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)

The wave of people power revolutions shaking North Africa has now washed over Algeria. There is something circular in this, 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 Algiers’ May First Square where they overcame a security cordon to meet up with other protesters despite being vastly outnumbered by 30,000 riot police. Protesters want democratic freedoms, a change of government and more jobs. They are determined to remain peaceful and not react to police provocation despite being banned by a nervous government.
The Algerian Government is attempting to keep power it stole two decades ago. In December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won an election, smashing the FLN which ruled Algeria since independence from France in 1962. Their slogan was “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 firms. Although political violence in Algeria has declined, the country has been shaken by 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, and three people were killed in clashes with security forces. The demonstrations started in the poor western 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. Other working-class districts of the capital followed suit as well as the cities of Tipaza, Annaba and Tizi-Ouzou.

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

RCD leader Saïd Sadi said Saturday’s demonstrations were spontaneous. The decision of Hosni Mubarak to flee Egypt on Friday has galvanised the Algerian opposition movement. On Saturday demonstrators waved front pages of newspapers showing the Egyptian news and shouted “Bouteflika out!” 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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