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While some protesters are educated urbanites like Nakhla who articulate their cause in English with the fluid lingo of political empowerment, many come from rural poverty illiterate farmers who have seen little benefit from Assad's economic reforms. Many protesters are from small towns like Aarida, where their only experience of government is a security force that allegedly dabbles, Mafia-like, in corruption and smuggling. Few have access to the Internet. Instead they gather in mosques and coffee shops to plot strategy and coin slogans. And they do so with full knowledge of the repercussions. "We remember Hama," says Sami, an organizer of Aarida's first protest, who asked not to be identified by his whole name. "We know what the regime can do," he continues, "but the way we live now, we are already dead. So we might as well be dying for something."
The demonstrations have spread from small border towns to larger cities. But their size has never matched those in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Many Syrians are frustrated with government brutality and corruption, but they appear to be willing to compromise on democratic rights for a reasonable standard of living. "I would say 20% of people here are with [Assad] and 15% are against," says a senior Western diplomat in the region. "The other 65% just don't want trouble or violence."
Activists are hoping that Hamza al-Khatib, the 13-year-old alleged torture victim, will be a catalyst to impel the silent majority to the streets. A poster of him has been featured prominently at recent protests, and "Hamza! Hamza!" has become a new rallying cry. A Facebook page created in his name on May 28 has logged more than 67,000 supporters. "There is no place left here for the regime after what they did to Hamza," reads one comment.
With all the deaths and detentions, it is difficult to see how the regime can regain public trust. Mounting resentment can be seen in the protesters' slogans, which started with calls for reform and now demand the end of the regime. After 11 years of empty promises, few believe Assad is genuinely willing to change: even a May 31 promise to free all political prisoners was met with general skepticism. After all, though he repealed the emergency law on April 19, Assad's forces have continued to detain and disappear opponents.
Despite syria's long history of interfaith tolerance, Assad has been able to use the specter of sectarian conflict to justify his continued crackdown. It may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. In recent weeks, Alawites have largely been absent from demonstrations, partly because of checkpoints that prevent protesters from leaving Alawite-dominated districts but also because of a propaganda campaign that preys on Alawite fears of persecution by Sunnis should the regime collapse. Stories of torture at the hands of the heavily Alawite security establishment exacerbate the divide. One Sunni from Aarida, recently released from prison, showed me cigarette burns on his hands punishment from his Alawite torturer, he said, for refusing to declare that Bashar Assad was his god.
"Many of the Alawites want to live in peace," says Sami, the protest leader from Aarida. "But others were looting our property. They attacked us. So, sure, there will be a reaction against them." The regime is making the most of Alawite anxieties. "The government is arming the Alawites," admits a first lieutenant in the Syrian security services via telephone. "They are warning that the regime might fall, and they should be prepared to defend themselves."
If nothing else brings Assad down, the economy could. The Syrian pound has lost value on the foreign-exchange markets, and investors are pulling out of major projects. Syria's GDP was predicted to grow 6% this year; now a contraction is more likely. In six months, says the diplomat, "the economy will have taken such a battering that Assad will have lost the support of the majority of Syrians." Even longtime Assad loyalist Shaadi Halaq, an air-conditioning tycoon based in the city of Homs, makes it clear that his support for the regime is conditional upon a thriving business environment. "All I want as a Syrian citizen is to live in prosperity and to see safety come back to my country," he tells TIME by phone. Neither is likely while Assad remains in power.