Algerians ignore latest protest call – for now

ALGIERS — A new "day of rage" was called recently in this violence-scarred North African nation. But when the allotted time arrived, nobody showed up: The colonnaded boulevards in the heart of Algiers on 1st May Square were quiet, with just a few scattered shoppers milling about.

Like much of the rest of the Arab world, protests swept through Algeria earlier this year calling for more democracy, but they have since fizzled. The latest call on Facebook and other social networking sites for a new revolt on 17 September was roundly ignored.

The fall of Muammar Qadhafi — a close ally of Algeria — in neighboring Libya after a seven-month civil war has turned the focus onto Africa's largest country, and the question of whether its military-dominated government could also succumb to the uprisings sweeping the region.

This oil-rich country sees small protests nearly every day over economic and social issues by a population that is fed up with its government. But some Algerians fear the bloodshed and uncertainty seen in other Arab uprisings.

They have reason to be wary: 20 years ago, Algeria's army stepped in to stifle burgeoning political freedoms, leading to a decade of insurgency that pitted security services against the armed supporters of a popular Islamist movement and left an estimated 200,000 Algerians dead.

The civil war left deep divisions in Algerian society and a lingering fear of security forces. That, along with government largesse stemming from oil wealth, has kept the lid on the situation here.

"The country is on the edge of an explosion, the regime has only held on by spending billions, but for how long?" asked Sherif Arbi, a pro-democracy activist, on the day the protest didn't happen. "This is just a postponement."

In fact that same day, just on the other side of town in the neighborhood of Diar Chems, there were riots over the promised distribution of new housing units. Two days later, protesters blocked the main road of the capital's Beau Fraisier neighborhood over the same issue.

This month alone nearly every city in the country has seen some kind of protest, usually ranging from between dozens and hundreds of participants, of people angry over the lack of water, housing, electricity or calling for higher wages.

A quarter of the population lives under the poverty line and unemployment is rampant.

Until now, however, the widespread anger of ordinary people over bread and butter issues has not coalesced into a united call for change. People are just as suspicious of opposition politicians and democracy activists as they are of the despised regime.

"Algerians are enormously unhappy with their current situation for a whole slew of reasons," said John Entelis, an expert on Algeria at Fordham University in New York City, adding that for now the government has the means to placate them. "The state has an economic capacity to buy them off, at least for a short term."

In addition to ending a long-running state of emergency law and promising a freer media, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika defused the first wave of protests by extending key subsidies and boosting wages for the police, army, government employees and health workers.

Recently though, educational unions have said their raises weren't enough.

"If the government does not review the increase in salaries, we will go back on strike," Larbi Nouar, head of the largest union of secondary school teachers, told The Associated Press.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where long-serving regimes were overthrown in uprisings this year, Algeria has the funds to "buy the peace," in the words of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.

The nation of 35 million is the world's fourth-largest exporter of natural gas and the central bank announced last week it had currency reserves of US$173 billion.

Algerians are also less likely to protest because many are disillusioned by the results of the so-called Arab Spring, said Mohand Berkouk, the director of the Center for Strategic and Scientific research in Algiers.

"The political changes in the (Arab) world have not brought the expected results, notably democracy," he said, pointing to the bloody situation in Yemen and Syria as well as the persistent uncertainty in Egypt and Tunisia.

"These examples of instability do not motivate the Algerians, who, it must be strongly emphasized, have already suffered two decades of violence and terrorist atrocities," he noted.

Shopkeepers around 1st May Square said Saturday they didn't want any trouble in their neighborhood and had planned to prevent any protest themselves.

"Those who want to make a revolution, they just have to go back to their own neighborhoods in their own cities, we have had enough of demonstrations disrupting the peace of the residents and hampering local business," said Farid Sekfali, who owns a local shoe store.

Under Bouteflika and an amnesty program, most of the combatants laid down their weapons over the past decade, but a hard core of fighters that pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2006 remains and periodically carries out attacks.

In some ways, Algeria was a forerunner of the Arab Spring. Enormous popular demonstrations against a sclerotic government dominated by unimaginative generals in 1988 brought unprecedented political opening in the region — at the cost of 500 lives.

Following those iconic protests, which filled places like May 1st Square and the colonial era avenues of downtown Algiers, the press was liberalized, political parties legalized and competitive elections were held for the first time.

A moderate Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, dominated the first round of the 1991 parliamentary election, prompting the generals to cancel the runoff, snuffing out the short-lived democratic experiment and sparking a civil war.

"In some ways, they view themselves as having been the first of the Arab states to have undergone a democratic revolution, but it was overturned," noted Entelis.

Despite the president's promises of political reforms ahead of 2012 parliamentary elections, the generals are looking increasingly in charge in the country — which bodes ill for further political opening.

Over the last year, several of Bouteflika's close associates were swept up in a corruption investigation initiated by the military, and the 74-year-old president's health is also failing.

Bouteflika attempted to attract more foreign investment into the petroleum sector and diversify the economy in effort to create much needed jobs. These efforts now appear to be flagging as the generals move back to the state-dominated economics of the past decades — the same policies that brought the country to its current impasse.

"For the short term, I think we're looking at the status quo," said Entelis. "But a status quo is just going to make the situation worse in the medium and long term."

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