Beliefnet
QARDAHA, Syria, July 10 (AP)--The Alawite Muslims of Syria were once marginalized in religion, economics and politics. Then a young Alawite named Hafez Assad rose to power, and things changed dramatically in places like his hometown of Qardaha.

Since Assad's death on June 10, Alawites who may have feared backlash from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority are somewhat reassured to see another of their clan--his son Bashar--ascending to power.

Bashar Assad, 34, completed the last formality of becoming president Monday by winning a nationwide referendum in which he was the only candidate. The former eye doctor was named commander of the military within days of his father's death and head of his father's Baath party.

Bashar won 97.29 percent of the national vote, Interior Minister Mohammed Harba said.

The younger Assad is expected to be inaugurated on July 17, becoming the first president to succeed his father in an Arab republic.

Harba said that of the 9.44 million eligible voters, about 8.93 million cast their ballots, a nearly 94.6 percent turnout.

Hafez Assad, who depended in large part on family and clan links to maintain his grip on power for 30 years, has given fellow Alawites schools, hospitals, roads, colleges, sports arenas and sewage systems.

Historically, Alawites were concentrated in mountainous northwest Syria; nationwide, they are about 15 percent of the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population in this country of 17 million people.

Under Hafez Assad, the military became a popular career for young Alawites. Today, key army units, the elite Republican Guards, security agencies and palace security are led by trusted Alawites from the Assad family or loyal clans.

``We expect more from Bashar Assad, but it's difficult to imagine someone doing more than what the president had done,'' said Habib Makhlouf, speaking in his shop on the main commercial street of Qardaha, which shares its name with the district to which it belongs.

Alawites form an offshoot of Shiite Islam and are found in Lebanon and Turkey as well as Syria. They have long suffered from charges of religious heresy, neglect by governments and the political and economic dominance of members of the mainstream Sunni Muslim faith.

The secretive faith--the name indicates followers of Ali, son-in-law of Islam's 7th century Prophet Mohammed--draws on astrology and Christianity as well as Islam. It is believed to date to the 9th century.

Early in Hafez Assad's rule, questions were raised about whether an Alawite could rule a Muslim country. Hafez Assad appealed to an influential Shiite cleric who ruled that Alawites are part of the Shiite community.

In a country where security agencies are dreaded and informers are planted virtually everywhere, ordinary Syrians are reluctant to discuss Alawites and how they fared under Hafez Assad. Officially, no group is discriminated against or favored in Syria.

Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political analyst close to the Syrian government, rejected any notion of ``an Alawite regime.'' Writing in the London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat in late June, Shueibi said Hafez Assad rose above sectarianism to promote the rights of all Arabs.

But Haitham Manaa, a prominent Syrian dissident who lives in Paris, said in a telephone interview that favoritism shown to Alawites--particularly when government and military posts are being doled out--has sharpened social divisions in Syria.

"The Assad regime has erased the civil nature of society and replaced it with principles based on clans and sects,'' he said. ``The army is structured on sectarian basis, which means that efficient military men are no longer in positions of power.''

Hafez Assad was shrewd enough to build a diverse power base, courting other minorities like Shiites, Christians and Druze and never neglecting the Sunni majority, particularly the powerful Sunni merchant class.

Syria's two long-serving vice presidents, Abdul-Halim Khaddam and Mohammed Zoheir Musharaqa, are Sunni Muslims. The speaker of parliament, the prime minister and the foreign minister are Sunnis and so are ruling Baath party stalwarts Abdullah Al-Ahmar and Suleiman Qadaha.

Another Sunni is powerful Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, long close to the elder Assad and now carefully guiding Bashar Assad.

The beginnings of change for Alawites and other minorities preceded Hafez Assad's presidency, dating to the 1963 rise to power of the Socialist Arab Baath party. Encouraged by the Baath's staunchly anti-sectarian policies and its resolve to dismantle the old class order, minorities began to enroll in schools and colleges in increasing numbers and joined the professional classes.

Many took advantage of relaxed entry requirements and joined the military in a country where the army has played a traditionally strong political role.

Alawites ``were clever and worked hard,'' wrote Patrick Seale, Hafez Assad's British biographer and confidant. ``Having fought and studied their way to the top, they would not easily be dislodged.''

Resentment of the Alawites' improved fortunes is expressed only privately in Sunni-dominated urban centers like Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, where Sunnis complain that Alawites are promoted ahead of them in the civil service or that their migration to the cities to work has created crowding and inflated housing prices.

Such resentment--believed to have been one of the causes of a rebellion by militant Muslims that was crushed by Hafez Assad in the 1980s--is among the challenges the younger Assad will have to deal with in order to stay in power.

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