Syria’s Dignity Strike: City Merchants Speak

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A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows an anti-regime demonstration in Deir el Zour on 25 May 2012. (Photo: AFP - HO - SHAAM NEWS NETWORK)

By: Mohammad Shalabi

Published Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Following the massacre in the town of Houla in Syria, opposition activists called for a “Dignity Strike.” With the calls for strikes attention automatically shifts to Syria’s biggest economic hubs, Damascus and Aleppo.

Damascus - Syrians of all persuasions, whether they oppose or support the regime, are still in a state of shock as a result of the bloody images coming out of the village of Houla near Homs.

Some believe that the horrendous massacre was “a dangerous turn in the events of the Syrian crisis.” Almost everyone is talking about the images of slaughtered children.

Official Syrian, Arab, and international media outlets gave varying, and sometimes contradictory, accounts and explanations of who was behind the massacre.

But the reality of death and blood was enough for the Syrian opposition, inside and outside the country, to call for a “Dignity Strike” starting Monday morning. It was observed in various commercial districts inside the capital Damascus, in addition to major Syrian cities such as Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and others.

While many big merchants and small business owners adhered to the call for a strike, there are alternative accounts of what happened.

“Closing commercial establishments in various areas of Damascus was a result of threats that they will be burned or smashed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed groups,” according to a resident of Midan, near the center of Damascus.

“After all, what are the words written on storefronts in Midan and Nahr Aisha — ‘Strike or Burn’,” he added.

For their part, units of Syrian security forces forced the owners of many shops in Fahhama, Souk al-Hamidiyyeh and Souk al-Hariqa to open their shops. One witness said this happened near the Zayd Ibn Haritha mosque.

University student Abir Noureddine said she saw “Syrian security forces break the locks of shops, while the owners were standing by.” She said the shop owners waited for the security forces to leave and they closed them down again.

Al-Akhbar asked if the shop closures was an explicit declaration of support for the Dignity Strike or whether it was due to threats they received.

“What does it mean when dozens of policemen gather in al-Hariqa market square and are everywhere in the Midhat Pasha market forcing merchants to open their shops?” she replied.

Monzer, 55, did not agree. He saw molotov cocktail bottles outside the door of the shop where his friend works inside al-Hamidiyyeh market.

“Threats from armed groups were clear. Either they close their stores or get burned by the molotov cocktails I saw with my own eyes,” he said.

A university professor, who preferred to remain anonymous, was more straightforward.

“Merchants only understand the logic of profit and loss. So we have to find clear alternatives to compensate them for their losses if they join the strike,” he said.

The dissident researcher explained that this could be either material or moral. “We can convince their sheikhs to issue a fatwa which considers their material losses as part of zakat (religious tithe), for example. A more material compensation would be to convince Turkey to reduce taxes on goods and lift the embargo on Syrian products. Or we could ask Jordan to facilitate the import of its goods into Syria,” he suggested.

The strike was not confined to Damascus, reaching Aleppo, Syria’s economic capital. Political activist Nael Hariri does not deny the rumors about the role of the merchants in keeping the city calm.

“Merchants who used to avoid such discussions or putting themselves into any position, whether negative or positive, are now more interested in the course of the revolution in Aleppo and other Syrian districts and regions,” Hariri added.

A quick tour around Aleppo’s markets convinced him that the “strike is timid and only a very small number of shops were closed. It was nothing like the original call to strike.”

But he also said that a great number of merchants in Aleppo who were not known to be in the opposition “have become accepting of the idea of opposition and revolution, regardless of material losses to their trade.”

Academic researcher Hassan Abbas gave a more logical and objective reading of the start of the Dignity Strike: “We received information about some of the actions that accompanied the strike in some regions. It appeared different than what was intended.”

“We heard reports about people being forced to strike. We heard about punishments inflicted on those who refused to heed the call. No doubt, this is sad news that should be condemned,” he reported on his private page on Facebook.

Facebook users vied to provide their explanations and reactions to the strike. Opponents to the Syrian regime believed “it is the beginning of the end and the last chapter in the Syrian crisis, which will certainly conclude with the demise of the regime.”

Supporters of the regime saw the strike as another ring in the chain of terrorist acts by armed gangs and the FSA.

Contradictory explanations of the strike could become a forthright indicator that the regime and its security services lost their grip on sensitive and vital areas of the Syrian capital, particularly if the strike continues in the next few days.

Whether such protests persist under the threat of armed groups or due to an explicit endorsement by the merchants, the outcome is the same – the state appears to losing its grip on the country.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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