Sunday, February 13, 2011

Algeria's disaffected find their voice

“Acts of violence don't win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act. That's the rationale behind this strike: to mobilise all Algerians, to assess our strength,” Larbi Ben M’hidi The Battle of Algiers (1966)

To no one’s great surprise, the wave of people power revolutions that have shaken North Africa to the core has now washed over Algeria. There is something circular in this too, as Algeria was the scene of the first protests this year which spread to Tunisia and then to Egypt. Yesterday 2,000 protesters marched in the capital Algier’s May First Square where the overcame a security cordon to meet up with other protesters despite being vastly outnumbered by 30,000 riot police. Protesters want greater democratic freedoms, a change of government and more jobs. They are determined to remain peaceful and not react to police provocation as they march despite being banned by a nervous government.

The Algerian Government has much to be nervous about as it attempts to keep power it stole two decades ago. In December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) stunned the FLN which had ruled Algeria since independence from France in 1962 by smashing them in an election with a slogan of “No Constitution and no laws. The only rule is the Koran and the law of God.” A month later the army declared a state of emergency, overturned the result and formed a collective presidency known as the High State Council. The FIS was stripped of its victory, declared illegal and its leaders jailed.

The move sparked a civil war which lasted ten years and cost 200,000 lives. The army cemented power as the standard of living slowly lifted with new oil finds. Algeria has estimated oil reserves of nearly 12 billion barrels, attracting strong interest from foreign oil firms. Although political violence in Algeria has declined in recent year, the country has been shaken by campaign of bombings carried out by a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Land of Islamic Maghreb. Poverty remains widespread and unemployment high, with 30 percent of Algeria's youth without work.

On 9 January, major protests broke out over food prices and unemployment, with three people being killed in clashes with security forces. The demonstrations started in the poor westerns suburbs of Algiers. They grew in intensity spreading to the country's second largest city, Oran. Then the unrest spread to the working-class district of Bab El Oued in central Algiers. One by one, the other working-class districts of the capital followed suit as well as the cities of Tipaza, Annaba, Tizi-Ouzou.

The Algerian cabinet responded by agreeing to lower the custom duties and taxes on sugar and other food stuffs by two-fifths as a temporary act to cut prices. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika also promised the imminent repeal of the hated 1992 state of emergency law. The decision was greeted with cautious optimism but rejuvenated opposition groups vowed to keep the pressure up on the government. The Rally for Culture and Democracy said they would proceed with a protest on 12 February as originally planned. In a statement last week they said authorities chose to resort to political manoeuvres and to sow discord rather than respond to “legitimate aspirations and demands for changing the political regime that destroyed the country and enslaved the people.”

RCD leader Said Sadi claim that Saturday’s demonstrations were spontaneous and not organised seems a bit far-fetched. However it is true the decision of Hosni Mubarak to flee Egypt on Friday has further galvanised the Algerian opposition movement. On Saturday demonstrators waved front pages of newspapers showing the Egyptian news and shouted "Bouteflika out!" Latest reports say 400 protesters including four MPs have been arrested. The government claimed it banned the march for public order reasons not to stifle dissent. But as other regional leaders have found to their cost, dissent has a strong mind of its own.

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