Sunday, 23 September 2012

Walid Jumblatt and His Two Right Hands

As Chehayeb’s influence grew, he became the main link between Jumblatt and his men in Beirut, relaying military orders from the leadership to the militia on the ground. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)
Published Sunday, September 23, 2012
Walid Jumblatt’s current monopoly over Druze politics in Mount Lebanon owes much of its success to two men, Ghazi al-Aridi and Akram Chehayeb. The common trait between them is that they were not born into surroundings loyal to the Jumblatt dynasty.

Akram Chehayeb and Ghazi al-Aridi are both Druze politicians loyal to Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt. While internal sources say the two men compete for influence in the Aley region and within the party, what unites them is stronger than what sets them apart.

Both Chehayeb and Aridi come from families that traditionally supported Jumblatt’s feudal foe, the Arslan clan.

As a young Baathist and supporter of Saddam Hussein, Chehayeb assumed the highest political seat he would be able to reach might be mayor, if he was lucky. But after getting severely beaten by members of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), he decided to join the party.

Chehayeb, a former history professor at the Lebanese University (LU) in Aley, was one of the first people in his family to join the PSP back in 1979. Due to the scarcity of party members, he soon became the PSP’s most powerful representative in Aley.

 Chehayeb with Israeli soldiers
During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Chehayeb was chosen to be a senior PSP liaison with the Israeli army (al-Manar television recently broadcast images from that time of Chehayeb with Israeli soldiers).

Later, he would be in charge of communication with the rival Lebanese Forces, a pro-Israel Christian militia, during the War of the Mountains.

As Chehayeb’s influence grew, he became the main link between Jumblatt and his men in Beirut, relaying military orders from the leadership to the militia on the ground.

In 1984, he was promoted to become Jumblatt’s office manager, allowing him to participate in the national dialogue meetings between warring militias that were held in Geneva in 1983 and Lausanne in 1984. He also took part in the negotiation of the 1985 tripartite agreement between the PSP, Amal Movement, and the LF under Elie Hobeika.

Following the 1990 Taif agreement, Chehayeb, like many civil war players, used his military role to launch a political career. In 1992, he won the Druze parliamentary seat in Beirut. Four years later, he took the seat representing his hometown of Aley, which he held for three consecutive terms.

He used his position to court supporters of the Arslan clan, the Jumblatt’s historical feudal rivals, performing special favors in hopes of win their loyalties for the rival clan.

But Chehayeb’s fighting days were not completely behind him. In 2008, he re-emerged as the PSP military commander in Aley during the May 7 clashes between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions.

Today, Chehayeb seems to be under voluntary house arrest. He remains shut in his heavily guarded house in Aley, opening his doors once a month to receive citizens and hear their complaints or requests.

Despite his self-imposed seclusion, nothing happens in the Aley district without Chehayeb’s knowledge. He has remained Jumblatt’s right hand over the years and continued to run Aley’s local affairs.

Over time, however, the PSP leadership decided it needed a strong representative in Baysour, Aley’s largest neighboring town. The ideal candidate would come from a prominent Druze family, and Ghazi al-Aridi fit the bill.

Aridi joined the PSP in 1975. Unlike Chehayeb, Aridi, a former High School physics teacher in Aley, did not fight himself, but handled the militia’s diplomatic affairs during the war.

His sharp tongue and political savvy helped him create an image of himself as a thinker and intellectual. In 1980, he was sent to Algeria as a special envoy of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), the anti-Israel militia coalition of the Lebanese civil war. He remained in Algeria during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Upon returning in 1983, he established the Sawt al-Jabal (Voice of the Mountain) radio station and served as its director until it closed in 1994.

In 1991, he became a political advisor to Jumblatt. This bolstered his diplomatic credentials by allowing him to build a wide network of relations with ambassadors, consuls, and foreign envoys.
In 2000, he claimed the Druze seat in Beirut that was once held by Chehayeb, a seat he still holds.
In addition to serving as an MP, Aridi was appointed information minister in 2005 and then handled the public works ministry in three consecutive governments, from 2008 to 2011.

He is currently in charge of Jumblatt’s local and regional relations, including ties with other Lebanese parties such as Hezbollah.

Sources in Aley say Aridi has played the political game better than Chehayeb when it comes to both serving his constituency and keeping track of regional party relations.

The sources add that Chehayeb is jealous of Aridi’s ministerial appointments and successes.

But there is also talk of Aridi deliberately sabotaging Chehayeb’s political career. Observers point to Aridi’s dismissal of Chehayeb supporter Adnan Zeineddine from his post in the urban planning department in the public works ministry and his subsequent replacement with Omar Mneimneh.

Others criticize Aridi’s perceived self-righteousness, “while corruption seeps from every hole in his ministry.” But no one can deny his political prowess when it comes to appeasing all sides and avoiding direct confrontation.

Druze Leaders
Other sources deny any feud between the two men, insisting that they cooperate on a daily basis to serve the area. Nevertheless, they admit that their presence in the same party and neighboring towns will naturally create some sort of undeclared competition.

In the end, both men serve Jumblatt, currently the most powerful Druze political figure who controls parliamentary seats and ministerial appointments.

Meanwhile, Talal Arslan, the heir to the clan’s political fiefdom, does not seem interested former glories or in rallying his supporters.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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