Syria's business class nears a tipping point of defiance
Compared to the violence elsewhere in Syria, the three days of civil disobedience recently in Damascus were a small matter. But the merchant's strike and related peaceful protests shook the Syrian capital all the same.
It was the first protest in the commercial heart of the city - where the dictator Bashar Al Assad and senior members of his regime are based - since the protests began nearly 15 months ago.
During that time, merchants have provided some hidden support for the rebels, but consistently avoided direct involvement.
The reason for their caution was demonstrated a few weeks ago in deliberately leaked news of a meeting. Unable to identify the merchants giving backing to the revolt, the head of the regime reportedly threatened the merchants if their support of the revolution went on.
The result was last week's civil disobedience. It is a dramatic change that merchants have finally decided to enter the crisis.
Factors in the merchants' change of stance include economic distress and slumping profits, the extortion by which the regime pays its Shabbiha thugs, and civilian casualties in ancient neighbourhoods of Damascus such as Midan and Kafar Souseh.
All this has influenced traders, but it was no surprise that they hesitated to come out against the regime; for many centuries the merchant class has preferred peaceful settlements over direct confrontations.
The last straw seems to have been the massacre at Houla in Homs, which killed 114, including 49 children. Further slaughters, including last week's killing of more than 86 people in Hama province, can only strengthen the resolve of the merchants, mostly Sunni, against the largely Alawite regime.
Participation in the merchants' strike appears to have been considerable, suggesting that the Assads are in real trouble in the capital. The traders have been decisive in politics since the days of the French mandate because they have both financial clout and connections with the public.
For example, the 60-day strike of 1936 forced French mandate authorities to negotiate, leading to the Treaty of September 9 which, while flawed, was an important step toward Syrian independence.
Strikes were tried several times between 1964 and 1980, but repression by the Baath party regime was brutal.
Markets in Damascus - and in Aleppo, where the first merchants' strike occurred - make up the backbone of economic life in Syria, being important in export trade and vital to tourism.
Sultan Allaw, Syria's oil minister, says the country has lost $4 billion (Dh14.7 billion) in exports over the last six months, and exports have declined by 40 per cent over the past year. So pressure from traders is the last thing the regime wants; these actions will deprive the government of revenue from fees and taxes, at a time when the government will find it difficult and costly to borrow money to cover its expenses.
The question now is, what comes next? Will the merchants continue their pressure? Can they afford to keep markets closed?
My contacts among the merchants tell me that they can. There are many family firms, and close ties among companies, so the level of mutual support is high.
Subcontractors, suppliers and other small traders get contracts from the bigger merchants, and some support down the hierarchy may make it possible for these concerns, too, to sustain a strike with help from the bigger players. It is also noteworthy that the Sunnis who predominate in the merchant class have close ties with neighbouring countries, some of which have an interest in financing the rebels; this too encourages the merchants' urge to continue protests.
In advance, the Chamber of Commerce in Damascus discouraged traders from striking. But over the three days it remained silent, which was seen by some as moral support for the strike.
The son of one prominent trader told me that merchants were threatened and insulted by senior Chamber officials for saying they could not stop the strike. Merchants even warned, according to this source, that if pressure from the officials continues "we will make the area of Hareeqa [in the heart of Damascus bazaar] match its meaning". Hareeqa is Arabic for "blaze".
Traders have at best had a cautious relationship with the regime of the current president and his father Hafez Al Assad before him. Confrontations have often ended in moral victory for the merchants. Hafez Al Assad was careful not to provoke their anger, and once in power he built an alliance with the merchant class: Sunnis profited in commerce and in exchange refrained from criticising the growth of Alawite dominance of the military and security forces.
In the 1980s, Hafez's brother Rifaat Al Assad disrupted that dynamic: after the Hama massacre of 1982 he sent his special forces into the commercial centre of Damascus and forced women to uncover their heads in the street, which was a red line for the merchants.
Hafez Al Assad punished his brother after that incident, forcing him to apologise on television and sending him into exile.
No one knows how Bashar Al Assad will react to the merchants' new assertiveness against the regime. Will he be able to rebuild the relationship that was built by his father? On the evidence so far, he appears to be foolish enough to choose, instead, to further damage that alliance.
Muhammad Ali is a Syrian political analyst and activist based in Istanbul
Updated: June 10, 2012 04:00 AM