Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Protests in Algeria

The authorities in Algeria succeeded in containing mass demonstrations against price hikes in the country this week, writes Kamel Abdallah

The Algerian authorities succeeded in containing mass protests in the Bejaia Province and some areas of the Al-Bouira Province 250 km east of the capital Algiers on 2 January that saw protesters use roadblocks and set a bus on fire.

The demonstrations were in protest against price hikes and the country’s 2017 budget, but no political forces came out in support of the protests and “unknown instigators” were accused of inciting the demonstrations in order to “destabilise Algeria.”

However, the protests have grown in number, and they are casting a shadow over political conditions in the country.

Observers warn that Algeria may witness another wave of the Arab Spring, since Algeria’s neighbour Tunisia experienced similar protests at the beginning of the revolution in 2011 to what has been occurring in Algeria at the start of 2017.

Some 62 people were injured in clashes between the police and demonstrators, and matters were made worse when the police used tear gas against the crowds. The Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying that “dozens of saboteurs were arrested while vandalising or looting private and public property. Many stolen items were recovered by the security forces.”

The Algerian media reported that vandalism and looting was spreading, including at an electronics showroom, the national tobacco company and a private bank, as well as at bus stations where rubbish containers were set on fire, according to the Algerian Al-Khabar newspaper.

“Our country did not experience the Arab Spring, and the Arab Spring had nothing to do with us,” declared Algerian Prime Minister Abdel-Malek Sellal on the sidelines of a cultural event on 6 January.

“Algeria’s strength lies in its stability and in its people who are capable of resisting outside attempts to destabilise it,” he said. “Calls have been made by unknown elements to destabilise Algeria. But this is not a serious threat. It is the work of a handful of malcontents in provinces like Bejaia,” he added.

Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui told a meeting with civil society representatives on 3 January that security and stability was “the cornerstone of all development programmes” in Algeria aiming at improving the standard of living of the country’s citizens.

“The security and stability enjoyed by Algerians today was until recently just a dream that superseded other concerns and even rights and duties,” according to the official Algerian news agency, referring to the unrest that hit the country in the 1990s.

Bedoui warned that many players at home and abroad wanted to destabilise the country, and he accused them of “working to fuel strife and plant doubt in the minds of Algerians, in order to test their patriotism, values and principles.”

These parties “have not and will not achieve their goals,” he said, which were “delusional”.

He described events in Bejaia and Bouira as being attempts to “impose the will of the few using force and violence,” adding that shop owners had been forced to close their businesses by fears of violence.

The government’s budgetary plans for 2017 had “not affected the purchasing power of Algerian citizens,” he said. 

Observers say the main reasons behind the protests in the country’s eastern provinces are the economic and social measures that have been taken by the government to offset the drop in oil prices.

These have been reflected in the 2007 budget that includes fees on commercial real estate and raising the prices of consumer goods such as petrol, electricity and staple foods. There has been a freeze on public-sector jobs and on raises in salaries until 2019.

Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika approved the budget for 2017 on 28 December, including raising VAT from 17 to 19 per cent, as well as hiking duties on real estate, fuel and tobacco.

The budget was based on oil prices at $50 per barrel, with fuel exports constituting 95 per cent of the country’s revenues. The budget projected “revenues of $51 billion, a 13 per cent increase over 2016,” according to a statement from the Algerian presidency.

The budget allocates $62 billion for government spending, including $14 billion in subsidies on consumer goods, housing and health. The defence budget remains the largest single item at $10 billion, followed by education and higher education at $9.5 billion each, and $3.5 billion each for health and the Ministry of the Interior.

The government approved the budget amid strong criticisms of Sellal’s government because of its perceived inability to address the crisis without introducing new taxes that are burdens on the poor and not addressing the problem of price hikes across the country.

Despite the little political momentum regarding the protests in Algeria, social demands continue to put pressure on the government to address the economic crisis before it worsens, in order to contain any possible escalation if the government continues to ignore the protesters’ demands.

Algerian activist Khaled Rabouh wrote in a Facebook post recently that the protests had not been taken up politically because of Algeria’s dark decade in the 1990s and the chaos resulting from the Arab Spring in Syria, Libya and Yemen that had dashed hopes of development and social justice.

Rabouh also referenced the Algerian political class, which had condemned the violence seen in the recent protests, and the belief of most Algerians in continuing the peaceful struggle to achieve democracy and development.

He said there was a “unique relationship between the army, the people and the political class,” since it had been the army that had led Algeria to independence from French colonialism in the 1960s.

On 7 January, Algerian activists launched a campaign on social media entitled “Algeria Above All” and “No to Violence” calling for the Algerian flag to be hoisted from balconies, office buildings and on streets across the country.

The aim was “to send a message to the world that Algerians want to protect their country and refuse to immerse it in strife and violence,” they said, referring to the limited impact of the protests in Bejaia and Bouira on public opinion.

The government asked preachers in mosques to emphasise the importance of societal peace during Friday sermons in a step meant to galvanise public opinion against any protests that may take place over the coming days as the new financial measures take hold.

The Algerian government seems to have benefited from the poor state of the political opposition in the country and its lack of credibility with domestic public opinion in its management of the crisis.

The country’s youth movements, Islamist groups and traditional opposition forces all lack credibility with the public. The legacy of the violence of the 1990s, the army’s support for the regime, the negative impact of the demonstrations on the national economy, and developments in regional countries explain the government’s success in managing the opposition over recent years.

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