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New hopes for change in Algeria

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Issue 1757

Wave of revolt

New hopes for change in Algeria

By Sam Ashman

THE NORTH African state of Algeria has been shaken by a mass wave of protests. The protests are the most hopeful events for well over a decade. For the last three months the east of Algeria has been in a state of virtual uprising.

At least 80 people have been killed in clashes with the security forces. Government buildings have been torched and state officials expelled from towns as demonstrators denounce high levels of unemployment and government corruption. The revolt began amongst the four million strong Berber population in the region of Kabylia. These people speak a separate language and have their own history of resistance.

It was sparked by the shooting dead of a Berber youth in police custody. But the protests have resonated across the country and spread to non-Berber areas too.

They have developed into what one newspaper describes as “a show of people power” that threatens to topple the government. Last month hundreds of thousands marched through the capital, Algiers. They demanded social justice and an end to state repression. Many demonstrators defied government orders and marched to the presidential compound.

The march was broken up by riot police. At least two protesters were killed, and around 1,000 others were injured. It was the largest demonstration in Algeria since independence from France in 1962.

“I have never seen such hatred towards the regime,” said the head of a youth organisation in Algiers. Algeria provides 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas. Revenues from hydrocarbons are booming. But a structural adjustment programme last year saw 400,000 civil service jobs slashed.

Unemployment is 30 percent and poverty is rife. Housing is in a state of desperate crisis. Many homes have no running water. The sense of social neglect and discontent runs deep. Algerians have a word, hogra, which summarises the sense of being treated with contempt by the authorities.

This is a long way from the hopes people had when Algeria became independent. A million people died in a bitter war against French colonialism to gain independence. After independence the FLN, which led the anti-colonial struggle, became the core of a new ruling class of army officers, managers and state bureaucrats. Revenue from rising oil production helped consolidate the regime. But there was massive resentment at corruption, political repression and the regime’s failure to tackle poverty. This burst out during mass strikes in 1977. Islamism, which had never had mass appeal in Algeria, also began to increase its influence.

The FLN regime turned to market liberalisation during the 1980s, and accepted IMF and World Bank “reforms” which slashed subsidies to basic foodstuffs. The result was an explosion of mass strikes and demonstrations across Algeria in 1988.

The army’s brutal response only helped radicalise people. But the Algerian left was weak and had a tradition of backing the regime. So the repression drove more people to identify with the Islamists, grouped in the FIS.

It won the first round of the general election at the end of 1991. The military cancelled the second round of the election and effectively took power.

In a display of the crudest hypocrisy Western governments and the press backed it. Algeria was torn apart by a horrific civil war between the Islamists and the regime. At least 100,000 have been killed.

The regime has used mass torture and illegal detention. Huge resources were poured into this dirty war at the expense of any measures to tackle poverty.

But the civil war drove many from the countryside to the cities, further intensifying poverty and the housing shortage. Eventually the Islamists split in two, with a section making their peace with the regime.

Pent-up frustration and bitterness have now broken through. The protests offer a new hope. They show the emergence of a new generation which wants to fight back, and tackle the economic and social injustices that have scarred the lives of millions for decades.

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