The Algerian government has tackled recent protests with its usual mixture of repression and buying off the demonstrators, but in the impoverished district of Bab el Oued the only hope for improvement is seen to be illegal emigration.
Algeria's young poor sing of a better life in Europe
ALGIERS // The Algerian rock band Afrockaine croons its ballad about illegal emigration while practising in the small basement studio of a youth centre in Bab el Oued, the most notorious poor neighbourhood of Algiers.
The four young band members, who mix rock with gnawa, one of the traditional musical forms of Algeria, come from a better-off suburb to practice, "because it is so authentic here", jokes vocalist Younes Kassimi. "No, this is the only affordable place," banters the bandleader, Sid Ali Chaib.
Bab el Oued does have authenticity, in spades. A rough working-class neighbourhood that in places is extremely poor, it has a history of sparking revolts. It played a role in Algeria's war of independence, which ended in 1962, albeit on the losing, French-colonist side. It rose up in 1988 to help end one-party rule, it was a bastion of the fundamentalist FIS movement that fought the army after 1991 and, so far this year, it has erupted twice in protests that revolved around miserable living conditions.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his government, ostensibly elected but dominated by long-serving generals and the security services, have felt the winds of change that have affected neighbours and nearby countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
In February, in response to popular pressure, the government lifted the state of emergency that had been in place for almost 20 years, since the outbreak of the violence between the state and Muslim fundamentalist militants. But the government has continued to tackle protests with the usual mixture of repression and buying off the demonstrators, who mostly make economic demands in this country that has plenty of oil and gas money but offers very little economic opportunity.
"The lyrics are about illegal immigrants from North Africa who hope for a better life in Europe," says Mr Chaib, referring to the song the band is rehearsing. At 32, he is the oldest member and the only one who has a regular job, as a call centre supervisor. "We sing about the young people here. Everybody just wants to leave, because in places like Bab el Oued there is no future."
Just up the hill from the youth centre, in the architecturally stunning but otherwise miserable housing development known as Climat de France, gang members echo this view. Omar, 26, whose last name has been withheld, hanging out across from the local market in a French-built colonnaded concrete square, cheerfully admits that he breaks the law.
"I am a drug dealer," he grins, while holding out a small quantity of dung-coloured hash. The dozen or so youths are all dressed in track suits or jeans and T-shirts. One of them butts in: "And I am a thief. I steal mostly mobile phones. Do you want to meet my fence?" he asks, pointing at a fat man in a traditional jalabiya, standing some way off.
The others cluck disapprovingly. "We are not criminals," Omar says emphatically. "We don't have another way to make money, so we do this. But we don't harm anybody. We are decent people here."
But he does admit to attacking the police during the most recent riots in the neighbourhood, in March. The violence started when the authorities demolished illegally built sheds and extensions of houses.
The riots were typical for the kind of challenge that the government is facing. Groups are demanding housing, pensions, salary increases or jobs. But, says Zoubir Arous, a social scientist at the University of Algiers, the protesters are not organised.
"They don't belong to unions or political parties. They don't think that parties can change their situation because they are discredited," Mr Arous says.
The protesters may yet become more of a threat to the government, however, Mr Arous says: "For the moment they make social demands but at some point they will become conscious that their demands are political."
The young men in Climat de France, even though they seem to relish the fight against the police, have different ideas of how to improve their situation. "To Europe, that is the only way out," they answer in one voice.
Omar's supplier, who identifies himself only as Boualem and who surreptitiously shows a huge brick of hash in a belt pouch, explains that conditions in Climat de France are extremely tough. "In my family, we are 20 people in a two-room apartment. So we sleep in shifts, four times five people at a time for six hours."
Inside, the apartments are indeed small. They are cramped but relatively clean and all have running water and electricity. It may not be much but it is a world removed from the misery of the real slums of Algiers, such as Hai Ramleh.
Here, Ali Zita lives with his brother and both their wives in one tin-roofed shack for which he paid the equivalent of US$75 (Dh275) when they arrived in the capital in 1999 from the town of Msila. Three years ago, the apartment finally was hooked up to the electric grid. Water comes intermittently out of an improvised hose and raw sewage runs into a nearby creek that intersects the unpaved streets.
Mr Zita survives as a day labourer and he manages to send some money back home to his parents. He does not express anger with the government, even though an extra room he built was torn down by the authorities. He says that he will patiently wait for better housing to become available.
Back in Bab el Oued, Nacer Meghine, who founded the youth centre in the 1990s, says that it is no wonder that protests originates there and not in slums such as Hai Ramleh.
"The people here may be poor but they are politically involved. They read newspapers and discuss. Things have always started in Bab el Oued because people here get very frustrated."