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Algeria's rising tide of youth rebellion will not go away yet

Algerian spotlight 4 They may not have achieved the triumphs of their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, but these student rebels refuse to quit.

Students take to the streets in Algiers in protest at poor university management. The marchers defied a government ban on demonstrations.
Students take to the streets in Algiers in protest at poor university management. The marchers defied a government ban on demonstrations.

ALGIERS // Karim Aimeur, a leader of a new Algerian youth movement, was in a philosophical mood after his group's success last month in mobilising students and other young people against the government.

"We are learning. It will take some time, but revolutions are not made, they happen," said Mr Aimeur, whose group Mouvement de la Jeunesse Independante pour le Changement (Independent Youth Movement for Change), or MJIC, was founded in February.

Even so, he and other youth leaders know that their fledgling movement has a long way to go before it can equal the victories of similar uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Algeria is a relatively closed country with few tourists and one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the region. The result is that the nation's young are struggling to answer the youth-led call for change that has swept the region.

The country's youth are in an unenviable position, according to a 2007 US diplomatic cable, recently published by WikiLeaks. The US document concluded that most young people were "feeling gloomy and grim about the fate of their country".

Like many of its neighbours, Algeria's population is relatively young, with 70 per cent under the age of 25. This has led to exploding student populations and soaring youth unemployment, notably among the middle class. The standard answer has been for many to seek a better future overseas, often after a precarious journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

"We have the same problems as the rest of society, such as housing and jobs on top of education, of course," Mr Aimeur said. "But our biggest problem is that we have no perspective. That problem is political and the system has to change."

The Algerian government, despite a series of protests, is proving remarkably resilient. Detested by many of the young as outdated, the generals and intelligence chiefs who call the shots have so far proved adept at countering the unrest. To do so, the government has launched a raft of measures, including buying off protesters, playing on fears of fundamentalism and banning large gatherings.

After initial, and more violent, protests in January, the only group that has succeeded in mobilising thousands to march through Algiers has been the student movement. In mid-April, students flooded the capital and with a variety of tactics managed to approach the presidential compound before being turned back. Dozens were hurt, but there were no fatalities.

What emerged from the April protest was a strong current of opposition to the government among the young. The movement has struggled to find a unified voice or attain sufficient operational savvy.

Students vacillated between outright opposition to the government and their more specific, education-linked demands. One young woman, who led fellow students in chanting bland slogans such as "we are the students", initially emphasised that the protesters were merely asking for their "rights" and that they were "non-political".

Others, however, were there to target the government. "The malaise in education cannot be addressed without addressing the faults in the system," said one student leader who wished to remain anonymous. Even the young woman exhorted her friends to "get rid of the murderers" after a police charge left one student bloodied.

Unlike the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, the students failed to mount a sustained challenge to the government. Mr Aimeur, who says his MJIC group was instrumental in creating the student movement, acknowledged that the dissatisfaction among Algeria's young was more diffuse than in Tunisia or Egypt. "Things still have to come together," he said.

The internet was a huge factor in the Tunisian and Egyptian youth movements, particularly social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. This resonated among the young in Algeria to the degree that reporters are now asked in many places, "Are you reporting this for Facebook?"

Even so, few Algerian students have made use of the internet. Most young people in poor neighbourhoods have no email or Facebook accounts and limited internet access at best. In 2009, internet penetration in Algeria was estimated at 12 per cent by the UN's International Telecommunications Union, compared with 30 per cent in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

One notable Algerian initiative is the Facebook page Envoyés Spéciaux Algériens. With more than 40,000 regular users, it provides news and insights from young activists.

During the student demonstration in April several bloggers with video cameras recorded events. "Our blog will be called Jeunesse de Kabylie," said one young cameraman who declined to give his name. "We just want to show what is happening here, but we have not yet decided what to do with the blog," he said. Kabylie is a region in the interior where a strong ethnic Berber presence contributes to anti-government sentiment.

Mr Aimeur said that he and his colleagues used Facebook to mobilise the students, who have internet access at the universities and who are more computer-literate than the average Algerian. But it was just one of many tools.

Adlène Meddi, a veteran of the late-1980s protests that ended one-party rule and editor-in-chief of the weekend edition of the popular independent daily El Watan, dismissed the need for internet activism in Algeria, saying: "In 1988 we did not need Facebook or Twitter. We managed to go into the street anyway, en masse."

The main obstacle to change in Algeria is the complicity of all groups of society in the regime, he says. "The only ones who don't belong to that system are the students. Change can only come from them."

Mr Aimeur does not sound defeated by the slow pace of events in Algeria. "We did not expect that. The situation here is different. But we will not go away," he said. "We will continue until the system changes."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae