x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Angry Algerians take to the streets

Across the country the poor and unemployed are demonstrating against the Bouteflika government.

Algerian riot police run for cover during clashes in the Diar Echams district of Algeria.
Algerian riot police run for cover during clashes in the Diar Echams district of Algeria.

RABAT // One week it was Biskra, the next Annaba, and, simultaneously, Algiers: in towns and cities across Algeria, crowds of the poor and unemployed are hitting the streets in rough-and-tumble demonstrations demanding change from a government they feel is not listening. "But unless it happens in all 48 provinces at once, it won't make a difference," said Abbas Allaouchiche, 37, a small-time salesman scraping by on the black market in Algiers, the capital.

Mr Abbas' frustration is shared by many Algerians, who have watched as the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, re-elected in April to a controversial third term, has begun spending oil wealth on big infrastructure projects but struggled to fulfil campaign pledges to provide badly needed jobs and housing. With civil society and opposition parties largely sidelined, ordinary Algerians are increasingly resorting to street protests and rioting to make their voices heard, analysts said.

Unrest gathered momentum in October, when hundreds of protesters angry over housing shortages spent two days hurling bricks, stones and petrol bombs at police in Algiers, who responded with tear gas. Similar scenes are repeated around the country, said Faycal Metaoui, a political columnist for El Watan, a leading independent newspaper in Algiers. "People occupy a public place like a square or encircle the mayor's office to attract authorities, but they end up fighting with police," Mr Metaoui said. "Riots are becoming a new form of dialogue, since local authorities won't talk to the people."

Meanwhile, political parties and civil society groups that might intervene are hamstrung by restrictions and an official state of emergency dating to the civil war during the 1990s, said Amel Boubekeur, a North Africa expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think-tank based in Washington, DC. The majority of civic groups are tied to the state and opposition parties are "systematically forbidden to organise public events", Ms Boubekeur said, while demonstrators may be tried for disturbing public order.

"There are no clear boundaries - that's why people have been unable to form efficient organisations for protest." The October unrest in Algiers came after police broke up a public march in the city by students, journalists and human rights activists commemorating six days of riots and army crackdowns in 1988 that pushed president Chadli Benjedid to introduce political reforms, approved that year by national referendum.

However, the messy transition to multi-party democracy brought the ruling National Liberation Front party into a face-off with increasingly popular Islamist groups. In 1992 the army seized power and cancelled parliamentary elections that an Islamist party was expected to win, helping tip Algeria into a decade of savage civil war between the state and Islamist militias that killed over 150,000. Since his first election as president in 1999, Mr Bouteflika has won praise for re-establishing the role of civilian leaders following military dominance, and bringing stability through amnesties for some Islamist militants. While a small, hard core of fighters has allied with al Qa'eda and continues to stage bomb attacks, relative calm has returned.

However, that leaves the government with new challenges, analysts said: winning public trust, providing housing and curbing unemployment estimated at 30 per cent among young people. Major opposition parties boycotted this year's presidential election and called Mr Bouteflika's victory fraudulent, while trade unions have staged strikes in recent months to demand higher wages from public sector employers.

That is "shifting to some extent the relationship of domination between the government and civil society", said Ms Boubekeur. "The government is feeling that there's a social discontent and a need to face it." Mr Bouteflika has pledged to spend US$150 billion (Dh551bn) from oil revenues last year on housing and job creation. Housing blocks are going up around the country, and state coffers are funding infrastructure projects including a planned metro for Algiers and a new motorway linking the capital to commercial hubs along the coast, designed to make Algeria more business-friendly.

That should help create jobs in the long run, said Mohamed Bahloul, a political economist and director of the Institute for the Development of Human Resources in the port city of Oran. For now, many Algerians like Mr Allaouchiche, the Algiers salesman, are left without regular work. He left school at 16 and survives today by wheeling and dealing according to the demands of the black market: "In Ramadan it was food, this month it's shoes, next month something else."

Each night he returns to the apartment he shares with five siblings - unmarried, like him, for want of money and affordable housing. "Personally, I've given up on marriage," he said. Instead, he supports the university studies of his youngest sister, 21, an aspiring engineer. "I want her to do something I couldn't do: get a diploma, work in an office, be a real employee." jthorne@thenational.ae