DAMASCUS: The impact of campaigns against buying American goods in a country like Syria might be in question, but there is no doubt that “boycott fever” has taken over this capital of 4 million people.
While grass-roots efforts at boycott campaigns had in fact begun with the intifada, they have been boosted dramatically by a wave of popular backing as a direct result of Israel’s April offensive against the Palestinian Authority.
In recent weeks, once-ubiquitous Marlboro cigarettes appear to have vanished from many public places, and asking a taxi driver to stop for a quick purchase of the brand can spark an impassioned plea, or stern lecture, to stop smoking American.
The organizers of boycott campaigns are aware that Syria lacks a big market for American goods, meaning a likely negligible impact on the firms targeted as well as the US economy itself.
But they hope their efforts will link up with those in other Arab countries, using Syria’s position as a destination for tourists from Saudi Arabia as one leverage point to convince Gulf consumers to reconsider their spending patterns.
The campaign has spread via a number of informal associations and committees that sprung up in the wake of the intifada, according to a leading activist involved in the effort.
Nabil Marzouq coordinates activities of the National Committee to Boycott American Goods in Syria, an informal coalition of some 20 associations drawn from various cultural, youth, women’s, student, professional and Palestinian groups.
“The committee is unofficial and unlicensed,” he said. “It’s not recognized, and it’s neither forbidden nor being ‘fought’ by the authorities.”
After researching the activities of companies through the internet, the committee produces lists of companies to boycott. The choice is based on a mix of three general criteria: an American affiliation, support for Israel, and the impact of blacklisting a given firm.
A recent 50-item list issued by the committee lists, among others, General Mills, Kraft, Uncle Ben’s, Mazola and all US tobacco companies. It also lists whether Lebanese, Egyptian or Saudi Arabian firms are producing these goods through American franchise agreements.
Most of the products blacklisted fall in the categories of food, healthcare, and household cleaning items.
Marzouq said the group was now pursuing the second of three goals, namely convincing Syrian companies with American franchises to cancel their agreements, after an initial phase of promoting a boycott of finished goods.
A third phase, he said, would target “cultural interests.”
“We would like to see a boycott of racist and aggressive American films, US Embassy-sponsored events, certain television programs and, computer games,” he said.
Marzouq said the activists were realistic about their campaign, which is driven mainly by volunteers handing out pamphlets to stores and consumers.
“We don’t have any illusions about what we’re doing; Syrian imports of American goods are only about $300-400 million a year, which is not a significant amount,” he said.
“But there is a serious impact when it comes to the US’ future presence in the region, whether regarding investment or markets.”
Marzouq stressed that the campaign had no connection with the Arab League’s official Boycott of Israel Office, which has its headquarters in the Syrian capital.
“There is no coordination with theofficial Boycott Office; they haven’t provided us with their lists,” he said.
Cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, for example, is not on the official boycott blacklist but is one of the main targets of the grass-roots associations.
Marzouq said the committee was active throughout Syria and had managed to attract people from various political persuasions and backgrounds.
“Everyone, whether secular, religious, progressive, or Arab nationalist, is involved in our activities. All parties are included, and the (ruling) Baath Party has a smaller share than others,” he said.
Observers note that Arab governments and ruling parties have taken a lukewarm stance toward boycott efforts, since advocating such a step could cause embarrassment for regimes with diplomatic ties with Washington.
But at the popular level, various types of protest and calls for boycotts are springing up, judging by the statements that are printed out and pasted up on the city’s streets.
In the solidly middle-class neighborhood of Shaalan, a variety of emotions are being expressed, not always with a uniform message.
A poster by the Union of Fine Arts calls on Arabs and Muslims to “save the American people from the Zionist-Nazi conspiracy,” while another calls for “Hating America” and boycotting US goods as a “modest contribution” to the intifada.
The poster, signed by “an Arab whose heart burns due to what is taking place in beloved Palestine,” also complains that Arab rulers have failed to take effective action.
The Baath Party youth group Ittihad Shabibat Al-Thawra is one of several signatories to a poster urging a boycott of “what you can” of American products; elsewhere in the neighborhood, someone has crossed out the proviso, urging a full boycott, and added “American thought” to the list of items to be shunned.
Bassam Sharif, who owns the Samar grocery store, confirmed that fewer shoppers in Shaalan are asking for the blacklisted goods.
“Nescafe is down; I’ve begun ordering a German brand of instant coffee,” Sharif said.
“Pampers and Johnson & Johnson goods are down,” he continued, pointing to the replacement European or Saudi brands now on the shelves.
Asked if he was bothered by people passing out boycott pamphlets and possibly disturbing business, the middle-aged shopkeeper chuckled.
“My son received a flyer at school, where the kids were passing them around,” Sharif said, describing the general atmosphere of the boycott.
While small announcements have been posted on city streets or passed around by hand, a bigger visual impact comes from the large billboards above the streets, calling for a boycott.
A major force behind the billboard effort is Imad Rahwanji, who owns a greeting card company active in 40 countries in Europe, South America and the Middle East.
He has produced several types of posters that urge the public to stop buying American because the funds are being used to support the Israeli military machine.
“When we contacted the security authorities (about putting up the posters), they didn’t answer with either a ‘no’ or a ‘yes,’” Rahwanji said, describing the state’s ambivalent attitude.
Another activity Rahwanji entertained, but failed to go through with due to the lack of approval, was the public burning of his 1993 Chrysler in front of the television cameras.
“I finally sold it,” he recalled, adding that the Damascus Chamber of Commerce has been unenthusiastic about backing a boycott.
In October 2000, Rahwanji issued an internal company memo asking employees to boycott US goods, to do something tangible and “go beyond the speeches, criticism and wishes expressed” when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Another memo that month pledged that the company would also refrain from buying raw materials from the US. In March 2001, Rahwanji issued a list of foreign companies that support Israel and advised his staff not to purchase these brands, while a year later, he ordered his financial department to cease dealing in dollars and use euros instead.
No employees have been disciplined for ignoring the memos “they’re all enthusiastic” and there has been only minor grumbling by staff who maintain that some instances require the use of the American currency, he said.
While not a member of the informal boycott groups, Rahwanji has been contacted by groups seeking to print pamphlets and posters.
“I was approached by a group of Palestinians who wanted to print this,” he said, indicating a poster showing a dead Palestinian baby inside a hamburger, the symbol of American fastfood culture.
“I printed 5,000 posters and when they asked me how much it would cost, I said ‘zero.’”
Rahwanji stressed the need to make a point, despite the possible lack of impact on the US economy.
“We know that we don’t have a high level of imports, but we’re trying to make this a (general) rule” for the Arab world, Rahwanji said.
“Saudi Arabia is responsible for 50 percent of the region’s US imports. We want to bang on the drum so that they hear us,” he said, indicating that the billboard campaign would be stepped up to target tourists from Saudi Arabia who traditionally come to Syria in the summer.
“This should remain a long-term campaign, unless we see a change in American policy,” he said emphatically.
But while boycott fever is taking over Syria, one of the capital’s most visible symbols of America has yet to feel the heat.
The American Language Center (ALC), which offers English-language courses to adult Syrians and Palestinians and is under the umbrella of the US Embassy, just began a new term in April, when the Israeli offensive hit full stride.
A source familiar with the ALC’s operations said that “a handful” of students withdrew from the course, to protest Washington’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, they hardly were noticed amid a student body of about 2,000. The source indicated that as an economic target, the ALC did not present a particularly logical one.
“All tuition (collected in Syrian pounds) goes to teachers’ salaries and other expenses. The ALC is supposed to remain self-sufficient, which means that it doesn’t receive US government support and it does not provide funds to the US government.”