Commentary by Mélissa Rahmouni – 3 February 2012
Since the first days of January 2012, Algeria has experienced a wave of protest and contestation in a dozen wilayas (regions) – either strikes, demonstrations or sit-ins in the streets, or in front of the wilaya headquarters, in industrial zones or even in high schools (Constantine) . This storm of protest is mostly led by Algerian unemployed youth but it has attracted people of all ages.
Let’s return briefly to the reforms announced by the president in 2011 to help us understand the current context, poised as we are four months before parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2012 that are pledged to be transparent – and the inspiring case of Laghouat (400 kilometers from Algiers).
In the first half of 2011, several political initiatives such as those taken by Algeria’s Coordination for Democratic Change (CNCD) or the Movement of Independent Youths for Change (MJIC) attempted to bring together different entities in order to organize peaceful demonstrations in Algiers. Many factors contributed to the failure of the movement: deep divisions within the opposition to the authoritarian regime; the regime strategy of isolating and attacking the credibility of the initiative; recurrent repression and violations of liberties that discourage political and citizen engagement; the disproportionate mobilization of security forces and certainly the fear inherited from the traumatic ‘dark decade’ (of civil war in the 1990s). On the other side, a parallel dynamic – and maybe less elitist – started in January 2011, simultaneously with the events in Tunisia, and led to clashes between impoverished youngsters with no prospect/hope and the anti-riots special units. In April 2011, two months after the suspension of the state of emergency (that has not changed anything), the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave his first televised speech since the beginning of the events, calling for a return to calm, promising socio-economic measures and announcing political reforms.
A few months later, nothing has changed in Algeria: the atmosphere remains the same. The priority of the so-called reforms was the ‘securitarization’ of civil society concretized by new laws governing the media, associations and the political parties that have been widely criticized. This series of ‘reforms’ eventually approved by the Constitutional Council – whose presidential mandate has expired – has marked a dangerous regression in the most fundamental rights and endorses state control in all the sectors that can act as forces of opposition. Amnesty International wrote a letter to the Algerian deputies to denounce the explicit violation of the international conventions signed by Algeria represented by this repressive draft law on associations, in vain. For instance, this law allows the authorities to ban ‘foreign subsidies’ – in others words, all the local offices or partners of Amnesty International, Transparency & others associations for the defense of human rights are clearly targeted and financially asphyxiated. Moreover, a regulatory agency will be created to control all the aspects of the media. There is considerable disappointment and disillusion with the content of these laws, so clearly designed by the Algerian authorities to defend the regime from any future source of destablisation.
Meanwhile, control of the hydrocarbon sector and its rent flows remains an efficient tool to purchase social peace (public sector wage increases etc.) even if this strategy is not sustainable in the long-term.
2012: Peaceful movements of protest in Laghouat & other oil and gas cities
However, these excessive attempts to protect the authoritarian structures cannot stifle socio-economic protest against unemployment (20-25% of the youth is unemployed, source IMF), the housing crisis (unsanitary housing conditions, overpopulated houses, social housing favoritism), obsolete health infrastructures, the lack of economic dynamism, corrupt local governance, the failures of the school system etc. The protests about unemployment, housing and public services have engendered solidarity between citizens of all ages over the last weeks. The shift from socioeconomic demands toward the politization of the movement (including a call for regional magistrates to step down, denunciation of corrupt and failed local governance etc.) contradicts the postulate that Algerian society is impermeable to universal aspirations of freedom, dignity and better living conditions. Furthermore, the country has known many massive movements of revolt and angry protest over the decades (1963, 1980, 1988, the dark decade). It is not doomed to suffer some kind of permanent fate or perennial status quo.
True, the political and institutional system – in which the military/intelligence services play a key political role – seems to be blocked and cannot be reformed without structural changes, an option that is excluded, de facto, by the regime. But there remains one alternative: the potential catalyst of democratic change in Algeria is certainly civil society.
Unfortunately civil society is closely controlled and regulated by these new laws that aim at ‘legalizing’ the previous abuses committed by the administrative and security authorities (a ban on meetings and demonstrations etc.). The opacity of the Algerian system also makes the situation more complex because of the existence of opposition parties who nevertheless work in cahoots with the authoritarian regime and many regime-affiliated or infiltrated associations, trade unions etc. that soon bring discredit to the rare independent initiative.
Protest in Algeria is often described in terms of recurrent, trivial and non-political local contestations. But the recent events in Laghouat – and other oil and gas cities – have been accompanied by peaceful protest which has lasted over a week. The sit-in and demonstrations in front of the wilaya headquarters have gathered unemployed persons together with the many who protest against the corrupt allocation of social housing (29 beneficiaries from the same family). They are denouncing foreign and Algerian hydrocarbon-extracting companies which do not use local employment agencies and do not offer any jobs to the inhabitants who live close to the giant gas field of Hassi R’mel (25% of the national gas production). The wilaya of Laghouat is criss-crossed by huge gas pipelines running towards Europe (Transmed & Maghreb-Europe) and the national oil company Sonatrach had to deal with a previous lengthy sit-in in Laghouat as recently as in 2010.
The peaceful dimension of the protest is inspiring – the demonstrators chanting “selmiya” (peaceful) in the videos and even offering flowers to the police. However most Algerian newspapers and the Algerian authorities promptly described the movement in negative terms as ‘violent riots’, distorting the reality. The demonstrations have been supported by a general strike on January 8 that paralyzed the city (teachers, administrators, bus drivers etc.) and expressed considerable local solidarity for the protest. However, on the sixth day of protest, the governor ordered the police to use tear gas to break up the peaceful demonstration in front of his headquarters and arrested around 30 persons including minors (arrested at home). The day after, the protestors called for the liberation of the persons arrested and the resignation of the governor. He refused to resign in a letter while recognizing the irregularities in the attribution of social housing.
However, the Algerian authorities are now deeply perturbed by this new form of solidarity between citizens in peaceful contestation that can no longer justify the use of force by the security forces. Many Algerians have shared the videos of Laghouat (posted by Yacine Zaid, human rights activist) on the social networks and one of them commented on Twitter, “the attitude of the demonstrators in Laghouat is similar to the atmosphere that preceded the massive protests of October 1988”. Even if state television persists in associating every youth initiative with criminal/violent acts; the professionalization of the demonstrations is undeniable (videos, organization, clear and non-negotiable demands, use of social networks) and Laghouat has given the rest of us a great example of peaceful action for democratic change in Algeria.
Nevertheless, it would be utopian to expect that this exemplary action has become the norm. Unfortunately, for many years now, most demonstrations have led to clashes and riots because the authorities refuse pointblank to recognise the innate purpose of civil society – that is to aggregate the claims, defend them, and to be a mediator in an ongoing dialogue with the state. But, the Algerian system does not tolerate an independent civil society and this total denial of rights encourages pathological relationships between state and non-state entities and leads to predictable and recurrent violence. The traditional alternative ‘violence or silence’ with which we have so often been confronted has become far too frustrating, anti-democratic and impossible to accept in 2012.
To conclude, the fact that these cities in particular – Skikda, Ourgla, Laghouat – are located at the heart of oil and gas fields regions emphasizes the relative inefficiency of the Algerian rentier state. The Algerian economic and bureaucratic model seems unable to offer job opportunities to most young unemployed people, including well-qualified graduate students. It cannot operate without massive corruption on various levels of society and yet does not consider the resolution of our socioeconomic difficulties as a vital priority. Over the last week, anger at housing has unleashed more violent clashes between the population and anti-riot forces in Oran and in the Cité Baraka in Algiers while the number of self-immolations is constantly on the increase. Algeria may celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence soon, but it is currently going through a pre-electoral turmoil that is particularly explosive and uncertain.
This article was first published on open Democracy, on the 30th of January 2012.