Revolts in the Maghreb

Algeria, another powder keg about to explode

January 21, 2011

While protests were shaking Tunisia, the main cities of neighboring Algeria also caught fire in January. The reasons why Algerian youth rebelled for a week are the same ones that led, in the country next door, to the fall of Ben Ali: injustice, the absence of a future for young people condemned to unemployment and destitution.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the government’s increase in the prices of basic necessities. The cost of flour and oil doubled in recent months, until it reached record prices, while a kilo of sugar, that, a few months ago, hardly cost 70 dinars, some 0.7 euros, reached 150 dinars, some 1.5 euros. The minimum wage of 150,000 dinars (150 euros), when at least one member of a family is lucky enough to earn it, only covers one-fourth of the basic necessities of a home. When, in addition, information about the possible destruction of the shantytowns in the popular Bab el-Oued neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital, began to circulate, the young people went out to the street and began to confront the cops.

The increase in the prices of basic necessities seemed all the more scandalous since Bouteflika’s FLN government, which has dominated the country’s political scene with authoritarian methods since Independence, became more daring in recent months, because of the big foreign currency reserves of the country, thanks to the high prices of crude oil and gas. The economic data brandished by the government have little impact on the 60% unemployment rate that is devastating Algerian young people who, most of the time, dream of following in the tracks of the "haragas," applicants for immigration to Europe who frequently die in open boats in the Mediterranean between the coasts of the Maghreb and those of Fortress Europe. The youth revolt lasted more than a week, with explosions in different cities of the interior (Oran, Setif, Batna, Annaba, Constantina, Skidda), leaving a toll of 3 dead, hundreds of wounded, and more than a thousand arrested. Pressure from the street has again diminished, but the anger continues to be palpable, according to the main independent Algerian newspapers. In recent days, there were several cases of attempted suicide like that of Mohamed Bouazizi, in both Algeria and Egypt. At this precise moment, the spreading of the Tunisian danger for the Algerian bourgeoisie is materializing through desperate acts. It is not certain, however, that Algeria could not undergo a process like the Tunisian one, in a short time or in the near future.

The government is deeply divided and riddled with rivalries, since President Bouteflika is ill. He can no longer stir up the "Islamist danger" as in years past, to discipline the workers and the people. His best allies are, on one hand, the forces of repression, whose wages were increased by 50% three months ago, and, on the other, the leadership of the only trade union headquarters connected to the regime, the UGTA. It is not certain, however, that the workers’ and young people’s anger will not end up creating the conditions for a Tunisian process in Algeria. That is what Paris and the European Union fear most, since Algeria is a heavyweight in the region, both at the political and economic level.