The struggle spreads in Algeria

January 17, 2011

The uprising in Northern Africa that toppled the dictatorship in Tunisia is shaking neighboring Algeria. Demonstrations against rising food prices and lack of housing began late last year and escalated in January into confrontations with the state's brutal security forces.

Algeria has been ruled by the National Liberation Front (FLN) for most of the time since the country won its war for liberation from French colonial domination half a century ago. FLN leaders claim the mantle of the independence struggle, but they rule over an authoritarian system dependent on the state's repressive military and security forces. The president since 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika won a new term in office in April 2009 with more than 90 percent of the vote in an election that was widely boycotted.

There have been other revolts in Algeria since independence, most famously in the late 1980s--but the latest unrest takes place against the backdrop of the state's growing wealth from oil and natural gas resources. That wealth has remained in the hands of a small elite while poverty remains endemic, and the state attempts to silence all dissent.

The government responded to this month's demonstrations by promising to bring down the price of staple foods, which slowed the pace of protests, according to news reports. But as journalist Mohamed Ben-Madani wrote in the Guardian, without political reforms, the stage is set for further unrest. On January 11, a group of opposition political parties, unions and public figures appealed to the government to lift the state of emergency and allow freedom of the press and dissent.

This account by journalist Farah Bensalem, written after the first week of January protests, gives a sense of the explosive situation.

IT IS 11:30 p.m. in Ilhaddaden, a popular quarter in the new center of Béjaïa, a city in the Kabyle region situated in the east of Algiers, the confrontations between protesters and riot police have not abated. Not more than 20 years old, these young people--who didn't experience the other grand popular revolt for an independent Algeria, in October of 1988, nor had they taken part in the uprising which gripped Kabylie in 2001, when there were 129 deaths--are not ready to go home.

Their revolt is accompanied by applause from residents, and ululations and shouts from mothers standing on balconies and in windows. To the provocations of protesters who shout for them to approach "if you are men," the assembled police retaliate by emptying their tear gas canisters, forcing the inhabitants to take refuge in their homes.

But the young people aren't impressed. For hours, they confront the riot police, constructing barricades with random objects, burning tires, broken road signs. They continue to play cat and mouse with the forces of order, armed with only rocks and their hatred for the despised Algerian regime, a hatred shared by all the Algerian people.

Protesters confront police during a street battle in Algiers
Protesters confront police during a street battle in Algiers

In fact, today, these scenes aren't limited to the rebellious Kabylie region. From east to west, all of Algeria is rising. From Tebessa, on the Eastern border, only a few kilometers from the city of Sidi-Bouzid where the Tunisian revolt is taking place; to Oranie and the western borders, a region perhaps not so used to these sorts of popular expressions of dissent; and passing by Guelma, Djelfa and Laghouat cities in the south.

As if word were spread beforehand, this Friday, January 7, around 3 p.m., just after the big Friday prayer, thousands of young people occupied public spaces and the main arteries of their towns, determined to fight. The clashes between the population and the riot police took place in no fewer than 20 departments of Algerian territory.

This wave of youth is launching its cry of revolt against the leaders it did not choose. In first place, against Bouteflika, the immovable president who changed the constitution to be able to obtain a third mandate and keep power. Against the generals, who sowed war and terrorized the population with impunity, and who hoard the riches of the people by directly tapping the coffers of Sonatrach (national hydrocarbon company) and public goods as if they were their own. Against the rulers' respective clients and supporters from all sides, whether they are Islamists or self-proclaimed democrats, senators and deputies, whose silence is grossly rewarded (the salary of an Algerian deputy in parliament is equivalent to 30 times the minimum salary, which is around $200 a month).

The insurrectionists of Algiers, of Tizi-Ouzou, of Oran and Annaba are all united in declaring they've had enough of a system that is deaf and blind to their legitimate demands. Endemic unemployment, housing crises, corruption, abuses of authority, diminishing purchasing power, lack of opportunities, favoritism, injustice at each turn, ill-gotten gains, inequality and perpetual contempt. There is no shortage of reasons to be angry.

THIS REVOLT is the expression of Algerians' difficulty in surviving--even with a "bad life" that pushes the youngest to exile on makeshift rafts called "haragas." The others try to subsist on their wits: as street vendors and traders of all sorts, which is made more difficult by restrictions imposed on imports by the Ouyahia government in 2009, and which the youths consider another injustice.

The Algerian "middle class" watched its purchasing power collapse with the rise in cost of living. Its wages barely cover the necessities of life and the price of food. As for the poorest strata, it's simply destitution.

These last days, rumors announced the rise in price of flour, and those rumors contributed to this "warming of sprits" or the escalation of the situation. Not to mention the Algerian government removed subsidies for food staples, like sugar, oil and semolina, making them inaccessible to the poorest people.

There is, therefore, a cry of indignation and of disgust about this republic of social inequities and about this great pauperization that the Algerians are shouting out while they take to the streets. At the cost of their lives? The state of emergency has been out in full force for 20 years, and we remember here that on many past occasions, the Algerian state didn't hesitate to shoot live ammunition at protesters.

These protests were very violent and took as targets the usual symbols of the state: courts, police stations, banks. But for the first time, the offices of Sonelgaz have been adversely affected. We can't help but see a link here with the previous affairs of corruption, which tarnished this business linked to Sonatrach, and which represents one of the country's principal sources of foreign exchange.

The minister of finance announced January 4 that the country was holding...$155 billion in reserves--a first since Algerian independence. But if the Algerian regime is bragging in front of the entire world that they have this unimaginable sum, the population doesn't even see the color of the money. Whether in Béjaïa, Algiers or Oran, we talk of "hogra"--this daily injustice of indignity, that the little people, the rank-less, the connection-less, those with absolutely nothing, merely subsist because an arrogant power allows retirees to forage in its garbage cans or steal food.

But it would be a mistake to believe that Algerians rose up for that. This revolt is also for dignity--that which you don't feel without being free. And above all else, freedom of expression, if it existed, would have provided democratic and legal channels for the people's demands and would have avoided this payment in blood.

The Algerians are rising against those who confiscated independence and the ideals of the war of independence 50 years ago. Against those who hoarded the immense riches that should have made each Algerian citizen free and prosperous.

Those tyrannical oligarchs who continue to cling to power, decrepit though their power is, are causing intrigue in the corridors of El Mouradia [the Presidential palace] and the headquarters of the DRS (the all-powerful Algerian secret service) to perpetuate their power and leave behind them, as a legacy, a deformed dynasty or scavenging opportunists.

To those people who sold the country to fill their personal bank accounts and who buy the indulgence of European followers with rubies for their fingernails, while they serve the people their corrupted ideological stew and their false declarations of faith, the insurgents of Algiers square, of Soumam and of Oranie assert that it was not for this that a million Algerians gave their lives [in the war of independence]. Nor was it so the people who proclaim themselves, with drunken shame, the martyrs of the Revolution, dressing in the clothes of the oppressors of yesterday, could trample on the ideals of the struggle for independence while destroying any chance of its existence.

The protesters are shouting out to them that they are fighting because "independence has yet to arrive." But it will certainly arrive tomorrow.

Published at the À L'Encontre Web site. Translated by Karen Domínguez Burke.

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