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Thessaloniki - Even the pouring rain doesn't drive the myriads of youngsters away from Aristotle Plaza. Every evening at six, for almost two weeks, they have been gathering here. Some have put up tents and sleep in them at night. Others gather signatures on petitions. Every day more people throng to the square and more stalls pop up offering food and art work. When it gets dark, the singers and musicians arrive. A stranger might think Thessaloniki is celebrating a festival.

But in the square, along the promenade from the harbor to far beyond the White Tower and in all major city centers, a powerful protest movement is spreading, the likes of which have not been seen in Greece for years. Yesterday, thousands of protesters, including old people and children, flooded Syntagma Square in Athens, intent on blocking the Greek Parliament (Vouli ) overlooking the square.

To understand the roots of this protest movement, its implications and dangers, it is necessary to call up Greek history and pull back two smoke screens. The first screen appears to be the direct cause of protest - economic dictates, which have dealt a harsh blow to the middle class, among them higher income taxes and across-the-board cuts in health, education and welfare.

The second is the European Union's threat not to give Greece another 120 billion euro bailout package to partly cover its debt (330 billion euros ). Ever since the Greek government signed two memorandums with the so-called "troika" - the International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank - it has not instituted economic reforms as it was required. It is not clear now under what terms, if any, Greece will receive further assistance. This threat touches a particularly sensitive patriotic nerve, prompting calls to break off from the European Union.

Behind these two screens, the economic crisis conceals the ongoing pathology of the socio-political system. All the demonstrators - proponents of the welfare state and detesters of the huge public sector - have had enough of it. These include ranting patriots, who are angry at Europe's intervention in "running our homeland," and sworn Communists; women, who fear growing unemployment will harm their precarious position and increase domestic violence; young homeless couples, unemployed youngsters, and students, afraid they won't find work in a dried-up labor market.

Their anger is not directed at the government alone. It reflects the disgust with the kleptocracy - government of thieves - a rich tax-evading elite (and the affluent church ), the families of wealthy politicians who pass the reign from one to another, the wretched combination of outrageous social gaps and an archaic government structure that has turned the public service into a burden on the public. And the corruption ravishing every sphere and realm, laying waste the huge potential of this beautiful country.

The two large parties, the ruling PASOK and New Democracy, which was defeated in the previous elections, heralded pseudo reforms and made dramatic statements like "We are all guilty" (we didn't work, we wasted, evaded tax, didn't issue invoices ). But the public understands the previous ruling party didn't want to change the system and the existing one is unable to. So once again the middle class will pay for the irresponsibility and profligacy of the rich. It is no surprise that public opinion polls indicate the demise of these parties and the rise of radical, separatist forces.

Pundits who see the demonstrators' despair and hear the hysterical calls to push up the elections shudder at the similarity between these events and the era preceding the military junta's rise to power. In September 1971, when the poet Giorgos Seferis died, an enormous crowd followed his casket, humming his song "Denial," which had become the anthem of resistance to the regime.

Greece is at a fateful crossroads, and the economic crisis is but the tip of the iceberg. The Greek political elite chooses to deny reality. It refuses to carry out the vital overhaul of the system that could restrain the fascist stream threatening to take advantage of these moments of weakness. Sound familiar? A Clue: a democracy in the Middle East. Another clue: it is not related to the economic situation.