Business abandons the regime
Damascus and Aleppo businessmen went on strike this week in a possible rehearsal of civil disobedience aiming at overthrowing the Syrian regime, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus
The 25 May massacre in the Syrian town of Hawla that led to the deaths of some 50 children under the age of 10 for which pro-regime militias are suspected of being responsible has re-energised the popular protest movement against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, leading some significant segments of the population to abandon it.
The armed opposition to the regime, led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) made up of defectors from the regular armed forces, has pledged to escalate operations against the regime in the wake of the latter's use of violence against civilians. Peaceful revolutionary forces and a large segment of the country's silent majority have also decided to step up demonstrations and civil disobedience.
Businessmen in the Syrian capital Damascus began an unexpected strike on 28 May in protest at the excessive force that has been used by the regime over the last 15 months to put down anti-regime demonstrations, culminating in the Hawla massacre. The strike paralysed most commercial and semi-commercial districts in the capital, including key markets and commercial areas such as Al-Hamidiya, Al-Hariqa, Al-Maydan, Al-Saliheya and others.
The strike did not only affect shops, warehouses and workshops, but also affected transportation once the owners of transport vehicles stopped working, refusing to drive people to work. The strikes coincided with others in several Syrian governorates, from Deraa in the south to Homs in the centre and Deir Al-Zur in the north.
The regime responded to the strikes by attacking merchants in Damascus, with security forces and militias smashing shop fronts and breaking the locks on shops in order to force their owners to open for business and end the strike.
Several merchants were arrested in the capital's old quarter after they had refused to open their doors, and the confrontations were worse in rural areas, with activists reporting that security and militia forces had ransacked shops whose owners were on strike, burning some of them.
Syrian activists said on social-networking sites that "Syria went on strike for 60 days during the French occupation, but even the colonialists did not dare to take such brutal action" as that carried out by the Al-Assad regime.
The strike coincided with the arrival of UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Anan in Damascus, who emerged from a meeting with Al-Assad looking glum about prospects for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
This peaceful civil escalation had not been timed to coincide with Anan's visit, but was instead a spontaneous outburst expressing feelings that the businessmen had been suppressing for months. Meanwhile, the regime claimed that the revolutionaries, routinely described as "terrorists", had forced the merchants to shutter their doors by threatening to burn down their businesses if they did not go on strike.
Sources in the popular movement said that the strike had been voluntary and unprompted and that it was a part of the protests against the regime's violent crackdown. "Like other Syrians, we also demand the ouster of the regime. However, we were earlier worried about getting shot if we participated in the demonstrations," one merchant told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The strike is our way of condemning the regime."
Bassam Al-Malek, a member of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce (DCC), told the Weekly that "the strike by Damascus merchants was a spontaneous event, and it did not take place on the instructions of the political leadership. Instead, it was an unprompted response to the massacres for which the opposition blames the regime."
Al-Malek, an opposition businessman, said that a senior official from the presidential palace had visited the DCC and asked board members to intervene to end the strike. "The strike did not end, because the merchants do not trust the DCC board. The latter has little influence because the merchants, too, have broken through the fear barrier. People are angry, and the strike is an expression of this. This was a strong message to the regime."
The majority of DCC board members are regime loyalists, having interests that tie them to the regime. They enjoy exclusive access to commercial deals making large profits, and the regime benefits from partnering up with such businessmen, who are not directly linked to the misappropriation of public funds.
Religious leaders in Damascus who reject the regime were also quick to join the strike, calling on the merchants to continue it for at least five days. Meanwhile, the opposition inside and outside the country announced its support for the merchants and protesters, commending them for their courageous stance.
The merchants did not end the strike despite the huge cost it would have had for them, holding out for nearly five days as the strike spread across Damascus. From the capital, it reached Aleppo, Syria's industrial capital, where shops closed their doors on Saturday and trading ground to a halt one day after a group of young men were killed in the city after security forces opened fire on peaceful protests demanding the ouster of the regime.
As an expression of their elation about the Damascus strike, media activists on social-networking sites called for a Facebook strike. "We should also go on strike on Facebook, by stopping writing and shutting down our pages for three days. This would frustrate security officials and the intelligence community, which monitors the sites to discover our plans."
Syrian merchants, especially in Damascus and Aleppo, have been suffering from huge losses as a result of the crisis in the country, no longer being able to import goods or raw materials or export their products to other countries because of sanctions prohibiting money transfers to and from Syria.
Many of them have had to downsize staff and slash wages as a result, and the country's stagnant economy has prevented them from making profits, causing them to dig into their capital to keep their businesses open. Such problems are being compounded with each passing day, and if conditions remain the same many merchants and industries will be threatened with bankruptcy.
The Damascus strike was encouraging for the country's peaceful opposition forces, which believe that the peaceful escalation of protests, including strikes and civil disobedience, are more effective than military means in weakening the regime. The hope is that such tactics could result in the regime's downfall, removing it without the need for a single shot to be fired.
Ever since the late president Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad, came to power in 1970 the regime has feared a strike by merchants, because they are the economic and social lifeblood of the country.
As a result, Hafez Al-Assad gave in to the demands of the country's chambers of commerce and of industry at almost every step, delivering privileges to them and issuing laws favourable to commercial interests. Observers say that had the Damascus and Aleppo merchants gone on strike in 1980 after the events in the city of Hama that claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives, the regime would have faltered or even fallen.
Such considerations illuminate the significance of the present strikes, since they both signal the readiness of the country's middle classes to flex their muscles in opposition to the regime and to downplay the significance of the nouveaux riches as their representatives in the political arena.
Because of the cities' large markets, the strikes in Damascus and Aleppo have had a resounding effect in other cities. They come as a painful moral blow to the regime, and they are the first time that the Damascus merchants have used their economic muscle in direct opposition to the regime.