The relationship between two of Lebanon’s most influential leaders, head of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt and President Michel Aoun, has always been fraught with tensions and a lack of “chemistry”.
The tensions go back to when Aoun served as army commander during the 1975-90 civil war and peaked ahead of his return to Lebanon from exile in 2005. They have continued to be strained with meetings between Aoun and Jumblatt far and few between ever since 2005.
Ties between Aoun and other Lebanese parties are not any better, but the way in which the Druze leader has chosen to wage his confrontation with the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement has set him apart from the rest. Jumblatt even went so far as to demand that Aoun be ousted as president, before retracting his statement, not for political reasons, but for practical ones, such as the sectarian Lebanese system and the cover provided by Hezbollah to the president – the Iran-backed party’s key Christian ally.
Just two days ago when commenting on Aoun and the FPM – which is now headed by the president’s son-in-law Jebran Bassil - Jumblatt openly declared “I don’t like them and they don’t like me.”
The statement sparked renewed accusations between MPs from Jumblatt and Aoun’s camp.
Going back in history, Jumblatt openly opposed Aoun’s heading of the army and a military cabinet in 1988, even deeming it a declaration of war. Aoun would soon after be exiled to France, during which he and Jumblatt witnessed a brief period of rapprochement.
That was later blown up when Jumblatt warned of an impending “tsunami” when Aoun announced that he would return to Lebanon in 2005. That would mark the beginning of a new phase of ebbs and flows in their relations.
The ties were often strained, with a few attempts at reconciliation and some brief meetings between the two leaders.
The cool relations were reflected in the very few meetings the Druze leader and Aoun have held over the years. They have been limited to official occasions and attempts at maintaining calm between Druze and Christian areas. In fact they can be listed in a short paragraph: Aoun met Jumblatt in al-Chouf in 2010 and took part in a mass service in Deir al-Qamar in 2017 to mark the 16th anniversary of the Mount Lebanon reconciliation. Jumblatt then paid a visit to Aoun at his Beiteddine summer residence and the president then repaid the visit by meeting him at his Mokhtara residence.
This last meeting was only held in wake of the 2019 Qabr Shmoun incident that witnessed clashes between Druze and Christians and threatened to ignite civil strife in the country.
Jumblatt last met Aoun at the presidential palace in May in an attempt to address “differences”, said the PSP leader at the time.
Every time they met, the two officials would talk about reconciliation and calm. But whenever Lebanon approaches a significant political development tensions would boil over again and the digging up of war acts would come up, casting doubt on the possibility that the two leaders would ever truly reconcile.
‘Policy of spite’
Each side of the divide has their own view of the dispute and each accuses the other of corruption.
The PSP believes that Aoun’s term and policies have led Lebanon to its current state of collapse, while the FPM says that Jumblatt is being so critical because he no longer enjoys the role of kingmaker at parliament.
PSP MP Hadi Abou al-Hassan told Asharq Al-Awsat that Aoun and the FPM object to criticism against their performance during the president’s term.
Calamities befell Lebanon ever since Aoun headed the military government and launched his “elimination war” and “war of liberation” in 1988-90, he charged. Both wars cost hundreds of lives and allowed Syria to tighten its grip over Lebanon.
He then returned from exile after striking a deal under the table with the Syrian regime and allied himself with Hezbollah in order to become president, reneging on all of his previous statements and stances.
“We have seen nothing but setbacks, missteps, crises and losses on all levels from him,” said Abou al-Hassan.
“Despite all of this, they (the FPM) claim to pursue reform and accuse everyone of corruption, while they are the most corrupt figures. The problem lies in the policy of spite that they adopt. They say one thing and do the other. This is what caused all attempts at reconciliation and rapprochement between the FPM and PSP to fail,” he stressed, criticizing the movement for questioning the sincerity of the Mount Lebanon reconciliation.
On the other side of the divide, FPM MP George Atallah said the PSP is attacking Aoun and the movement because of the political crisis Jumblatt is enduring.
He rejected all accusations of corruption directed at the president.
“At every turn they verbally attack and defame us because of the current political situation the PSP is going through after Jumblatt lost the influential position he had occupied for years,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
“The parliamentary elections returned him to his natural size and he fears being prosecuted for his actions throughout those years,” he added, accusing Jumblatt of corruption.
Abou al-Hassan acknowledged that other forces besides the FPM have led Lebanon to the dire situation it is in right now, “but the movement, its allies and the president are in control and they have seized main ministries.” This includes the energy ministry that they have controlled for ten years and accounts for half of the country’s debts.
As for how long the confrontation between the PSP and FPM will end, Abou al-Hassan said: “We are not keen on pursuing futile disputes, but we cannot remain silent over what is taking place.”
“Reason demands that the president alter his course of action, otherwise be confronted with the need to change this team, starting with him,” he explained. “We realize how difficult this is due to sectarian reasons and the cover Hezbollah provides him.”
Atallah rejects such demands, saying those dreaming of the toppling of the president are “deluded”.
“Our policy will not change because it is based on the firm vision of breaking the entrenched system that the PSP is a part of,” he stated.