en Algeria hit by riots as rebel threat recedes

Algeria hit by riots as rebel threat recedes

By Paul de Bendern Reuters, 27 Jan 2005

ALGIERS, Jan 27 (Reuters) – Disillusioned youths are rioting with increasing frequency across Algeria as social problems become a new headache for a government still focused on fighting a long-running Islamic rebel uprising. Youths have burned and looted public buildings and set up road blocks in towns across the oil-rich North African country almost daily over the past month. They are protesting over a rise in the cost of living and a lack of housing and jobs. « Youths are striking back and unless the government wakes up and helps the poor and disillusioned, riots will spread, » Malek Serrai, head of think-tank Algeria International Consult, said on Thursday.

Algeria last experienced serious riots in 2001 and before that in 1988 when a popular movement forced authorities to scrap the one-party rule in force since independence in 1962. Demonstrations are rare in a country with tight security and a state of emergency in place since 1992, when the cancellation of elections a hardline Islamic party was set to win sparked more than a decade of violence. The government, focused on fighting rebels and bringing Algeria out of a decade of isolation, has struggled to meet the demands of such a young population, increasingly restless now that the security situation has improved.

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has blamed the rioting on politicians manipulating the young. « Order will be preserved and the law will be rigorously enforced, » he said this week. To try to stop the unauthorised demonstrations, dozens of people have in recent days been jailed for disturbing public order and destroying state property. On Thursday, newspaper Le Soir d’Algerie said five people received six month sentences for riots 10 days ago in towns in the Mohammadia province for disorder and property destruction. Six youths were also sentenced to eight months in jail for their part in riots when 3,000-5,000 inhabitants of Birine, some 200 km (120 miles) south of the capital, took to the streets on Jan. 17 to protest against a rise in gas prices.

STRONG-ARM TACTICS FAILING?

Anti-riot police have intervened in a dozen towns in recent weeks often using batons, tear gas and water cannon to disperse crowds. Dozens of people, including police, have been injured. Analysts worry the strong-arm tactics are not working because much of Algeria’s youth — with 75 percent of the 33 million population below 30 — see no future for themselves. « The street has become the last way to get heard, » said Mahmoud Belhimer, editor and professor at Algiers University. The government has promised to spend $50 billion to boost infrastructure, including one million lodgings, and create jobs in a country where unemployment is around 25 percent.
Critics say local government corruption and bureaucracy has meant projects have not been finished. More than 65,000 flats finished a year ago have not been distributed, partly because of accusations of local corruption, analysts said. « The reduced terrorist threat means the young no longer fear opposing the authorities. The government is facing its biggest challenge since terrorism began, » Serrai said.

Algeria’s top Islamic rebel group, the al Qaeda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, is reeling from arrests and killings of hundreds of members. But attacks like one this month that killed 13 soldiers and five militiamen show it is far from wiped out.