Jumblatt-Aoun meeting: To maintain coexistence in Mont-Lebanon at any cost

An online radio station launched by supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement has stirred controversy on social media and fueled tensions in the Chouf area that the President and Druze leader have since sought to calm.

Walid Joumblatt in Baabda to manage the conflict with the FPM. Photo Dalati & Nohra

After he intensified his incendiary comments against President Michel Aoun, Walid Jumblatt met with him at the Baabda Presidential Palace on May 4; a visit which came as a surprise to many. Equally surprising were his soothing comments after the meeting on the need to "manage the conflict" with the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by the President and headed today by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. However, those close to the Druze leader explain that the meeting does not in any way constitute a reversal on the part of Jumblatt and say it was motivated by the desire of the two sides to de-escalate recent tensions in the mountains of Chouf and Aley, where FPM activists are accused of seeking to rekindle sectarian conflict.

Tensions have been simmering in this region since the Qabr Chmoun incident last summer, when two supporters of the Lebanese Democratic Party of Talal Arslane, Druze rival of Jumblatt and ally of FPM, were killed in a shootout involving supporters of Jumblatt's PSP during a visit by the leader of the Aounist party. Bassil had claimed it was an attempt on his life, which the PSP denied. The affair paralyzed the government for weeks at the time, but the situation subsided, mainly after a meeting on August 24 between the President and Jumblatt over a family lunch in Beiteddine.

But about two months ago, The "Christian Chouf Radio," which in reality is just a Facebook page created and hosted by FPM supporters based in Deir el-Qamar, started to make waves again in the region. With "insulting comments about the Druze and Walid Jumblatt, this media outlet provoked PSP supporters and the Druze in general," a high-ranking figure in the region told L'Orient Le Jour. At the same time, several FPM officials or supporters, including former minister Ghassan Atallah, himself from the Chouf, violently attacked the PSP and its leader in tweets, provoking violent responses from their PSP supporters on the Web. According to the high-ranking figure, "the affair took a sectarian turn rather than a political one, as the Druze do not accept such provocations."

In this context, the slightest incident - such as a conflict with the municipality over the restoration of an ancestral home in a mixed-faith village - risked taking on a sectarian dimension in a region that has only recently started to close the wounds of the past.

"We just reacted"

The FPM presented another version of the events. "There have been threats from the PSP against the FPM and Gebran Bassil, and we have only reacted," said Rindala Jabbour, coordinator of the central media committee within the party. She said the "Christian Chouf Radio" is not officially affiliated to the FPM and may have been established by FPM supporters without informing the party. For his part, Atallah told OLJ that he "does not attack anyone and does not want to take revenge on anyone." "But if someone attacks and humiliates you, it is not possible to remain subservient," he added. "When Jumblatt attacks President Aoun and the FPM, why should we refrain from retaliating?" Attallah said he encouraged this new approach by the FPM to respond to attacks and not to remain silent.

In an attempt to ease the tensions, the Church intervened. Sidon's Maronite Bishop Maroun Ammar and Archbishop of Sidon and Deir el Qamar Elie Haddad denounced in a joint statement, published in mid-April, "some groups that are referring on social networks to topics which cause sectarian tensions in the region of Chouf and Mount Lebanon, and undermine the reconciliation consolidated by the late Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir with the deputy Walid Jumblatt " in August 2001. The two priests called for an end to "these actions which undermine the unity of the Mountain," rejecting "all media platforms which claim to be Christian and work for the division of the people of the same region."

An initiative by the President not the FPM

At the same time, the Druze leader was approached by MP Farid Boustani, a member of the Aounist parliamentary bloc but not of the FPM, who proposed a meeting with the head of state. Boustany told OLJ that the initiative for the meeting between Jumblatt and Aoun came from the President himself. He recalled that President Aoun had "brought together all the leaders of the Mountain" when he went to Beiteddine Palace last summer, and that the second stage of this initiative was the meeting between MP Teymour Jumblatt and the head of the FPM at his home in Laklouk. The meetings between the two sides, however, came to a halt with the outbreak of the popular uprising, followed by the formation of the government and the Covid-19 crisis, he said.

This is why, explained Boustany, "we encouraged the President to proceed with this initiative." "As a member of parliament for the Chouf, I felt that tension was escalating in the region, against the backdrop of the economic crisis and the pandemic," he said, reiterating that the initiative to renew the contact with the PSP leader came "from the presidency and not from the FPM."

Asked about the tensions in the Chouf, in particular because of the "Christian Chouf Radio," Boustany referred to the press release issued by the two bishops and indicated that "the president condemns this affair and all that can threaten cohesion and agreement" in the region. "Myself, as a deputy for the Chouf, I consider that this radio does not represent the Mountain."

According to a PSP source, the mediator asked Jumblatt if he prefers that the meeting takes place away from the media but the Druze leader replied that he was "an opponent in public, and that he concludes truces in public." It was therefore with the aim of "managing the conflict" with the FPM that Jumblatt met Aoun, as he said after the meeting on May 4.

According to Mr. Boustani, the Aoun-Jumblatt meeting was "very frank" and the two parties agreed to preserve security and coexistence in the mountain region. Since then, the "radio" has toned down its attacks on the Druze camp, and Atallah and other officials or supporters of the FPM have stopped tweeting. According to concordant sources, a particularly hostile tweet from Atallah was deleted on the eve of the meeting.

"Walid Jumlatt's main concern is to preserve reconciliation and prevent certain troublemakers on both sides from transforming the Chouf and Aley into tension areas, at a time when the independence of Lebanon and the last breaths of its economy are under threat," MP Marwan Hamade, close to the Druze leader, told the OLJ.

For her part, Jabbour said that the FPM "welcomes Mr. Jumblat's visit to the presidential palace, which gave a positive signal. We will also be positive by observing a media and political truce, unless they resume the offensive, "she warned.

Is the reconciliation at stake?

But beyond these tensions, is the reconciliation initiated in 2001 by Patriarch Sfeir, with which the Lebanese Forces were associated but not the FPM, at stake?

"Until today, there is no real reconciliation in the Mountains," said Atallah, criticizing this initiative which meant to turn a dark page in the history of Lebanon, notably the Mountain War of 1983. "Twenty years later, we are still talking about how to live together," added the former minister, who vehemently criticized "those who think that the Mountain is the protected area of any party," without mentioning the PSP by name.

Atallah said that only 25% of the displaced Christians have returned to their villages, and that the others do not plan to return to their homes under these conditions. "If people felt confident, there would not have been this timid return," and more displaced people would have returned, he said.

On his part, a PSP source wondered "what would be the substitute for reconciliation and living together," saying that the FPM tried on several occasions to "reopen the wounds of the past," even going as far as referring to the massacres of 1860 during the mass of "repentance and forgiveness" which it organized in March 2019 in Deir el-Qamar in memory of the Christian victims of the "War of the Mountain."

"Gebran Bassil and several of his ministers are trying to add fuel to a fire that no longer exists since the reconciliation that was initiated by Patriarch Sfeir," said a Druze figure from the region, noting that the FPM is thus sending "a message to the Lebanese Forces, who are partners in this reconciliation, by questioning their Christian representativeness."

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 10th of may)

After he intensified his incendiary comments against President Michel Aoun, Walid Jumblatt met with him at the Baabda Presidential Palace on May 4; a visit which came as a surprise to many. Equally surprising were his soothing comments after the meeting on the need to "manage the conflict" with the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by the President and headed today by his son-in-law Gebran...