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Will Greece's silent majority break its silence?

Greece protests could threaten the Papandreou government if they move beyond the fringe.

People walk outside the Bank of Greece in Athens on May 18, 2010. (John Kolesdidis/Reuters)

ATHENS, Greece — Fotini was not surprised when a riot police unit stopped her and a friend for an ID check on Thursday. She showed her national identification card and opened her bag for inspection. But her indignation mounted as she was ordered into a patrol car before plainclothes policemen transferred her into an unmarked van and drove her to a detention facility.

“The whole experience was surreal,” said Fotini, a PhD student who declined to give her last name for fear of repercussions from the authorities. “It’s against my constitutional rights to stop me from attending a demo.”

Precautionary detentions are not a novel phenomenon in Greece, where the police often use heavy-handed techniques to quell violent demonstrations. But there has been an edge to recent operations by a police force starting to wonder whether continued protests against economic austerity measures might prove a threat to the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.

“No Greek government has ever been stopped through demonstrating,” said Ilias Kavourakis, an aging electrician who describes himself as a retired anarchist. “The only solution is for a popular protest movement divorced from political parties that will demand Greece’s exit from the bloodsucking [European Union], the return to the drachma and a fresh start.”

Two weeks ago, massive protests against the strident austerity measures introduced by the Greek government to tackle its 250 billion euro debt resulted in anarchists burning down several buildings, including a bank. Three employees suffocated to death in what was one of the largest protests since the collapse of the United States-backed Colonels’ junta in 1973 and the restitution of democracy. But Thursday’s protests, which still drew large crowds, were a tamer affair and lacked stridency.

One reason for this is the marked absence of Greece’s massive petit bourgeoisie. The hard-working class known in Greek as noikokyrei occupy positions of influence in both the public and private sectors. Although the austerity measures have hit their wallets hard, recent opinion polls reveal that they overwhelmingly support government plans to reduce Greek debt.

“They’re a silent majority who are absent from the streets, never protest, watch developments from a distance, are only active during election seasons and usually have political opinions but don’t express them loudly,” said Theodoris Georgakopoulos , the editor of the Greek edition of Esquire Magazine.