Riots in Algeria
Ghania Khelifi - 13/01/2011
This is not insurrection, not now …
Rich country, poor people. For the young people who have been occupying the streets for the past few days to scream their despair, this paradox is inacceptable.
Those who have lived the October 1988 riots have been feeling the same anxiety since Friday the 7th January 2011. The capital city of Algiers offers this familiar sight of violent events’ aftermaths. Soldering tyres on the floor, burned cars, shattered facades of public buildings and private businesses; the Algerian youngsters’ anger has been fed by all that came to hand. There is an odd silence in the city’s districts and a strange atmosphere weighs upon populations in despair. Rumours thrive in this general stupidity. The army will intervene, the Internet and the telephones are monitored, the mosque will give out orders and many other “news” are spread by social networks or sms’. How did it all start? Is it really important to give the time and place of this public riot in a country that has recorded nearly 9000 protests and upheavals in 2009? Lack of housing, inflation, unemployment, low wages, lack of drinking water, gas or electricity cuts, various and diverse injustices… The Algerian people have exhausted all the listed causes of protest that exist. The only novelty is that they have recently risen at the same time, from East to West. Bab el Oued, the emblematic district for rebellion and whose credo is “Bab El Oued Shuhada” (Martyrs of Bab El Oued) sounded the start of the riots. Let’s say the situation changed with the announcement of the increase of about 20 to 30 % in the prices of sugar, oil, flour and cereals. These commodities have become as unaffordable as meat, fruit and vegetables. The youngsters coming from Bab El Oued and other popular areas of Algiers have transformed a spark into flames. The youth of Bab El Oued scrupulously maintain the legacy of their elders, who in 1988 were the first victims of gunfire and military police. They were the guardians of this area that was the impregnable bastion of Islamists for a long time and of their fields of operation in their insurgency movement. When Bab El Oued is in trouble, Algiers burns and Algeria is in flames. Now that the tear gas is fading away, now that hundreds of injured police and rioters are in hospitals, it might seem that the government is ready to meet popular demands. We would be unfamiliar with the Algerian’s government art of dodging if we thought this was the case. The same government has only deigned the uncharismatic Minister of Commerce to organise an interdepartmental committee on Saturday in order to stem the rising prices of widely consumed products. Another minion from the presidential majority states that the troubles are the works of wholesalers refusing the stabilizing measures decided by the government. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister found it important enough to intervene. What’s the point in reacting to a bunch of excited youngsters who want cheaper sugar, oil and flour? The unemployed youngsters are not a political force, they have no weapons, no power. The riots that have been shattering the country for three days will therefore be calmed down by a freeze of the commodities’ prices and some other populist small allocations. Corruption, clientelism, individual and collective freedom abuses, injustice and arbitrariness will never be mentioned as ingredients of popular anger. The Minister of Interior has erased all political dimension explaining that certain rioters are “criminals” and that the others are irresponsible or manipulated youngsters. He assures that “the manipulators” will obviously be pursued. Some newspaper editors, the television and some politicians have denounced in chorus, the actions of these brainless youngsters ignoring the sacrifice of the liberation war martyrs, reflecting their country’s image abroad and all those good old clichés to call for national unity. With three deaths and more than a thousand arrests most of which will only last a few hours, the picture is far from being tragic for a week of riots on a national level. And for good reason. During these events, the government has excluded the use of weapons against demonstrators and the police had apparently been instructed to avoid confrontations with citizens. The regime has benefited from the 1980 and 2001 experiences against the Berber identity movement, in 1988 against youth and in 1992 against Islamists. No youngster was killed at close range. Moreover, protests against hunger are so much easier to handle because all you have to do is loosen the purse strings to solve it out. The Algerian state can afford to bribe until the next riot, to pay for social peace in order to clear its turpitude: at the end of 2010, the state owns 155 billion dollars of reserve currency and almost 48 billion Euros of regulatory fund revenues. This fund is fed by the differences between the prices of oil sold and the reference price i.e. 37 dollars the barrel on the basis of which the state budget is established. Given that during the first eight months of 2010, the barrel price was 77.19 dollars and that the forecasts for 2011 announce an increase in price, Algeria’s economic situation is far from gloomy. This paradox of a very rich state with a extremely poor population give migraines to all the Algerians who see no other explanation than corruption and their governments inefficiency. This oil bonanza will again be used to erase the physical traces of the riots and distribute some wage increases, a few social housings to extinguish the fire. The government succeeds every time the explosion threatens because popular upheavals have no future as there is a lack of credible political parties or structured leadership. This is one of the Algerian government’s most effective weapons, a government who succeeded to eliminate all attempt of management or organisation of political protest through corruption and repression. Until when?
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech