Lebanon’s Alawi: A Minority Struggles in a ‘Nation’ of Sects
By: Mohamed Nazzal
Published Tuesday, November 8, 2011
The Alawis of Lebanon are a largely forgotten sect, but events in Syria have placed them in the spotlight. In a visit to Jabal Mohsen, Al-Akhbar surveyed prominent Alawi figures about the sect’s situation today.
Those unfamiliar with the area of Jabal Mohsen in northern Lebanon might think they have mistakenly crossed the Syrian border. Pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad in military uniform, plain clothes, or sunglasses hang everywhere. Most members of the Islamic Alawi sect in Lebanon live in this area.
Here, one can see a combination of deprivation, anxiety, and determination in residents’ eyes. You listen to stories about past injustices, the need for alertness in the present, and an anticipation for the future.
There are no accurate figures on the number of Alawis in Lebanon. Unofficial figures estimate the Alawi population at 70,000 to 120,000. Sixty percent of them live in the Jabal Mohsen area, which is a short distance from the north Lebanese city of Tripoli. Roughly a third of the community live in the country’s northern Akkar region. Lebanon officially recognized Alawis as an Islamic sect — along with Sunnis, Shia, and Druze — nearly 75 years ago.
But unlike other sects, Alawis have not been represented by a Lebanese government since independence. No Alawi has served as a minister in Lebanon’s history. There are no Alawi governors, mayors, lawyers, or high ranking military officers. Their first representatives in parliament only appeared after the first elections in 1992 following the Taif Accord, when they were assigned two seats.
Current events in Syria, rather than narrow Lebanese politics, have again brought attention to this relatively forgotten sect. Where do Lebanese Alawis stand regarding the Syrian crisis? To what extent will the situation there have an impact on them? What is their level of association with the Syrian regime, and how do they reconcile between alliance and belonging? Where do they stand regarding co-existence, knowing that their fellow Sunni citizens in Tripoli, who dominate the city, support the overthrow of the Alawi regime in Syria?
Ironically, the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbana and Alawis of Jabal Mohsen are separated by a small street aptly named Syria Street. Today, the only thing that the two neighborhoods share is extreme poverty due to neglect from the state. The moment you cross Syria Street onto the Alawi side, one cannot escape the large portraits of Ali Eid and his son Rifaat with Bashar Assad.
Rifaat Eid is the main leader of Alawis in Lebanon. His Arab Democratic Party is the political arm of the sect and is supported by the vast majority of Lebanon’s Alawi (according to the latest parliamentary election figures). A photo of Bashar Assad and another of his late father Hafez are displayed in Rifaat’s office. To the left is a large painting of the Lebanese flag and a medium-sized library that includes two encyclopedias, one on Hezbollah and another on Imam Moussa al-Sadr.
Eid likes to tell the story of the Alawi dating back to the early years of founding Lebanon. Ever since then, Alawis have been excluded from government posts.
It was common for Alawis to officially hide their religious beliefs in order to be considered for public employment. Thus, some Alawis became Sunnis while others converted to Shia. This, perhaps, is the reason why it is difficult to estimate their exact numbers today.
In the early 1960s, Eid left Lebanon for the United States to study. He returned to further his education at the American University of Beirut. After graduating, Eid says he found it impossible to find proper employment due to his Alawi identity.
Eid took his frustration to the late Christian leader Raymond Edde, to demand equal opportunity for Alawis in public employment. Eid recounts Edde’s response:
“This is Lebanon. You can simply leave it. He who chooses to stay should play the game of sects. Thus, you have to establish a movement that brings together members of your sect, in order to exert pressure to obtain your rights.”
The idea appealed to Eid. He decided to begin with sports, an activity that would appeal to the youth, and founded a football team. The movement, initially called the Alawi Youth Movement, gradually spread. Other activists and prominent figures from the sect also played a role in its foundation. Up to this point, the Eid family had no relations with the Syrian regime.
In 1976, Alawis clashed with Fatah and other Islamist forces. This was due to differences with the Syrian regime. “So, we fled to Syria,” Rifaat recalls.
There, Eid says he met Syrian President Hafez Assad who “provided us with support. We managed to gather weapons and trained to use them. When the Syrian forces entered Lebanon, we returned to our areas in our native country,” he continues.
According to Rifaat, however, “the Syrians did not do much to help Lebanese Alawis attain any authority or power.” After the 1989 Taif Accord, Ahmad Hbous and Abdel Rahman became the first Alawi MPs in the history of Lebanon. The sect was alloted two MPs, an ambassador, and a number of top-tier government employees. This was still less than what they should be entitled to according to Lebanon’s sectarian system of governance. After the war, the decision to collect arms and dissolve militias included Alawis. Close to 1,500 Alawis were absorbed into the national security forces.
Eid, today, is disappointed with his March 8 allies, who he says “have not supported us the way they should have. Today we feel that, in politics, our allies want to claim our share, whereas our opponents want to get rid of us.”
Eid also expresses frustration with the current Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who “won the parliamentary elections in the north thanks to us. He, like everybody else, knows that we played a major role in maintaining security in the north. If it weren’t for the efforts of some forces — ours in particular — the north would have become an Islamic emirate.”
When asked about the situation in Syria, Eid’s response:
“No one should question our loyalty to our country. We are more Lebanese than many others.”
As for their relationship with Syria, in which they “take pride,” Eid claims it is quite similar to the relationship between the Shia and Iran, Sunnis and Saudi Arabia, or Maronites and France. He adds, “There may be many problems in Syria, God forbid, but Assad will not fall. I would like to tell those lunatics who are playing the sectarian card with Syria that they are playing with fire.”
Eid affirms the Alawi community’s ability to defend itself.
“We are very strong. We’ll never be the first to attack, but if somebody attacks us, we know how to defend ourselves. We do take the security situation into consideration. All Lebanese officials, without exception, are well aware of that. We too can hit the streets every day and demand our rights peacefully, but we do not want to aggravate matters,” Eid says.
Eid is candid about the presence of weapons in the community. “Yes, we have weapons,” he says. “To us, they are more important than food. Otherwise, what is our guarantee? No one can guarantee our safety. We have confidence in the army, but it cannot ensure our safety under certain conditions.”
“We have no problems whatsoever with our Sunni brothers,” he says. “This is not a sectarian issue. Our problem is with those in the intelligence services that are loyal to our rivals. We and the Sunnis of Tripoli are more than family. We were brought up together. We study, eat, and drink together. We will do all we can to avoid conflict with them, despite all that has happened.”
The Eid family of Jabal Mohsen, represented by former MP Ali Eid and his son Rifaat, are a reference point for the Alawi sect in Lebanon. But they are not the only leaders in this arena. There are Alawi contenders who do not support the militant path of the Eid family. Among those is current Tripoli MP Badr Wannous, who was elected as a representative for the Sunni Future Movement — the Eid family’s bitter rival in Tripoli and the north. In the last elections, Wannous received a small percentage of the votes compared to Rifaat, which he blames on the “Eid family’s thuggery.” He says that “they forced Alawis to vote for them.”
Wannous does not believe that the events in Syria pose any danger to Lebanese Alawi. “The Syrian people, as well as their leadership, are fully cognizant of what is happening. There will not be any sectarian conflict in Syria. Thus, there is no need to discuss the spread of such a conflict to Lebanon,” he argues.
Wannous indicates that the Alawi presence in Lebanon “is very old and precedes many other Lebanese groups. Members of this sect have been, and remain, an indispensable part of the social fabric of Tripoli."
Wannous believes that the conflict between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbana “is not a sectarian one between Alawis and Sunnis.”
“There are many family relations between the two sects. A while back, the sectarian division between the two regions did not even exist. They were mixed to the point that someone’s sect was hard to determine,” he continues.
Wannous shares the Eid family’s view that the Lebanese state “did not treat the residents of Jabal Mohsen and Mount Lebanon equally.” But he attributes “the deprivation and ignorance among Alawi to the Eid family.” There is a high percentage of Alawi intellectuals and educated people, “but the Eid family does not care about them.” That’s why, Wannous claims, “sophisticated and civilized Alawi reside outside Jabal Mohsen.” Nevertheless, the Future Movement Alawi MP maintains that he has a “strong presence” in the Jabal, even though posters and banners supporting him are not visible in the area.
Time in Bab al-Tabanna is marked by battles. There, "battle" is a word that comes up in every conversation: the final battle, the battle before the last, a certain martyr’s battle, a certain neighborhood’s battle, the 3-year-old battle. In Jabal Mohsen, the Alawi cemetery includes a designated area for the martyrs of battles. Even a tomb reflects its owner’s poverty. There are no name inscriptions – only a concrete block. But the cemetery guard knows the names of the dead.
Across the cemetery is the Imam Ali mosque with a green dome. The mosque’s walls are covered with verses of the Quran, in addition to the names of Prophet Mohammad and the twelve imams.
“Alawi believe in the same guardianship of the imams that ‘twelver’ Shia believe in,” the mosque’s imam, Ali Suleiman, explains. He says that members of the sect “pray five times every day. On Friday, the mosque is full of worshipers.” His turban does not resemble those worn by Shiite religious scholars, but rather a Sunni cleric’s turban.
The headquarters of the Islamic Alawi Council is located near the mosque. Lebanon’s Alawi waited 73 years after they were officially recognized to have their own council, which is charged with regulating the sect’s religious and social affairs. Unlike similar institutions belonging to other sects, it is housed in a modest apartment situated on the first floor of an old residential building. When entering the council, one’s eyes fall on an old picture of Sheikh Saleh al-Ali.
Al-Ali was an Alawi hero who rejected the French colonial authorities’ proposal to establish an Alawi state along the Syrian coast. He insisted on Syrian unity. One of the council members, Sheikh Ali Kaddour, who does not dress in traditional religious garb, and the office director, Ahmad Assi, were working at the council offices. After discussing ‘historical injustices’ against the sect, Kaddour expressed deep regret regarding “the falsehoods and myths woven around the Alawi sect, especially among Muslims.”
“They invent stories about our deification of Imam Ali Bin Ali Taleb, God forbid. We believe in the one and only Allah and follow his Prophet Mohammad’s path. These unjust rumors have a lot to do with the marginalization and deprivation that we suffer from,” Kaddour adds.
Office director, Assi, in turn, states that credit for the establishment of the council goes to former MP Ali Eid: “Whoever says otherwise is lying.” The sect’s religious figures unanimously agree that the Eid family played a central role in launching the council two years ago. Assi explains that since the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, roughly half of the Alawis in the country changed their sect at the national administration offices in order to qualify for government jobs, such as those in the army and security forces. He says that Alawis “were not entitled to any of those positions. Today, we are working on rectifying the situation through legal means. Some may think that we are trying to convert people to our sect, but we are not a missionary sect.”
Assaf Nasser is a prominent Alawi figure and the community’s first Lebanese ambassador. Although he is not on good terms with the Eid family, they do not consider him an opponent. He does not support the Eid family’s management of the sect’s affairs, especially their alienation of intellectuals. Nevertheless, he gives them credit “for their role in the battle for the Islamic Alawi Council.”
Nasser considers himself among the first attempting to unite Alawis in the 1960s. He explains to Al-Akhbar the reasons behind the sect’s marginalization, namely the dominance by Lebanon’s larger sects over key government and administrative positions. Nasser also cites the absence of an Alawi religious authority, the division and strife among members of the sect, and the lack of qualified and educated Alawis.
Nasser explains that Lebanese Alawis “have always been known for their secular inclinations. Marriage to members of other sects has always been common among Alawis.”
“This excessive secularism was disastrous for the Alawi sect and its members in the "republic of sects," where you can only obtain your rightful place through sectarian belonging. This led many Alawi members to change their sect to Sunni or Shia, which resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of Alawi members on state registers,” he adds.
Despite the differences in opinion, Nasser views the power of Eid’s at this stage as a necessity.
“Only God knows how things might turn. Ibn Taymiyya’s historical fatwa that resulted in the displacement of Alawis centuries ago from Keserwan in Mount Lebanon might be invoked once again. The fatwa characterized Alawis as infidels and called for their murder.
Thus, power, in the absence of the state’s protection, is a must to secure the Alawis,” Nasser argues.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.