On the 40th anniversary of Kamal Jumblatt's death, is trouble brewing again in Lebanon?

In a land where retired murderers still abound, commemorating the dead of a civil war has countless problems

Robert Fisk
Mukhtara, Lebanon
Sunday 19 March 2017 17:22
Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, is commemorating the 40th anniversary of his father's death
Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze community, is commemorating the 40th anniversary of his father's death

Walid Jumblatt looked a worried man yesterday. He seemed a trifle frail. He was, after all, commemorating the brutal murder 40 years ago of his Druze father Kamal, an earnest and secular socialist who might have been compared to the pre-First World War MP Keir Hardie, although Hardie spent 11 years in the mines and did not live in a palace. Kamal’s butchering – he was shot to death in his car, along with his driver and bodyguard, not long after the start of the Lebanese civil war – was followed by a massacre of hundreds of Christians by their Druze neighbours in surrounding villages.

Walid has ever since tried to make amends for this terrible act – not least because he believes Kamal was killed on the orders of the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father. So his short speech outside his palace at Mukhtara, like much of his recent political work, was about reconciliation between Christians and Druze. He has never failed to mention the murder of the Christian villagers and that this crime should never happen again. The official figure of dead – if "official" figures exist in war – was 219. Most had their throats cut.

Surrounded by his political supporters in a palace drawing room, many of them Maronite Christians, he told me that his father had tried hard to end Lebanon’s sectarian system of government. “He was trying to get rid of it because the Muslims and Druze were not equal partners in the system.,” he said. “My father tried to do this peacefully. The elite of the Christians were with him. But the dream of a non-sectarian Lebanon was killed with him on the same day he died.”

The Druze, whose leadership Walid Jumblatt inherited on the day of his father’s murder, are counted as one of the five Muslim sects in Lebanon even though there are supposed to be only half a million of them. The popular conception is that they are five per cent of the population; it may, in fact, be six per cent. But the Druze play a vital role in de-sectarianising the Lebanese political system, an institution so opaque and preposterous that even local politicians have often reacted with horror at its complexity.

The Druze community has members in Syria and, indeed, in Israel, and has often been ascribed as having neo-platonic as well as Islamic roots. This may be a bit romantic. But it comes complete with sheiks who wear stunning red and white turbans and a magical multicoloured flag. The Jumblatt family were originally from what is now Turkish Kurdistan. Perhaps the faith also has Hindu origins. Kamal was fascinated by Hinduism and travelled to India to study it. His old Indian teacher flew all the way to Lebanon for yesterday’s commemoration.

But among Lebanon’s current and serious problems is Walid’s own political future as an MP since a remark attributed to Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister (who just happens to be the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun), suggested that Jumblatt should not be in electoral alliance with Christians – a suggestion profoundly opposed to Kamal’s ideas and to the Christian politicians gathered at the Mukhtara for the 40th anniversary of his murder.

In his speech, which was listened to by tens of thousands of his Druze supporters, Walid Jumblatt reminded them how his father supported the Palestinian cause, and he gave his son Taimur, who stood beside him, a traditional Palestinian kuffiyah scarf. Taimur, he told him publicly, should “carry the heritage of your wonderful grandfather and raise high the banner of occupied Arab Palestine.” He claimed that Druze and Christians “achieved Lebanon’s reconciliation” after the civil war, a statement which has grave historical roots.

Marine Le Pen walks out of meeting with Lebanon's Grand Mufti after refusing to wear headscarf

For in the 19th century, massacres far more terrible than that of the Chouf mountain villagers were perpetrated against Lebanon’s (and Syria’s) Christians. It was this which prompted the landing of the French army in Beirut in 1860, who offered the Christians protection. The British put in at Sidon and offered Druze children the dubious privilege of an English public school education.

If Lebanon’s present problems are merely the greatest crisis since Lebanon’s last greatest crisis, they are serious enough. There are constant rumours that Hezbollah and the Israelis will return to war – on the grounds that the Israelis will try to hit Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, rather than bomb Iran itself. Which was one covert reason for the 2006 war which devastated the country. After that carnage, Hezbollah claimed it had won a great victory – which didn’t feel like much of a victory to the Lebanese – and Israel was defeated but said it had won.

Perhaps the darkness which one feels here is that everyone knows that Lebanon contains a lot of retired murderers, among them – unless they have been killed – the ones who ambushed Kamal Jumblatt. There’s a worthy campaign just now by a man called Nasser Bakkar, who was born in southern Lebanon and who wants to erect a memorial wall containing the names of all those who died in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. It would necessitate, he says, “putting all our differences aside”. It sure would – and would encounter a multitude of problems, not least because some who had lost loved ones would discover that the murderers of their sons or husbands would also turn up on the wall. And you can be sure that sectarian problems would arise. Would you inscribe the names alphabetically? By nationality? By – and here we go – religion? And it would certainly have to be a very long wall.

Bakkar says that there were 200,000 dead in Lebanon. When the war ended, I clocked it up as 150,000. So what happened to the missing 50,000 souls? Like the figures for the dead of Syria, calculating the victims can be a statistically dodgy business. Especially with all those retired murderers living on into old age.