The Arab Democratic Party (ADP) has long been the uncontested representative of Lebanon’s tiny Alawite community. Its long-standing alliance with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though at times rocky, has ensured its political and paramilitary hegemony over Lebanon’s Alawites.

But the alleged involvement of some of its members in bombings in Tripoli that caused the death of 47 Sunni worshippers last August and led to a new round of intense fighting between Alawites and Sunni Muslims may be slowly changing this equation.

New Alawite voices are emerging that are more critical of the Assad regime and of the ADP, but lingering fears over the fate of the community still limit the extent of their influence.

A History of Anti-Alawite Discrimination

Just like their co-religionists in neighboring Syria, Lebanon’s Alawites have long faced religious, political, and economic discrimination. In Lebanon, they have been deprived of the kind of socioeconomic and political benefits that other religious communities have enjoyed.

Lebanese Alawites were not even recognized as a religious sect at all until the 1990s—instead, they were listed as Shia Muslims of the larger Jaafari or “Twelver” strand. In an overtly sectarian political system such as Lebanon’s, this meant that they were virtually unable to secure jobs in the public sector or independent political representation.

Some sources even suggest that, in order to get a position in the civil service, up to half of Lebanon’s Alawites had to convert to the more mainstream Sunni or Twelver Shia interpretations of Islam. This makes it difficult to give an accurate figure for the number of Lebanese Alawites, but most estimates suggest that the community does not exceed 100,000 to 120,000 people. Over half of Lebanon’s Alawites live in the Jabal Mohsen area of Tripoli, the country’s second-largest city, which is otherwise dominated by Sunni Muslims.

The Rise of the Arab Democratic Party

In the 1970s, Lebanese Alawites began to organize in support of political and economic rights for their community. The schoolteacher Ali Eid became a prominent leader of this struggle. Eid had become a symbol of anti-Alawite discrimination already in the early 1970s when, as a student at the American University of Beirut, he was stabbed in the back by a Saudi national.

Eid became one of the founders of the Young Alawite Movement, an organization dedicated to improving the lot of Alawites in Lebanon. It was soon succeeded by the ADP, with Eid as party leader. He would hold that position until he was succeeded by his son Rifaat in the early 2000s.

The ADP’s activism would eventually prove effective. A July 1995 law provided the community with a share of jobs in the public sector, its own civil and religious courts, official Alawite religious institutions, and independent political representation in Lebanon’s quota-based sectarian system.

The ADP’s Alliance With the Assads

However, many of these achievements were only made possible because of the ADP’s unconditional loyalty to the Assad regime in Syria. Close contacts between the Eid and Assad families date back to the mid-1970s. At the time, Damascus was searching for allies in Lebanon in the run-up to its June 1976 intervention in the Lebanese civil war.

In the 1970s, Ali Eid was particularly close to Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Syria’s then president Hafez al-Assad. Acting as his brother’s military enforcer, Rifaat al-Assad was head of a feared paramilitary force known as the Defense Companies. This large, semi-independent military organization would also play a prominent role in the Lebanese civil war after Syria’s intervention there. The Defense Companies would later provide the ADP’s militia, called the Red Knights, with training and equipment.

It is often said that, after the 1976 intervention, “the ADP functioned largely as an adjunct of the Syrian army.” Based mainly in Tripoli, it struggled there with a local anti-Syrian Sunni Islamist group called the Islamic Unification Movement from 1981 to 1985. When this movement was crushed, the ADP enjoyed free reign in the city. “Without our resistance, Tripoli would have become an Islamic emirate a long time ago,” boasts a leader of the ADP in an interview with me, his rhetoric echoing that of the Syrian regime.

Tension in the ADP-Syria Relationship

When the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, Syria was left in control of the country. This boosted the ADP’s standing, but for a time in the mid- and late 1990s it seemed as if Damascus had begun to search for new Alawite allies.

The ADP had by then become something of a burden to Hafez al-Assad, as Ali Eid had earned a disastrous reputation in Tripoli and the ADP was allegedly involved in a December 1986 massacre in the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh.

Another important factor was Eid’s personal connections to Rifaat al-Assad, who had fallen out of favor with the Syrian president after a failed coup in 1983–1984. By the mid-1990s, Rifaat al-Assad was trying to rebuild his influence in Damascus in an attempt to position himself as an alternative to Bashar al-Assad in the emerging struggle for succession. By 1998–1999, the power struggle had erupted into the open. Rifaat al-Assad suffered a resounding loss, his property in Latakia was seized, and he was declared persona non grata in Syria.

All these things convinced Hafez al-Assad to sideline the ADP’s leader. In the Syrian-supervised 1996 parliamentary elections in Lebanon, Ali Eid lost his seat. New Alawite political figures began to emerge, such as Abdelrahman Abdelrahman or Ahmad Hbous, but neither quite managed to match Ali Eid’s local influence in Jabal Mohsen.

Eventually, when Rifaat Eid succeeded his father Ali at the helm of the ADP, and after Bashar al-Assad had succeeded his own father as president of Syria, relations began to warm up again between the two families. The ADP was allowed to rebuild its militia, which had disbanded like most others after the Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war. Security sources now estimate that the ADP has at least 1,000 trained fighters in Jabal Mohsen.

But now, the Syrian civil war is again straining the relationship between Syria’s regime and the Alawites of Lebanon.

Part II of this article looks at politics of Jabal Mohsen during the Syrian uprising.