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Taher Belabbes, a protest leader from the city of Ouargla, with friends at a coffee shop in the bus station of Algiers.
Taher Belabbes, a protest leader from the city of Ouargla, with friends at a coffee shop in the bus station of Algiers.
Protesters from the Syndicate of the Unemployed in Ghardaia, Taher Belabbes’ home town.
Protesters from the Syndicate of the Unemployed in Ghardaia, Taher Belabbes’ home town.

Algeria's man of the streets has shades of Che Guevara

Taher Belabbes has unified a cautious protest movement through a process of inclusion. Alice Fordham meets the man his people call Guevara.

ALGIERS // The man they call Algeria's Che Guevara looks no different from dozens of other tired people shambling off overnight buses arriving from the poor south.

In the capital's La Gare Routiere bus station, Taher Belabbes sucks down cigarettes and coffee while he tells a common story of unemployment and frustration.

"I dropped out of school when I was 13 years old," said the thin, dark-skinned man. His family was poor and he had to work.

"I started doing very basic trade, buying and selling clothes, and it enabled me to be in touch with the youth in other provinces. Our conversations focused on fulfilling a dream of a decent life."

Mr Belabbes speaks of being aware that he was not alone, of 10 years spent organising protests for more jobs, of a much bigger recent rally in his hometown of Ouargla.

As he talks, his eyes shine and he gesticulates with long fingers.

Now 32, the shabby market trader with brown teeth, speaking the thickly accented Arabic of the provinces rather than the French of the intelligentsia, has become a leader.

He embodies his supporters' hope that someone can unify Algeria's scattered protest movements and change their country's ossified political system.

He is the national co-ordinator of the League for the Protection of the Rights of the Unemployed. In Algeria, social movements tend to have long names and little impact, but members of the league have been galvanised by him.

"Young people can see themselves in Belabbes. That's why he became famous and popular quite quickly," Fekhar Kameladdine, a veteran rights activist, said recently. "I think with a bit of organisation he can do a lot."

Carrots and sticks

As protests across the Arab world have roiled these past two years, Algeria has seemed comparatively calm: Africa's largest nation slumbering though an earthquake.

In fact, it has a long tradition of localised dissident movements but the authorities have handled them with a judicious mix of carrots and sticks.

When uprisings surged in 2011, Algeria in some ways looked ripe for revolutionary change.

The republic shares borders with Tunisia and Libya, where people rose up so dramatically. Its ageing leadership is known as le pouvoir, or the power, and is subject to daily criticism by a sprightly press and vocal people.

Although technically led by an elected parliament and president, it is governed by a cabal of powerful figures who draw their legitimacy from the struggle for independence against France's 132-year colonial rule, which ended in 1962.

The president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is 76 and has been in power since 1999. Many feel he is out of touch with a country whose median age is 27 and where official estimates in 2011 put youth unemployment at 21.5 per cent, with some analysts judging it higher.

"The people don't see a positive outcome," said Fayçal Metaoui, a journalist with El Watan newspaper. "They have a president who is absent from the political scene and a government which changes every year, who promises a lot but doesn't honour their promises."

Rich in oil and gas, there are US$200 billion (Dh734.6bn) in foreign reserves salted away, but people complain of gaping inequalities.

They say a corrupt elite in huge cars and fancy houses ignore the needs of most of the 37 million-strong population, who often live in overcrowded flats and struggle to find work.

"When we saw that the Arab Spring happened, we were eager that such a thing happen in our country as well," says Mr Belabbes. "It is an extraordinary feeling to see people with one voice, in solidarity. You know, sometimes I was so touched that I cried."

Algeria, like Tunisia and Egypt, also had labour movements, unions and rights groups that tried to capitalise on the change sweeping the region. But ultimately, le pouvoir was able to stay in control.

Some concessions were made: the president promised that citizens and opposition groups would be involved in drafting a new constitution and government-controlled media would open up.

Pay rises and benefits were granted to specific groups - state airline employees, for example - and thousands of jobs were created in the security services.

But rights groups including Amnesty International say laws passed last year made it more difficult for them to meet and talk freely with other groups.

Still, the biggest factor blocking a unified movement against an unpopular government was fear.

'Black decade'

In the 1990s, Algeria was torn apart by a civil war, fuelled by a government struggle against a violent insurgency that flared after an Islamist party did unexpectedly well in a first round of elections.

That prompted the military and ruling party to cancel the next round and militant Islamist groups to emerge.

Tens of thousands of people died - people in the capital still shudder as they recount finding bodies in the streets - and thousands are still missing.

"I understand Algerians are a bit tired," said Mostefa Bouchachi, an opposition parliamentarian. "Every single family has been affected by the tragedy of the 1990s."

The dominant National Liberation Front party is "holding the people hostage", he said.

"They say, 'You want us to continue running the country the same way. If you try to push us to change, we will go back to the 1990s'," Mr Bouchachi said last month in the capital.

The bloodshed that followed rebellions in Libya and Syria, and the widespread rise of Islamist politics, pose another obstacle to Algeria's would-be revolutionaries.

Even among the most vehement activists, there is a consciousness of the need to move carefully.

Some people say they want a change in government, but not the fall of the system. Some say their demands are not political at all, they simply want a new economic policy that would create more jobs, especially in the marginalised south. All insist they are not Islamists and not violent.

"We are influenced by the black decade," said Mr Belabbes. "People remember the black decade and are wise enough to avoid bloodshed and injury with demonstrations, because it is only the civilian population that will pay the price."

He worked slowly in his plan to unify local groups of unemployed people and crucially, to work with other protest groups, including the mothers of those who have disappeared and the human-rights league, to build a nationwide movement.

He was driven, he said, by the deaths of his brother and of three friends, who killed themselves because they were poor and saw no future.

He is not married.

"I am looking for a wife," Mr Belabbes said, sheepishly. "But I can't even provide for myself _ how can I look after a family?"

"He is our Che Guevara," declared Farouq Souid, 35, a nurse and activist, referring to the Argentine doctor, rebel and diplomat who was a major figure in the Cuban revolution.

Mr Souid recalled the first national protest, swiftly shut down by police, in the capital in 2010.

"Even before this we were active, but each one was working in his own area. Taher got the idea of unifying the committees."

Fresh start

Mr Souid is from the town of Ghardaia in the centre of the country. Here and farther south, in palm-fringed oases with beautiful views but limited opportunities, young unemployed people are angry.

Most of the nation's oil and gas wealth lies beneath their feet, but they complain oil companies hire cheap labour from other countries, and those Algerians who do get jobs in the hydrocarbon plants are badly underpaid.

In Ghardaia, the unemployed movement protests regularly, as do other groups. One day last month, Mr Souid and his colleagues held a demonstration outside the local government building, and former soldiers demanding better pensions held another, yelling in the drizzle outside iron gates.

There were no more than 20 protesters at each rally, outnumbered by plainclothes and uniformed police who let the gatherings proceed unhindered. Such low-level dissent is usually tolerated.

But in March and last month, things were happening on a bigger scale. Representatives of the league from across the country demonstrated across the south: Ghardaia, Laghouat, Tamanrasset and in Mr Belabbes's hometown of Ouargla, where about 10,000 people converged on March 14.

There were slogans and a march but also Molotov cocktails and clashes with the police. Several people, including Mr Belabbes, were arrested for a few hours or days. The activists claim the government infiltrated the demonstration to discredit them.

They have not been deterred. Last week in the capital, Mr Belabbes declared they would soon have demonstrations in the east of the country, and he has said that one day they will have another in the capital.

Fear of the unknown

The dynamism comes at a time when Algeria's regime seems less immovable than usual. The president is ill, recovering in a hospital in Paris from what officials describe as a "mini-stroke."

A much-debated fourth term for Mr Bouteflika, beginning with presidential elections next year, is looking less likely. Optimists in the opposition hope that a new face could mean a fresh start.

But although no one from the government consented to comment they still have plenty of resources at their disposal to meet the demands of many of the aggrieved groups.

Another 6,000 security jobs were unveiled last month in the south, although the streets are already full of policemen.

Many people are also unsympathetic towards the demonstrators. The state subsidises petrol and basic foods. Education is free up to PhD level and housing is, in theory, given free to those who need it. The government oversees a loan programme for those who need funds to buy a car.

Some Algerians even scoff at demands that the government address the crisis of youth unemployment, saying it is not the role of the state to provide jobs.

"Our young people are lazy, very lazy," said Farida Babaamer-Hadj Aissa, a travel agent in Ghardaia. "They all want a flat for free, they want a car … Bouteflika spoiled the Algerians. He has given them too much money."

Mr Belabbes brushes off the frequent comparisons with Guevara, saying that he does not want people to compare him with the revolutionary leader, but to think of their own actions.

He worries that he might be arrested or worse and not be able to continue his work. He needs assurance that the movement will not stop if he does.

"What pushes me forward is fear," Mr Belabbes said. "The fear of the present and the future, the fear of the unknown because I don't know what will happen to me."

And yet he is not in a hurry. He speaks of measured change, brought about by technocrats but catalysed by people like him, a growing cadre of activists.

"We are struggling now for our citizens' rights and we will do it today," he said. "And if we cannot do it tomorrow, other people are going to take over."

afordham@thenational.ae

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