Syrian citizens general strike against France, 1936

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Timing
Time Period:  
January 20,
1936
to
March 2,
1936
Location and Goals
Country: 
Syria
Location City/State/Province: 
specifically cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Dayr al-Zuhr
Goals: 
Reopening of National Bloc offices, amnesty for demonstrators, re-admittance for expelled students, restoration of constitutional system, negotiation of a new treaty between Syria and France
 

French-occupied Syria was facing darkening hopes for more independence from France at the end of 1935. The major Syrian nationalist party, the National Bloc, was losing power, the Syrian Parliament was adjourned and the government in power was under the unpopular Shaikh Taj al-Din al-Hasani. France was also refusing to negotiate a new treaty with Syria. In a move to squash the National Bloc altogether, the French authorities closed the office of the National Bloc in Damascus on January 20, 1936, and arrested two leaders from the Bloc: Fakhri al-Barudi and Sayf al-Din al-Ma’min.

Facing the loss of what little local power remained, the bazaars went on strike in protest. Students and youth from the city quarters gathered in front of the home of a prominent Nationalist, Nasib al-Bakri, to march on the government palace. They were led by Bakri, Jamil Mardam and Shukri al-Quwwatli. At the end of the street, police had formed a cordon where they fired into the air to disperse the crowd and arrested several students.

There were also demonstrations in Aleppo, Homs, and Hama (respectively the second, third and fourth largest cities in Syria). The closing of the National Bloc office had struck a nerve and Syrians stood up to defend themselves.

The next day, January 21, France sent Moroccan and Senegalese troops into the Old City area to break up a student rally at the Umayyad Mosque. In putting it down they killed four student protesters, who were the first of many to die in the uprising.

Police also raided the Aleppo home of the late Ibrahim Hananu and confiscated all documents. The house had been a center of nationalist activity and functioned as a ‘house of the nation’ (beit al-umma) modeled after Saad Zaghlul’s ‘house of the nation’ in Egypt. Leaders in Aleppo responded by closing the bazaars and holding a demonstration. When demonstrators were arrested more people were enraged and joined the demonstration. The cycles of repression and resurgence left two demonstrators dead, while the demonstrations continued unabated for two days.

Around 20,000 Damascenes joined in the funeral for four dead demonstrators on January 22. French troops attacked the funeral procession and killed two more people. The procession had apparently “turned to violence” though it is unclear of what kind or whether any troops were injured. That same day French troops attacked a demonstration in Homs, where the bazaars had been closed for two days, and killed three participants and wounded twenty others.

Despite the central importance of the National Bloc to the demonstrations, student leaders were in charge of the uprising in Damascus. At Friday prayers at the Umayyad Mosque on January 24, Nasib al-Bakri and Hani Jallad (a rich merchant from the National Bloc) appealed for calm and restraint. But students argued instead for renewed commitment to resistance and held a march from the Mosque to the palace, up to al-Salhiyya and back to the Mosque. They called for national unity and a continuation of the strike, which the merchants and general population respected.

As the situation got more serious, Jamil Mardam led a delegation of trade union chiefs, ‘ulama, and members of the chamber of commerce to meet the French Delegate on January 26 to seek a peaceful solution, but the Delegate didn’t back down. Damascene notables then intervened to press the High Commissioner, but without success.

On January 27 Mardam, in the name of the National Bloc, called for a general strike until a constitutional system that allowed political parties was restored. The call for a general strike came a week after a de facto general strike had begun. Again it is clear that the National Bloc was a participant and beneficiary of the uprising, but not its leader. In fact, the National Bloc tried to end the general strike before its goals were met.

For the next 36 days Syria was frozen with the largest strike Syria had ever seen. Most shops were closed, trade stopped, public services were out, and no students attended schools or universities. In Muslim quarters only the bakeries stayed open, while in European and Christian quarters most shops were closed. The National Bloc also persuaded banks not to press loans and credit during the strike. Wealthy Bloc members made this all possible through donations. Lebanese merchants also sent money to aid the effort and the Palestinian Istiqlal Party held protests of support.

Students and more radical nationalists prevented the National Bloc from compromising with the French. On February 2 (one week after Nationalist Bloc calls for calm were ignored in place of the student call for action) the National Bloc sent Hani Jallad to the Umayyad Mosque to call an end to the strike. Student leaders called instead for a continuation of the strike, to which the Bloc responded with a denial it had sent Jallad to end the strike.

At that point student leaders met with Bloc leaders and ‘ulama (religious leaders) in the Umayyad Mosque to formulate common demands: amnesty for the hundreds in jail, revocation of expulsion of demonstrating students, and reopening of the National Bloc offices. Merchants organized a committee to supply flour and money to the poor and striking.

The city of Hama, which had previously been out of the center of action, saw its first protests on February 4. On February 6 the local National Bloc leaders in Hama were arrested. In response, a crowd attacked a cavalry troop, which opened fire and killed forty people while wounding forty others. Outraged at the murders, demonstrators in nearby Homs marched again, and the French repression of that demonstration left three more dead on February 8. On February 10 demonstrators marched in Dayr al-Zuhr, and the police repressing the demonstrators killed five participants. The uprising had reached a point at which the French were only encouraging more Syrians to join the protests in outrage at the violence used to repress the protests, while the strike continued to wreck the Syrian economy.

French leaders were initially indecisive about using even greater repression, but on February 10 the High Commissioner appointed General Huntzinger to stop the unrest by any means necessary. Huntzinger established his headquarters in a heavily guarded hotel and set to work, banning all street gatherings of more than three people and warning of violent retaliation to any violence.

On February 11 National Bloc leaders Jamil Mardam and Nasil al-Bakri were arrested and deported. The French imposed martial law on February 12 and reinforced garrisons in the name of defending against rumored armed bands. In Damascus, the most politically-active quarters (Bab al-Sharqi and Bab al-Jabiyya) were flooded with French soldiers, and nationalist leaders’ houses were surrounded. The next day in Aleppo the Nationalist Bloc leaders were arrested. Rather than let themselves be scared into submission to the French, however, the shopkeepers continued striking and students and others continued demonstrating. The cities of Latakia, Tripoli, Beirut and Siden went on strike in solidarity to protest the imposition of martial law.

The High Commissioner thought merchants were only bending to pressure from Nationalists to stay on strike and would resume business if protected with troops, but he was quickly disabused of that notion after the heavy presence of troops failed to coax merchants back to their shops.

In a sign that the strike and unrest were having a significant effect, High Commissioner Martel asked Shaikh Taj to resign, and asked ‘Ata al-Ayyubi to form a new government which included three moderate Nationalists. The Bloc held fast and called for a continuation of the strike, as well as a boycott of foreign goods and public utility companies. The French had shown they could be forced to change, but they still hadn’t met the demands of the students and nationalists. In another concession, uncharged protesters were released from prison on February 26, but 3,080 others were sentenced to jail time. Demonstrations continued, and were met with violent repression.

Bloc leaders and the new Ayyubi cabinet finally met in Beirut with the High Commissioner to find an agreement. On March 2 Hashim al-Atasi announced that a delegation would go to Paris to negotiate a new treaty, prisoners and exiles were freed, and nationalist newspapers reopened. The next day the National Bloc called for an end to the strike, which was respected by merchants and students. A peaceful march to mark the end of strike went by homes of Bloc leaders. Bloc leaders cut the green cords which had been strung in front of the bazaars to mark the strike.

The result of the negotiations was shared power between the Nationalist Bloc and France after a treaty was signed on September 10, 1936, in Paris. Through many long days of striking and demonstrating, Syrians took new power to organize politically and make their own decisions. This general strike served as a model for a number of other movements looking to fight back against colonial oppression.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Syrian general strike of 1936 served as a model for the Palestinian general strike of the same year, and well as later anti-colonial movements elsewhere, such as the Wathba uprising in Iraq in 1948 (2).

Sources: 
Khoury, Philip. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism 1920-1945. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1987.

Commins, David Dean. "General Strike of 1936." in Historical Dictionary of Syria. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004. pp 113

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (08/06/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Markus Schlotterbeck, 20/08/2009