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In Algeria, Popular Protests Still Simmer Beneath Surface

  • Lisa Bryant

Riot policemen detain a protester during a demonstration in Oued Koriche, Algiers, March 23, 2011

Riot policemen detain a protester during a demonstration in Oued Koriche, Algiers, March 23, 2011

Algeria is simmering with the same toxic mix of economic and political discontent that has exploded into revolts across the Arab world. But another effort to stage an anti-government protest in front of the main post office in downtown Algiers failed.

Frustrated youth

It was announced on Facebook as a youth march that would rally thousands. But only a few dozen showed up, quickly dispersed by riot police who easily outnumbered them.

Nalia Hamish, 31, vented her frustration. She said every time the protesters try to gather, the police break them up. They want the freedom to express themselves politically - starting with the right to protest.

Simmering anger

A huge outpouring of public anger toppled the presidents in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt this year. Public protests have shaken Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Lybia and Morocco, forcing some governments to promise reforms and others to crack down brutally.

There is anger here too - against Algeria's authoritarian government, the lack of jobs and perceived corruption. It drove 30-year-old Tariq, who works in marketing, to participate in the Facebook protest.

Tariq says protesters want the end of corruption, repression and theft by the state. They want a better distribution of wealth in oil-rich Algeria and for the government to respond to demands by the country's youth, who make up the vast majority of the population.

Protests fail to coalesce

Riots over high food prices killed five and injured roughly 800 people here in January. Since then, a hodgepodge of demonstrations have mushroomed around the country - by teachers, students, the unemployed and pro-democracy activists. But they have failed to coalesce into a broad-based movement for change.

Few people attend the weekly protests staged by a newly-formed umbrella group known as the National Coordination for Change and Democracy. Those who do are vastly outnumbered by police.

Said Saadi, head of the opposition RCD party, is part of the movement. Saadi believes the disparate protests will eventually coalesce into a powerful movement that will either force political change peacefully or explode into violence.

But many here are afraid of more violence. They are haunted by the 1990s, when a small democratic opening spiralled into civil war after the government cancelled legislative elections that the opposition Islamic Salvation Front party appeared poised to win. More than 100,000 Algerians were killed and tens of thousands disappeared during the so-called "black decade."

Ghania Lassal, a journalist at the leading, independent El Watan newspaper, believes that while Algerians want change and democracy, they aren't ready to give their time and energy - and blood if necessary - to fight for it.

Reforms promised

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised reforms. In February, he lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency. But a ban against protesting in the capital remains in place.

In an interview, Communications Minister Nacer Mahel described major efforts by the government to improve the country's infrastructure, create housing and boost employment. Mahel said more must be done in every sector. He said it was important to listen to Algeria's young people and their demands. But Mahel also noted Algeria enjoys a number of freedoms, including a vibrant press.

Still, there are cracks in the ruling establishment. The vice president of Algeria's upper house of parliament has strongly criticized the government for failing to improve the lives of ordinary people. One of the former heads of the ruling FLN party, Abdelhamid Mehri, has lambasted the government for being incapable of addressing the "major problems" of the nation.

Journalist Lassal believes the regime is afraid. Algeria may not be Tunisia or Egypt, but the government is aware that the simmering popular discontent could explode into something much bigger.