Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Africa

Algeria: Current Issues *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Africa

Algeria: Current Issues *

Article excerpt

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: POLITICAL UNREST

Algerian citizens have carried out a series of riots, strikes, and protests, initially stemming from discontent over high food prices, since early January 2011. The protests have turned more overtly political since late January, with demonstrators calling for political reforms and using slogans that directly reference the recent public uprising in neighboring Tunisia-dubbed the -Jasmine Revolution"-that unseated Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.1 At least four Algerians have died from self-immolation, a phenomenon that has echoed across the region after a frustrated Tunisian street vendor helped spark the demonstrations there by setting himself on fire.

Urban riots and other civil disturbances, often led by unemployed youth, are common in Algeria and are sometimes tolerated by the authorities. However, the Algerian government is taking a defensive stance toward the recent unrest, despite official denials of potential -contagion" from Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region.2 Initially, the government attempted to address economic grievances by lowering the prices of key food commodities. This is a frequent tactic in Algeria, where oil and gas revenues may be used to buy off dissenters. On January 22, security forces initiated a crackdown, forcibly breaking up a -pro-democracy" protest in Algiers, and the Interior Ministry has since banned public demonstrations. A protest on January 29 in the eastern city of Béjaïa, in the region of Kabylie, was nonetheless tolerated; security forces largely withdrew from the area following an uprising in 2001 (see -Human Rights," below). The government has since taken further steps to assuage political opponents, notably by promising to repeal Algeria's -state of emergency," which has been in place since the start of the civil war in 1992 and enables a range of restrictions on civil liberties. Draft legislation that would lift the state of emergency was adopted by Algeria's parliament on February 22, according to press reports.

On February 12 and February 19, public demonstrations were organized in Algiers and other urban centers by a newly formed umbrella group of small opposition parties, civil society groups, and non-official trade unions, dubbed the National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD). In the capital, several thousand demonstrators turned out on both dates, according to witnesses, despite government attempts to preclude mass gatherings through the preventive deployment of tens of thousands of police and other security officers. (Government officials put the number of demonstrators in the hundreds.) Protesters were reportedly arrested and beaten by police at both February rallies, and some clashed with pro-government demonstrators who deployed at the same time. Still, security forces have so far shown greater restraint than in some countries in the region, and have not opened fire on crowds. The CNCD has called for further protests in the coming weeks. There have also been labor strikes, protests by the unemployed, and student demonstrations across the country; for example, reports in the local press indicate that security forces violently repressed a university student protest in front of the Ministry for Higher Education in Algiers on February 21.3

The CNCD coalition, whose operational strength, mass appeal, and cohesion are uncertain, has articulated several demands, including -greater democracy," the lifting of the 1992 state of emergency, the freeing of individuals detained during previous protests and riots, a loosening of state controls over the media, greater opportunities for employment, and -social justice."4 The creation of the CNCD echoes other recent attempts by civil society activists to channel antigovernment grievances, including the March 19 movement (2009) and the National Front for Change (November 2010). The political party that is most prominently involved in the CNCD is the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), a small, secularist, Berber-dominated party led by longtime activist Saïd Sadi. …

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