By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should free all political prisoners and allow peaceful rallies to show he is serious about reform or risk provoking a stronger challenge to his 11-year rule, activists say.
While some protesters have called for the "overthrow of the regime," the call has not yet been universally adopted at protests which have spread across Syria over the last four weeks, inspired by uprisings throughout the Arab world.
But the activists say that may change because anger and frustration are rising in a country ruled with an iron fist by the Baath Party for nearly half a century.
Assad has tried to face down the protests using force, promises of reform, salary increases, moves to replace emergency law and concessions to minority Kurds and conservative Muslims.
"These steps he has announced should have happened years ago. Now a different kind of reform is required," human rights activist Ammar Qurabi said. "First he should immediately lift the state of emergency.
"There is still a chance for reforms. The chance is not lost but it's getting tighter. We want real reforms, and now."
Opposition parties are too fragmented and disorganized to lead mass protests or threaten Assad's rule. For years they have called for greater freedoms but failed to mobilize Syrians who were silenced by the powerful secret police.
Now activists say the momentum is coming from the grassroots and the demonstrations are organized by young people. "The people are leading us, we just support them," Qurabi said.
Those same people who finally broke a barrier of fear to protest on the streets are not going to return to their houses for promises alone, activists say, and would fear prosecution if they gave up their protests while emergency law prevailed.
"Under the state of emergency all these protests are against the law. The first step that should happen so people believe that the promises are for real is to lift the state of emergency," said one activist in Damascus.
"The president can do that in 15 minutes. He has such a decision in his hands. It is his constitutional right. Why he is not doing that is the question," he added.
Among other demands the activists said they want the abolition of article 8 from the constitution which states that the Baath Party "is the leader of the state and the society." They said it prevented the formation of other parties and was obstructing political life.
Rights groups say at least 200 people have been killed since the protests started four weeks ago. Authorities blame armed groups for stirring up unrest at the bidding of outside players, including Lebanon and Islamist groups.
"DIGNITY AND FREEDOM"
"All that Syrians want is dignity and freedom -- we are calling for reforms," said rights activist Abdulkreem Rihawi.
"People in these demonstrations are expressing their anger, frustration and objecting to their loss of rights. They do not want the fall of the regime," he said.
"If no real reforms are done then the situation in Syria will be open to all options, I am not sure by then if it will be like the Egypt or the Yemen model," referring to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who bowed to mass protests and stepped down, and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh who is clinging to power.
Assad has said Syria was the target of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife.
"The authorities are living in denial until now, they are refusing to acknowledge that we are facing a crisis," lawyer Khalil Maatouk said.
"Syrians deserve freedom just like Egyptians and Tunisians. They are not better than us and the authorities should understand that," he added.
Syria, bordered by Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, maintains an anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supports militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, despite seeking a peace deal with Israel and the end of U.S. sanctions imposed on Syria in 2004. Assad's rule faced external pressure and isolation after the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria was initially blamed for the killing.
Activists acknowledge such a stance has given Assad some popularity among ordinary Syrians but said that was not enough.
"We know he has been targeted by the West and the pressure he was under in 2005 and during the war (between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006) but this is not convincing any more, he has to focus on the internal front and listen to the people," an activist said.
The U.S. State Department said last week there are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners in Syrian prisons.
Activists also demand economic reforms and called on Assad to put an end to corruption which has plagued the system.
"Money is in the hands of a small group of people who are close to the authorities. We have reached a point where no one can actually open any business without having an official or his son as their partners," Qurabi said.
Hundreds of demonstrators in the city of Douma on Friday chanted: "We want to say it openly, we do not want to see thieves anymore."
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)