The Druze: two feet in the revolution

Since October 17, the Druze Mountain, just like the rest of Lebanon, has expressed its anger against Lebanon’s political leaders, including its own.

Revolutionaries in front of Aley's tent on December 1, 2019. A few hours earlier, the first tent was burnt down by PSP supporters. DR Photos

Gathered around a stove installed in a large tent, about fifty thuwar (revolutionaries) are closely following the conference of Wassef Harakeh, a lawyer and activist. Hanging on plastic sheeting are Lebanese flags, a few well-chosen slogans, and portraits of Ala’ Abu Fakhr, the martyr of the revolution. An old man stands up to let a woman pass by. Another hand over cups of cardamom coffee to the newcomers. "Forget your political party and your community. Embrace your patriotism, your love and your humanity, and ahlan wa sahlan (welcome) to our tent", reads a sign at the entrance. The air is freezing on this Saturday evening on the small gravel square at the edge of Sawfar. The revolutionary tent was among the first to be pitched in the caza of Aley, and has been serving as a base for protesters from the jurd, which is made up of ten villages. "It is one of the poorest regions in Lebanon. There is very little over here: no hospitals, no decent roads although it is the main axis that connects Beirut to Syria. Here, it’s even worse than Baalbek. If you get into a quarrel with someone, he pulls out his gun and kills you", said Khodr el-Banna, 28. Since October 17, the Druze Mountain, just like the rest of Lebanon, has expressed its anger against Lebanon’s political leaders, including its own. "The Druze demonstrated as much as the other communities, but not necessarily in the Mountain”, said a close follower of Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). Here, people share the same demands, the same grievances and the same pains as the rest of the country. And above all, they share the same slogan: "Kellon yaani kellon" (all of them means all of them). This is a Druze revolt within the Lebanese revolution. "I don't specifically like to see the topic of the Druze mentioned as such. All the communities are changing and breaking down barriers”, interrupts Riad Bou Fakhreddine, an activist in his forties, sporting a shaven head and a beard a few days old.

Certainly, there is no distinctly Druze activity or identity in the Lebanese revolution. But here more than elsewhere, the protest’s impetus is unprecedented. The Druze community is the only one to have never risen against the old feudal families. The Jumblatti and Yazbaki clans have ruled the community for several centuries.

"Under this tent, what we are witnessing is unprecedented. A follower of Jumblatt's party, another one from Talal Arslane's, and a third one from Wi’am Wahhab's are engaging for the first time. They haven't spoken to each other for 30 years”, said Riad Bou Fakhreddine. Divided from within, the community is renowned for both its loyalty and endogamy, which stems in particular from the esoteric character of Druzism. “The Druze society is generally very united between its different components, and dedicates an unshakeable loyalty to its political and religious leaderships. But since October 17, part of this conservative society has demonstrated its willingness to abandon its traditional zaims (chiefs or leaders), even in regions which are known to be extremely loyal to their political chiefs", explains Suha*, an activist from Li haqqi (a civil society movement). This change is being steered largely by young people who have shown a readiness to break with "Dad’s Lebanon". "We have always systematically followed our parents’ political parties, but now this is ancient history”, says Muhib el-Banna, a revolutionary and a final year business management student, who joined the Progressive socialist party at the early age of 16.

Capulet and Montague

In times of crisis, Druze leaders who usually are divided can, at times, form a united front, for the sake of defending their community, a minority in Lebanon. "Politicians want to instill fear under the pretext that other communities are more numerous and that they will override us”, states Muhib. At the end of December, Jumblatt, Arslane and Wahhab joined forces for a brief moment on Twitter, agreeing that the negotiations for a new government were not representative enough of the Druze party. "They love each other now? They have always fought and unleashed their respective bases against each other, and currently they are walking hand in hand in order to defend sectarian rights”, says Muhib bitterly.

Within the Druze household, tensions and rivalries persist at the top of the pyramid. Centuries of fratricidal struggles between the two ruling families (Arslan and Jumblatt), can be summed up as follows: fiery encounters and peaceful handshakes, both punctuated by marriages between the Capulets and Montagues of the Lebanese Mountain. The Qabr Shmun incident last summer is merely one of the latest examples. On June 30, exchanges of gunfire took place between the supporters of Walid Jumblatt and those of his rival Talal Arslan right when the convoy of the Minister of State for Refugee Affairs, Saleh Gharib, was driving through the village while the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Gibran Bassil was touring the region. Two Arslan supporters were killed during the clashes. As a result, Walid Jumblatt had to work fast to put out the fires, and avoid falling back into a conflict that would have certainly have resulted in further violence.

Behind the old stained glass windows of his palace in Mukhtara, Walid Bey overlooks the Shouf Mountains. He represents a large majority of the Druze community, almost 75% of the votes. In the May 2018 legislative elections, his party retained the six seats they held, six out of the eight marked for the Druze in Parliament. A seventh seat is held by Talal Arslan, against whom the PSP typically does not present a candidate during the elections, the eighth and final seat (Anwar el-Khalil, a deputy from the South affiliated to the bloc of the President of the House, Nabih Berry), is far from being anti-Jumblatt. The leader of the Mountain has carved out the lion's share thanks to his ability to play the game of alliances, in the interest of safeguarding his community. A man of culture like no other prominent Lebanese leader, Jumblatt is endowed with a talent for self-deprecation, and has often been portrayed as a political "wind vane". The man has two sides. The first, as the heir to Lebanese socialism, sees him always wearing jeans and ready to embrace the most progressive causes. And the second, sees him play the role of a zaim in its purest form, a key figure in a sectarian structure as well as in clientelism. "Jumblatt is viewed as a political leader who takes care of the affairs and needs of the community”, said the source close to the leader of Mukhtara.

Two months after the revolution began, the PSP distributed 300,000 Lebanese pounds to Druze families as well as food in the villages of the Shouf, Aley and Rashaya, in an attempt to calm the community caught up in the economic crisis and to above all dissuade its members from turning against him. "They are starving us so we can become dependent on them. We no longer want this Saturday routine, in which each Druze family goes to its zaim begging for favors”, says Muhib.

"This is the rebellion of the serfs against the lord”, sums up an expert in Lebanese affairs. The Jumblatts are both one of the most modern families on the Lebanese political scene, at the same time they are the one which best embodies the spirit of feudalism. A former classmate of Kamal Jumblatt told this anecdote to L’OLJ a few years ago: “In the 1920s, in the courtyard of the College of Aintura (Keserwan), the children and teachers met every Saturday morning to welcome a horseman from Mukhtara. He would come down from his stallion, kneel before little Kamal, who was barely 8 or 9 years old, and give him an envelope entrusted [to him] by his mother, Sett Nazira, containing the weekly pocket money."

In the Jumblatt family, power is passed on from father to son, a privilege as much as a burden, one which the last two sons did not wish for. On March 17, 1977, the day after Kamal Jumblatt’s assassination, a sea of people followed the Druze chief’s open coffin through the streets of Baqaata. The religious leader then proclaimed Kamal’s son, Walid, as the new leader of the community. On that day, Walid Jumblatt put on the abaya, a symbol of the ancestral power of the family. Forty years later, he likewise enthroned his son, Teymur, in an almost stately and imposing ceremony.

"No party controls us"

In the revolutionary squares of Aley and Sawfar, people take it upon themselves to openly reject this type of practice. "The country does not belong to the child. The country belongs to the children of the country”, can be read on the pictures posted on social media, showing Jumblatt and his son, as well as Hariri, Aoun and Berri.

Walls have been broken since October 17. So have silences. At the Aley roundabout on this Saturday evening, a hundred residents from the region, families, children, and elderly people, have come together spontaneously. In the tent in Sawfar, Imane Shaaya is busy organizing debates and welcoming the residents as best she can. For the first time in her life, she feels that her opinion and her voice matter. Her father, a Druze sheikh, recently told her that she should not be in the tent. "My son replied: "Jeddo (grandfather), if you had revolted 30 years ago, mom would not be under this tent today", she says in a soft voice. Presumably, a significant number of religious men have taken part in the protest movement, without, however, regularly going to the squares or to the tents. "Among us Druze, it’s not that simple to openly demonstrate, and I believe that they’ve been “warned" against participating”, said an activist from Aley, who asked not to be named. "The clerics warned against any attempt to intimidate or assault the demonstrators, and they even dared to criticize the traditional leaders”, said Samer*, an activist with Li haqqi. These clerics have a certain influence on the grassroots, and they stand out from the Akl sheikhs, connected to political figures. "As a religious person, am I not allowed to have the same rights and the same demands as everyone else”, says Lamia Jaber, 21, a student of architecture and English literature at Deir el-Qamar. The young woman stands out from the crowd in the Aley revolutionary tent. She wears traditional clothing, and has demonstrated almost every day with her brother. Both of them were encouraged to do so by their father, a religious man who is pro-thawra. "During the elections, we felt that people were not ready for change. But over here, those same people finally opened their eyes”, she said in a burst of optimism.

On several occassions clashes have broken out between supporters of the PSP who wanted to reclaim Aley's square and the demonstrators. "The PSP was booed at the beginning of the demonstrations, especially by people from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a pro-Syrian, Lebanese party, but the party [the PSP] has currently taken matters into its own hands”, said a source close to Walid Jumblatt. A tale that was refuted by the revolutionaries. “No party controls us. We share a socialist belief, because the children of the region are born into this belief. There are people from the PSP of course, but once they enter this tent they must say "kellon yaani kellon", stresses Razanne Yahia, one of the main figures of the Aley tent. On December 1 -the day of its installation-, the Aley tent was burnt down when the demonstrators went to join Martyrs Square in Beirut. The day before, their attempt to install a replica of the "fist of the revolution" in Shakib Jaber Square had failed, because of direct threats from a local PSP official. "They are not going to silence us by burning our tent”, asserts Razanne Yahia. Her husband Yassar, one of the main protests figures in the region, was personally threatened. "They tried to pin false information on us, saying that we were attacking the image of Kamal Jumblatt, which was clearly not the case. They say that they are in control of the tent so as to show that they are not losing all control of the area”, he said.

The PSP anthem vs the national anthem

The death of Ala ’Abu Fakhr could have gone both ways, either igniting the street or calming it down. Neither of the two scenarios took place. On the evening of November 12, the 39-year-old protester was shot in the head by a member of the Lebanese Army’s intelligence services, in front of his wife and one of his children at a roadblock in Khaldeh. He had joined the uprising despite his affiliation to the PSP. That same evening, Walid Jumblatt, accompanied by his son Teymur, headed to the hospital. The Druze chief called on his supporters to calm down. "The State is our only way out. Otherwise we are headed towards chaos”, he said back then. The next day, many revolutionary squares organized a candlelight vigil for the martyr of the revolution. Thousands attended Ala’s funeral in his hometown of Shueifat, including Razanne. At the beginning of the ceremony, loudspeakers played the PSP anthem, which was immediately muffled by the crowd, who started singing the national anthem. "We didn't want anyone to capitalize -politically- on his death. The atmosphere was divided between revolutionaries and partisans. But the revolutionary group was the crushing majority, which was atypical for the city of Shueifat”, she said.

"After Ala’s death, things changed. The PSP resumed its place, and found that the Druze street was still, in the overwhelming majority, pro-Jumblatt", said the source close to Walid Bey. "Of course, there are people who are against Walid”, he admits, "but the others are far from being immune and unaffected”, he added.

If the Mountain is shaken, its stability cannot be called into question. Talal Arslan, leader of the Lebanese Democratic Party (PDL) and a former minister, has a heavy legacy to bear. His father, emir Magid Arslane, was one of the patriarchs of Lebanese independence. Much more discreet, and less cultivated or well-read than his rival, Talal Arslan chose to side with the March 8 camp when the Syrians left in 2005. This choice, which is part of a history of confrontation with Jumblatt, allows him to position himself in the government for eight consecutive times. This is both an orientation and a positioning that the party does not deny today, even as the street is volatile. "We are with legitimate claims, but against any suspicious activity or objective. We are also against any slogan directed against the resistance (Hezbollah) and the President of the Republic in whom we have total faith”, explains Jad Haydar, Talal Arslan’s spokesman by phone. The party’s image is being tarnished by some of the youth who are deserting its ranks, according to former supporters. "My family is indebted to the mir (emir)”, said Khodr el-Banna, who was able to get a job at the port of Beirut thanks to wasta (a connection) from the party. “At the beginning of December, a zaim came to give out bribes and fuel oil in my village. This is how things work around here”, he says. There are so many methods of control, that Khodr el-Banna says he entirely rejects today. According to the party, it is estimated that only a few dozen people took part in the protest movement. "In any case, we do not feel targeted by the ‘kellon yaani kellon’”, says Jad Haydar confidently.

"I had absolute power"

Wi’am Wahhab also feels unconcerned or affected by the slogan. He is the third “principal” leader of the Druze Mountain: the troublemaker, the cheeky and provocative one. Originally from the small village of Jahliyeh, he left the PSP in 1984 after having called for a perestroika within the party. "He is Hezbollah’s arm in the Shouf”, said Suha, the activist. The leader of the Tawhid party and former environment minister is quietly drinking his Matte in his office in Bir Hassan. Casually lying on the corner of his desk are a few books on philosophy and spirituality capped with an English book titled Code of Obesity. From the beginning of the revolt, this populist did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation. "I have made it clear to the Hezbollah that they should have supported the revolt movement whose demands meet the aspirations of the party’s grassroots base. But they are convinced that they need to backup Saad (Hariri) who can provide them with an international umbrella”, he said. During the interview, he became lost in his thoughts, remembering the golden age of the Syrian occupation in Lebanon. "I had absolute power. I was a governor in the full meaning of the word, not only a mere minister. I had the power to decide whether to kidnap one minister or to appoint another”. Wi’am Wahhab tries to dodge embarrassing questions, preferring to tell funny, juicy stories. "I am going to be honest. At first, young people belonging to our party started blocking the roads in the Shouf", he finally says, minimizing the participation of his members in the protest movement, saying that there were "a few dozen" at most. Did any supporters decide to cross the Rubicon and defect? The leader hesitates for a moment. "No ... maybe because they believe that I embody somehow the spirit of the revolution”, he said, before seizing his phone. He asked the same question to a man called Hisham (a member of his political party) and seemed happy with the answer. Officially, no one has left the party.

“Arslan and Wahhab don't hold much weight. The real issue at stake for this revolution in regards to the Mountain area is Mukhtara", says the expert in Lebanese politics. L’OLJ tried to reach Walid Jumblatt several times, but he made it clear that he does not wish to answer our questions. Today, the PSP finds itself playing a balancing act. Internal debates are taking place, the young pushing for some serious efforts at self-criticism, and the introduction of reforms, both things that the old members of the party have always been reluctant to do. This would involve soul-searching that could allow them to come out from the revolutionary wave with only bumps and bruises, because many activists do not reject the beliefs of the PSP as such, but are opposed to its line and its current leaders. Many hope to return to the original sources that leant more to the left. "Originally, the PSP was supposed to be socialist. Walid Jumblatt was a hero for his community during wartime, but Kamal was an Arab hero, a whole other dimension", said Aley’s activist Rayan Shaaya. The wish to go back - idealistically and emotionally -, to the vision of Kamal Jumblatt the father is significant, especially in regards to the issue of the abolition of sectarianism. In the past, the PSP has shown its capacity to reinvent itself by mutating according to the twists and turns of contemporary Lebanon: first, it was close to the National Bloc (Maronites), then they were pro-Palestinians, close to the Soviet Union, pro-Damascus despite the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt, sovereigntist in the 2000s and, finally, anti the Syrian regime. "The new generation is asking for change, which raises the question of a potential makeover of the PSP”, agrees the close friend of Jumblatt. Teymur, 37, was chosen to come after his father only because he is the dynasty’s natural successor. But he was not unanimously accepted. "With all due respect to Teymur, he may be smarter and more knowledgeable than others, but I'm sure that there are people in the PSP who may be lower down the hierarchical pyramid, but who nonetheless are able to lead”, added Rayan Shaaya.

Today, the young deputy is seeking to recruit as many young people as possible in order to consolidate his position at the head of the party. "During a meeting, there was a heated exchange. That day, he really felt the pulse of the street”, says Suha. Teymur made it clear to the assembly that "Nabih Berri is a friend and a partner of the PSP", and that he "will not let go of him". "He then warned that anyone who chose to leave the party would never be re-admitted", said the Li haqqi activist. Mukhtara may be facing a storm, but it remains solid. Especially since times of revolutions are not always times of elections.

* First names have been changed.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 16th of December)

Gathered around a stove installed in a large tent, about fifty thuwar (revolutionaries) are closely following the conference of Wassef Harakeh, a lawyer and activist. Hanging on plastic sheeting are Lebanese flags, a few well-chosen slogans, and portraits of Ala’ Abu Fakhr, the martyr of the revolution. An old man stands up to let a woman pass by. Another hand over cups of cardamom coffee to...