Anonymity or an assumed name can be a protective cloak, but, in Damascus, those methods can't shield against eavesdropping plainclothes police or their informants, omnipresent in cafes, workplaces, and on street corners. Syria is the kind of place where a person will tell you one thing during an interview, or when they think they are being overheard, and as soon as the notepad or recorder are put away, often tell you what they really think but are too afraid to say on the record.
In an upscale district of Damascus, Nermeen Bastooni, 18, and her high school friend Walaa Hamwi, 17, sink into a deep leather couch at the trendy cafe with the lime green walls and free wi-fi. They're both engaged, both hope to marry in July. They have no trouble saying what they think under their real names. While they understand the frustrations of young Arabs elsewhere, the teenagers feel that those problems are so elsewhere. They say Syria's youth really have no reason to rebel against the Ba'athist regime which has ruled the country since 1963.
"There is a lot of government help for the youth," says Hamwi, red-manicured nails tapping on the menu in front of her. Her bright blue eyeliner, expertly inked over her lower lids, perfectly matches the color of her tightly-fastened hijab. "They give us free books, free schools, free universities. Why should there be a revolution?" she says. "There's maybe a one percent chance."
Bastooni, gold bangles jangling, agrees. "It's not like the government ignores us, they help us and they respond to the people's demands," she says.
The friends order what seems like an impossible amount of food for two slim young women. The lunchtime bill comes to about $20, an extravagance way out of the reach of most Syrians, something they recognize. "A lot of people would love to come to a cafe like this but can't afford it," says Hamwi. "A lot of people," she repeats. "They make up a sector bigger than the middle class."
She's talking about people like Mohammad, 28, a postgraduate student, who didn't want his full name published. He was employed as a teacher, earning about $100 a month, but he lost that job and can't find another. He doesn't think the government has done anything for him, and says he watches the youth uprisings across the region with jealousy. "I was thinking when will I see something like that here?," he says. "As much as I wished that I was Egyptian or Tunisian, I have hope that as a Syrian I will feel that way here one day."
He has relatively modest ambitions for himself; a job, the ability to afford his own home, to go to a cafe and "pay $10 or $20 and not worry that it represents several days earnings." For the country, he wants to see an improved economy, political and media freedom, and to hold the corrupt accountable. "We will call for all of these changes," he says, "first through social media, then perhaps on the streets."
However, though there have been calls on Facebook for demonstrations in Syria, the country's youth, who make up the majority of the country's 22 million citizens (65% are under age 30), have for the most part ignored the internet activists. That's despite the presence of the same economic malaise and lack of basic freedoms that has underpinned protests elsewhere. A growing private sector, encouraged by the reforms of President Bashar al-Assad, has reduced the load on the state to be the sole source of employment, but the jobless rate remains high. The official figure is 10% but, says Samir Seifan, an economist, the actual figure must be higher given that every year, 250,000 young people enter the burgeoning labor market. The government only absorbs 40,000. "It's a very heavy burden," Seifan says.
Yet, no one expects mass uprisings in Syria and, despite a show of dissent every now and then, very few want to participate. Hardcore activists like Mohieddine, 30, a stateless Kurd, keenly hope Assad will go the way of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; but even he doesn't think it's likely. "There is popular pressure but the regime is reading this," says the father of three, whose children speak Kurdish instead of Arabic. "The population doesn't have the courage or perhaps the fear is too deeply entrenched in their hearts to act."
The former political activist, who was associated with banned Kurdish parties, knows firsthand how deep the security forces' reach can be. He was detained last year, but only for a day. The intent was to intimidate. "They had a file on me that was about 50 pages. They had hacked into my email account, they had copies of all of my emails, sent and received. They had lists of websites I'd visited. The officer started reading me my emails, saying 'you wrote this' and 'so and so replied telling you this.'"
Mohieddine thinks the best that Syria's small acts of defiance can do, including several recent protests to show solidarity with the Egyptian and Libyan people, is to extract a few concessions from the regime, like higher wages or the lifting of the almost 50-year-old emergency law.
Khaled Elekhetyar, a 33-year-old journalist and blogger, is equally cautious about trying to predict what will happen here. The youth face real economic hardship he says, but the lack of political alternatives to the Baathists in this one-party state has hobbled those who may want to push for their removal. Elekhetyar doesn't think the weak Syrian opposition presents much of an alternative. "They don't have a program. The opposition is reactive, it responds to the regime," he says. "They don't understand that in Egypt and Tunisia, it wasn't just the regime that fell, so too did the established opposition, and so too did a lot of viewpoints about how things should be done."
Elekhetyar wants more freedoms, as do his friends, but he's not sure if that sentiment extends to the rest of his fellow Syrians who, he fears, may have bought into the well-trotted out equation that the people can have either security and stability, or chaos and freedom. The example of Iraq is after all, just next door. "We don't have any idea about public opinion," Elekhetyar says. "Even as a journalist, the audience I have is just my friends and the security services. So how can anybody predict?"