Surrounded by members of his bloc, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt sits quietly in his parliament seat. Between him and presidential candidate Henry Helou are two seats occupied by Minister Wael Abu Faour and member of parliament [MP] Alaeddin Terro.
Many come forward to greet him. Sometimes he stands, often with a vague smile. He has a special friendship with MP Gilberte Zouein, whom he went to greet in her seat.
Jumblatt does not usually attend general parliamentary sessions. During the electoral session, Jumblatt waited for the ballot box to come to him and dropped an envelope holding the name of Henry Helou. Jumblatt thinks he succeeded in preserving his centrist image and his pivotal role during main constitutional milestones. Jumblatt voted for Helou, apologizing for the candidates who knocked on his door requesting his support. He voted for whom he thought eligible for the country’s top post, freeing himself from the charge of belonging to this or that axis.
Jumblatt is not known for “loving” Samir Geagea or Michel Aoun, but that played no role on Election Day. For Jumblatt, writing Geagea’s name on a ballot would be, at least, an announcement of belonging to March 14, which is unacceptable for Jumblatt, regardless of his other considerations. Casting a white ballot might have been the solution if the battle was between Aoun and Geagea. But when a white ballot started to represent March 8, Jumblatt could no longer cast a white ballot. This does not mean that he picked Helou as a face-saving device, but rather because he was confident that the country needs somebody like Helou.
What is a “strong president”?
In his interview with As-Safir, Jumblatt regretted the talk that he picked a “weak” candidate. He also regretted the sectarian voices that come from here and there to deprive him of his right to have a candidate. Jumblatt is monitoring the actions of those who were provoked by seeing a presidential nomination coming out of Clemenceau. But he is confident that their voices will not spread simply because no one “can question Helou’s Maronite identity and Christian roots.” He is the son of Pierre Helou, who has a long experience in parliamentary and ministerial work and who almost became president. Henry Helou is also the grandson of Michel Chiha, the godfather of the Lebanese constitution.
For Jumblatt, these qualities surpass all others. Jumblatt gives no credence for the talk that Helou has been in the shadow for most of his 10 years as deputy, or for the talk that Helou has had few activities and achievements. Many see no value for such a standard in a country most of whose deputies are unknown to the public.
Jumblatt smiled when we mentioned the phrase “a strong candidate.” He asked what have the “strong presidents” achieved, excluding President Fouad Chehab. He compared Bechara el-Khoury, who started his reign strong and ended it with a parliamentary bloc of seven deputies, to Camille Chamoun, whose mandate ended with civil war.
The Baabda Declaration has eliminated the possibility of an extension
Jumblatt criticizes the candidates that raise major slogans. He said that Hezbollah’s weapons are not under discussion at the local table and depend on regional and international considerations. He said that he previously called for the need to re-aim the gun in the right direction, noting that this is the most that is possible right now. The Baabda Declaration, which Jumblatt mentioned when he nominated Helou, can one day become a road map, when the conditions are ripe, but not today, he said. Therefore, Jumblatt thinks that President Michel Suleiman’s insistence on applying the Baabda Declaration immediately has eliminated the possibility of extending his mandate.
Jumblatt doubts that Aoun’s turnaround will significantly improve his chances to become president. The meeting between Aoun and Saad Hariri is still a mystery to Jumblatt, who noted that there is no direct contact between him and Hariri, but rather mutual messages that Nader Hariri delivers now and then.
In any case, whoever heard Helou talk after the meeting of the Democratic Gathering when he was nominated and after the first electoral round found him coherent and confident. Jumblatt is convinced that Helou would be a good president. Jumblatt has repeatedly said that Helou is a candidate of consensus, moderation and dialogue, pointing out that the country is in dire need of a president who brings it together, not divides it.
Jumblatt adheres to Helou
Because they believe in this equation, 16 deputies elected Helou, including Jumblatt, who refuses to consider Helou’s nomination a maneuver. The head of the Democratic Gathering insisted that his candidate will stay in the battle. Moreover, Jumblatt is preparing to start an intensive campaign to support Helou’s nomination, relying on the fact that many think that producing a “strong” president is impossible as long as each side is not ready to concede to the other side.
In short, Jumblatt believes the approach that started by naming Tammam Salam to head the government is still the best way to protect the country and its stability, crediting Hezbollah and the Future Movement in this context. Briefly, Jumblatt is calling for the removal of all the causes of the crisis by agreeing on a new president who will manage the crisis and contribute to the rapprochement between the various Lebanese components and political forces.
Jumblatt is convinced that the Lebanese people have a serious chance to elect a president who is “Made in Lebanon,” by taking advantage of the fact that Lebanon is not a priority file in the region. But he does not deny that external factors still play a role. Jumblatt has indicated that he will make an effort to negotiate to reach a president, similar to the effort he made to end the government crisis and agree on Salam as a compromise candidate. He said, “I am trying to break the deadlock and the division between March 8 and March 14,” hoping “to achieve a result.”
But he acknowledged, “The mission to form a government, despite its complexity, was easy, while the current task seems very difficult.” Nevertheless, Jumblatt revealed that he has drawn a road map involving communicating with the Americans, the Saudis and the French, because they play a role in this area, in addition to communicating with internal forces, particularly Hezbollah, speaker Nabih Berri and others. He pointed out that he will send Abu Faour to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi officials (and perhaps Hariri). By extension, Jumblatt invited Hariri, through As-Safir, to “end the period of his absence from the country sooner rather than later. … I want him to come back as the prime minister of a [unity] government (after a new president is elected) to spare ourselves and the country a lot of tension and crises.”
Jumblatt fears a presidential vacuum, which would lead to moving presidential powers to the government. He thinks that this may disrupt the state administratively, politically and economically, and that “any decree would need the signature of 24 ministers, so it would be better that we elect a president and not go to this confusion.” It is a foregone conclusion that Wednesday’s session will be postponed for lack of a quorum. But Jumblatt is still hoping that a president will be elected between now and May 25.