mountain. By saying that the Sheba farms were not Lebanese, I totally shocked them," Jumblatt admitted. "Since then, I have sweetened the deal. I said that I concur that the Sheba farms are Lebanese, but for them to be even more so, let's try to get the Syrians to acknowledge that they are Lebanese," he said with a smile.

Another divisive issue is the big cement plant of Ain Dara, which according to Jumblatt, is "a real ecological disaster". "This is an old story. In 1998, I had warned Hafez al-Assad, but he never gave me an answer. After the meeting, the Syrian Chief of Staff, General Hikmat Shehabi, took me aside to explain to me that this matter was a family issue. Maher al-Assad is associated with the Fattouche brothers in this cement plant. Since then, I have not stopped fighting. Today the factory has stopped due to a court decision. No one has said a thing, which is a miracle."

The Druze leader mentioned that a new meeting is to be held between his party (PSP) and Hezbollah. A lunch might even be in the works at either Wael Bou Faour’s or Ghazi Aridi’s. So will there be peace after this possible lunch? Cross your heart and hope to die? Everything in Lebanon seems to be resolved during lunches and dinners. "I don’t believe that we are reconciled with Hezbollah. The situation was totally frozen. Currently it’s only softening a little. In this country, we spend our time fighting then reconciling," admits Jumblatt. "Let's say that today the equation is the following: we recognize Hezbollah’s importance and power. But they should at least take into consideration other political parties’ points of view, even if they are different from their own."

Berri can only endorse Jumblatt’s words, as he keeps on insisting on the fact that “in Lebanon, we are all part of sectarian tribes, and the country can only be governed by consensus.”


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 8th of October)



August 8: Nabih Berri, the immovable Speaker of Parliament, was in his office in his Ain el-Tine residence when he received a phone call from Hussein Khalil, Hassan Nasrallah's political advisor. A few hours earlier, in an unprecedented step, the American Embassy had just released a statement declaring that Washington "supports a fair and transparent judicial process without any political...