From Michael Young
This report of the return of Samir Quntar to his home village of Abay on Thursday is how you would expect a news story like this one to play in a foreign media outlet. (If you do not see an embedded clip, click here.)
No imagination. No real sense of what’s going on. Just an examination of the superficial paradoxes of the scene, particularly Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s welcoming of Quntar as a resistance fighter when only two months ago Jumblatt’s followers were fighting Hezbollah. Oh Lebanon! Land of contradiction, of fickleness!
What is really going on is far more interesting. Roughly speaking, the Druze have a dual political leadership structure in their community, with Jumblatt heading one faction and Talal Arslan heading the other, in the latest reflection of the traditional Jumblatti-Yazbaki dichotomy. Arslan’s power happens to be vastly more limited than Jumblatt’s, even as Jumblatt has a vested interest in puffing Arslan up to protect the dual structure of power tilted to his own advantage, to maintain Druze unity, and to prevent the emergence of Druze upstarts.
Even before Quntar, a Druze, was released from prison in Israel, both Jumblatt and Arslan realized he might be co-opted by Hezbollah and used against them. Indeed, the first thing the party did to the released prisoners was dress them up in military fatigues and send them out on a round of welcoming ceremonies. That’s why Quntar arrives in Abay in a Hezbollah uniform. Jumblatt’s and Arslan’s rally for Quntar was motivated by the need to avoid Druze ill feeling by ignoring their coreligionist; but more importantly by a desire to defend their leadership over the Druze by containing Quntar, which they did by embracing him to better defuse him. Although Quntar presents no threat to their power base, he could emerge as a small headache. For example, he could conceivably be brought into parliament in next year’s elections in the Baabda constituency, where Hezbollah and the Aounists, if they decide to bother Jumblatt, have considerable electoral sway.
What is interesting in this context is that the Syrian intelligence services have set up a similar such figure in the Druze community. His name is Wiam Wahhab, and while his Druze support is negligible, he has retained public attention because he is one of Damascus’ megaphones in Lebanon. Wahhab’s rise had threatened Arslan much more than it did Jumblatt, though Arslan and Wahhab are both close to Syria. In a new reversal, Quntar’s release threatens Wahhab, while Arslan, thanks to his collaboration with Jumblatt, has re-entered the Druze political scene in relative force after a period of relative quiet. This was made possible because last May the Jumblattis and the Arslanists united in fighting Hezbollah.
A sign of Quntar’s limitations among the Druze was not recorded in this video. When the Hezbollah representative, Muhammad Fnaysh, made a speech, he was booed on several occasions; and when Quntar praised Syria in his statements, he was booed as well. The Abay gathering had little to do with Samir Quntar. It was about the traditional Druze leadership affirming itself against Hezbollah, against an interloper, by neutralizing what Jumblatt and Arslan fear may be a Hezbollah creation in their midst.