Damascus's upper class clings to its privileged illusions
"I don't want to be imprisoned at home and be deprived from having my shisha out in a nice restaurant every night, only because some gangs are shouting for what they call democracy and freedom," a friend of mine, a woman from a wealthy family in Damascus, whispered to me in an angry tone a couple of months ago.
The idea has often been discussed that Syrian elites and the upper middle class live in their own bubble in Damascus. Their perspectives, concerns and fears for their own interests are being tentatively addressed as one of the major reasons that protests were driven out of Damascus. At the beginning of the unrest, people were struck by the chaos and started to live in a state of denial, believing it was a temporary situation that would somehow be resolved. As successive Fridays of protests escalated, the mood changed; the elites, in particular, wanted their social activities and luxurious lifestyle back.
Even after the protests were fully engaged, restaurants and cafes were still packed, wild pool parties were booked and private celebrations held in mansions. The upper classes living in Damascus show little sign of being willing to endanger their stability, their benefits or their prestige in exchange for a few slogans. Their financial power gives them authority, relative freedom and supremacy so long as they keep up their raving criticism of the protesters and their demands.
"The monied classes have too much to lose from prolonged instability, and the opposition cannot offer them any convincing scenario for a peaceful transition to democracy or regime change," wrote Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma who runs the Syria Comment blog. "They fear instability above regime repression."
Indeed, the surface looks relatively the same in Damascus, but what is the truth? "I am going out much less and I don't feel joyful as before," an upper middle-class woman told me. "I think people who are filling the restaurants in Damascus are similar to me, they pretend to be happy. I don't believe they are indifferent but they try to find mechanisms to not live the tragic events."
At a prestigious hairdresser in Damascus's wealthiest neighbourhood, the "independent" TV station Addounia, which is actually a mouthpiece for the regime, runs on a huge plasma screen. "We want to get rid of the saboteurs who are damaging the country," the proprietor said. "I hope they all die very soon. We want to have our business back."
"Saboteurs", "criminals", "armed gangs", "terrorist groups" and other buzz words are often used by Damascenes these days. The same language is the hallmark of the state media. The irony is that these same wealthy Syrians used to focus their funniest criticisms on the Syrian state channels and their outdated news, programmes and presenters.
Different priorities are in order since the uprising. The economy has already taken a drastic shock. US and EU sanctions are increasingly being felt, as is the recent prohibition on imports that have a customs duty of over 5 per cent. The high level of unemployment, acute rise in prices, sharp drop in the tourism sector (which accounted for about 12 per cent of GDP last year), spreading material scarcities and stagnant growth prospects have all triggered speculation about the future.
How long will the elite classes and businessmen be able to remain indifferent to events? How long can they sustain their businesses and their allegiance to the regime? Will they, too, break from the regime, preparing to return after this period of confusion to regain their old empires? And, as the rumours say, are some of them fuelling the opposition outside of the country, which is linked to prominent families inside Syria?
It's incontrovertible that rich people are gradually losing their comforts as well as their patience. They will be affected in due time by the economic situation, politics and the security situation. Nevertheless, the lower-income people are paying the highest price.
As one example, poor people have started to feel the scarcity of heating diesel; they have to register their names at the general distribution company, known as SADCOP, which cannot meet requirements. Yet wealthy people can always pay double the price and a bribe to get their diesel. High fuel prices were one of the core demands that had been submitted to President Bashar Al Assad at the very beginning of the unrest.
"The government is punishing its people and trying to tell them that you either support us entirely or you'll be smashed and die of hunger," a government engineer said recently.
It is a complex scene and growing more so. Sanctions will unquestionably damage the economy. But it is the businessman and prominent figures in the regime who are best insulated against the short term, and it will be mainstream low-income Syrians who will be affected first.
The author writes from Damascus under the pseudonym of Jasmine Roman
Updated: November 7, 2011 04:00 AM