[Interviewed Walid Jumblatt and contributed reporting to this article, published here on November 20, 2014. Just a note, the story is a lot more fun if you read it with the embedded tweets, so check it out on the link!]
He scrolled gingerly through a queue of Twitter notifications. “I’m trying to answer almost everybody individually,” he said. Joumblatt joined Twitter just three weeks ago and already has more than 25,000 followers, many of whom he answers directly with the same candor and wit that has helped make the 65-year-old an unlikely giant in Lebanese politics.
“I have my own style, as you will have noticed,” Joumblatt said, putting his iPad down. “I don’t have a media team, I don’t care about them.” When asked if any of his advisers ever offer him guidance on what to tweet, “nobody dares” he replied, “and I don’t listen.”
The learning curve has been steep. Some of Twitter’s slang occasionally passes him by.
Joumblatt, like many of Lebanon’s current political class, rose to power during the country’s civil war, commanding a fierce militia that at times took on American troops. After the war, Joumblatt made the transition into politics, representing the country’s minority Druze community, from which he hails. But despite his small constituency, he’s managed to continually punch well above his weight in regional politics, ultimately fashioning himself as a kingmaker through a combination of shrewd and pragmatic politics. Known as the “weathervane” of Lebanon’s political leaders, Joumblatt switches strategic allegiances more quickly than you can retweet him.
Lebanon, a small, religiously diverse country, is home to a tense alignment of Christians, Sunnis, Shia Muslims, and Druze — communities mostly represented by an old guard of politicians who keep the majority of political discourse behind closed doors. On social media, used broadly by Lebanese across the country, the political rhetoric is open and fierce, albeit rarely constructive. While most of the country’s political elite hold social media accounts, few directly engage.
That’s what sets Joumblatt apart. His political flexibility gives him the unique ability as a politician to voice unpopular criticism. Following clashes in Lebanon’s second-largest city of Tripoli last month, Joumblatt called out former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, now a parliamentarian representing the city of Tripoli.
Joumblatt says Mikati responded to his tweet privately via one of his assistants, a move Joumblatt described as unsatisfactory.
“I’m not going to waste my time tweeting with politicians,” Joumblatt said, adding that he would much rather use Twitter to talk to his constituents. “It’s a must to be accessible. You have to listen to people, to their demands.”
That kind of open forum is nothing new for Joumblatt, as a traditional Lebanese politician, he holds court at his home twice a week whenever he’s in the country — a kind of open house where his constituents can show up unannounced to complain or ask for favors. Now, he says, he’s just taken that online.
But this kind of frank dialogue between politicians and those they represent is rare in the Middle East.
“[Other Middle Eastern leaders] are … imprisoned in their ivory towers,” Joumblatt said. “They don’t have direct access to their people. They have direct access to intelligence reports, that’s it. Because they are terrified by their own security.”
For that reason, Joumblatt says he often drives himself around Beirut and dislikes bodyguards, an opinion he says his dog, Oscar, a purebred Shar-Pei, shares.
“[Oscar] hates all bodyguards, even my own bodyguards, and he’s right.” When ambassadors visit, he has to put Oscar away, for fear he’ll attack their entourage. “We have the same instincts,” he said, smiing.
“[His Twitter] account looks like Walid Joumblatt himself,” said Lebanese political analyst Nadim Koteich, who tweets about politics as @NadimKoteich.
“He is one of the main pillars of the political establishment in Lebanon, yet he maintains this anti-establishment attitude sometimes.”
As a government minister in the 1980s, Joumblatt was known to drive himself to cabinet meetings, showing up in jeans and a leather jacket while his fellow politicians donned suits and traveled with entourages. To this day Joumblatt shuns convoys. His home in Beirut is noticeably devoid of the multiple roadblocks and barbed wire that ring the homes of most politicians.
Responding to tweets ranging from comments on Lebanese political crises to questions about his dog’s diet, Joumblatt’s feed creates an image of an easygoing intellectual who can get snarky and loves to express himself with emojis.
Following the reopening of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest shrine in Islam that is often the scene of clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, Joumblatt satirically thanked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, bestowing Kerry with the Muslim honorific “Hajj.”
Joumblatt chuckled as the tweet was read back to him. “I like to joke! Other politicians take themselves too seriously to joke.”
“He’s a very learned guy — he reads a lot, but he also has this attitude of not taking anything too seriously,” said Nicholas Blanford, the Beirut correspondent for theChristian Science Monitor, who has interviewed Joumblatt dozens of times over his nearly two decades of covering Lebanon. He said he believes the leader’s laid-back attitude is completely genuine and “he has this relaxed demeanor that makes him stand apart from his contemporaries.”
Joumblatt says virtually no subject is off limits for him on Twitter. As long as people are reasonably polite, he’s always willing to engage, even on touchy topics, ranging from his controversial stance on legalizing hashish production in Lebanon’s impoverished Bekaa Valley to his shady past as a militia leader.
But when pressed, Joumblatt admitted one thing he refuses to tweet about are his pessimistic thoughts on the future of the Middle East.
“Everything is crumbling, the old Arab world that I used to know is crumbling, but I can’t tweet that,” he said between sighs. “It would be a crime to tell people that, ‘Well, things are more difficult than you think,’ because after all, they have hopes, they have aspirations.”
Instead, he says he tweets quotes that address suffering but still offer hope, even if he himself doesn’t fully buy it.
As for newbie social media mistakes, Joumblatt said he could think of only one, and began to chuckle even before he told the story.
“I was in Moscow and we went to a hotel,” he explained slowly, “so there you have a beautiful hostess that greets you at the entrance and another one, beautiful, that takes you to the restaurant and a third one, and anyhow…”. He paused, collecting his thoughts — “so I took a picture with one of them,” he said, laughing loudly. Then he tweeted the photo by accident. When he realized what he’d done, he said all he could think was, “What will happen to me with my wife now?”
He didn’t yet know it was possible to delete tweets, so he quickly tried to cover it up by tweeting that the woman was the granddaughter of Lenin.
“It worked,” Joumblatt said. “Only one guy said, ‘But Lenin had no children’… It seems he was an old communist.”
When asked if he thought he would continue tweeting, Joumblatt’s tone turned apathetic. “We’ll see. I’ve now got the habit.”
Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.