Lebanon News

Lebanese Allawites welcome Syria's withdrawal as 'necessary'

BEIRUT: Allawites represent about 10 percent of Syria's population, yet they are the dominant group, both economically and politically, much to the discomfort of the masses. In Lebanon, the off-shoot sect of Islam represents less than half a percent of the population and has long bemoaned its economic and political marginalization in the country.

Accordingly, when Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon in 1976, many Allawites saw in their entrance an end to a "long history of marginalization" and quickly declared their loyalty to then President Hafez Assad, himself Allawite.

In fact, it was Assad's troops who supported the Allawites - considered a heterodox sect by many Shiites and Sunnis, as well as Druze - who formed alliances with the Maronite Christians in Lebanon during the civil war years against the Druze and Palestinians.

But the near three-decade Syrian occupation did not balance the scales between Lebanese Allawites and the country's other religious factions, despite the former's adoption of its political line and complete devotion to Syrian leaders.

Allawite Tripoli MP Ahmad Hbous said Syria's presence in Lebanon did not afford his sect any special privileges, noting that it was only through the acceptance of the Taif Accord in 1989 that the group was granted political participation.

He said: "We lobbied during the 1960s and 1970s excessively for our rights and to participate in politics and just before achieving something, the war broke out. We could only reclaim these rights through Taif 15 years later."

The Taif Accord, the peace deal that ended Lebanon's 15-year civil war, stipulated Allawites be granted two seats in Parliament (representing Akkar and Tripoli), two representatives to head governmental institutions and one diplomatic post.

Hbous added: "Syria treated us equally. We neither won nor lost anything during its deployment and nothing will change with the redeployment, which was necessary even though it came too late."

But Hbouss, who ran on former Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh's electoral list in the 2000 elections, also supports some opposition demands; namely holding parliamentary elections on time and an international probe into former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination.

He said: "We support every step and policy which brings about Lebanon's sovereignty over its land, but we also insist on establishing relations and cooperation between Lebanon and Syria."

Former Tripoli MP Ali Eid, who ran in the 2000 elections on former Premier Omar Karami's list, said: "The [Allawite] sect was never granted any privileges during Syria's 29-year presence. Their regime is secular, not sectarian like here, and thus for them it is not logical to distinguish any specific sect."

Eid added that Lebanese Allawites are similar to Syrian Sunnis, exerting little or no power in the political arena.

He said: "Our rights were violated and neglected prior and during their presence in a country where everything is almost equally distributed between Christians and Muslims."

Eid added that even though Allawites were great allies of the Syrians, they are first and foremost Lebanese but believe in the necessity of establishing and maintaining good relations with Syria and the Arab countries to preserve the Arab identity of Lebanon.

Commenting on the opposition movement since Hariri's killing, the former MP said many of its demands are reasonable. But he added Allawites have not adopted the opposition or loyalist's political line.

He said: "We believe that sovereignty, freedom and independence should be achieved and that Lebanon's regime should be based on the equation of appointing the right figure in the right position regardless of religion."

Ali Hammoud, a retired government employee, said: "If some Allawites benefited from the Syrian presence in Lebanon during the past 30 years, that cannot and should not be generalized nor should one link us to the Syrian regime in any way."

He added: "We criticize some Syrian policies but we are Arabs and care about Syria and have many family ties with Syria's Allawites."

Hammoud rejected any suggestion that Allawites should be concerned about their future in Lebanon following Syria's pullout, saying "maybe afterward the accusation of being Syria's followers will be dropped and we can feel free to express our opinions and ask for more involvement in Lebanon's politics."

According to Hammoud: "We should be given more government posts as well as a ministry, but we hope one day Lebanon will be a nation for all Lebanese equally, despite religious calculations."

Areen Hassan, a lawyer from Akkar who works and lives in Tripoli, said: "At the beginning of the civil war we allied with the Syrians thinking they would help us gain our rights and get political representation."

He added: "However, we ended loosing 700 people during the war and were considered as Syrians afterward. So we lost on both the political and military grounds."

Hassan is also former secretary of the Islamic Allawite Union, the institution which handles the sect's internal affairs. He said that the withdrawal will positively affect his sect for the simple reason Allawites are Lebanese.

He added: "Not only did Syria outlive its usefulness in Lebanon, but it was never of any to us Lebanese Allawites. The fact is we never had one minister, ambassador or high-ranking official."

Youssef Habib, a hairdresser from Tripoli, said: "Allawites are a sect like any other in Lebanon. We are Lebanese first and foremost and never had any political affiliation with the Syrian regime but with Syrian Allawite relatives."

Allawites have been present in modern-day Lebanon since the 16th century and are estimated to number 100,000 today, mostly in Akkar and Tripoli. The sect is managed through the Islamic Allawite Union, a council of 600 members that are elected every four years.





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