The middle class is no longer in the middle

The middle class is no longer in the middle

Algeria Interface, October 23, 2002

Algeria’s middle classes have fallen prey to poverty and the gap between haves and have-nots yawns ever wider.

Algiers, 23/10/2002 – Is life worth living wonders Sid Ahmed, and if it is what is the cost of such living, he ponders. This 52-year old father of four recently heard his application to emigrate to Canada has been approved. His move to Quebec is now a formality, yet he is a sad and bitter man.

“I bought some fish at the market. First time in weeks,” he says. It cost him 8,000 dinars, a month’s wages. He sits in a tea room in the rue Didouche Mourad where of the customers noisy young men with time on their hands. “Under Boumediene [president from 1965 to 1978xx] I was an agrarian revolution militant. We believed Algeria had a future. Today our children think only of getting out of the country. My family kept at me to apply to emigrate. I didn’t think I had much chance, so when the Canadians said okay I though why not.”

Sid Ahmed was once a sales manager in a state-owned company. His wife, who retired at 50, is now a home-maker and keeps the family going. “We need 100,000 dinars a month but we only have half,” she says.

Yet although Sid Ahmed and his family struggle to get by, they consider they are privileged: they have roof over their heads and a car, and the children are all at school or university.

Squaring the circle
Adnane is in his thirties and lives in a hotel in rue Harrichede in downtown Algiers. His room costs him 300 dinars a day, which comes out of his monthly salary of 12,000 dinars. He is left with 3,000 dinars for food and clothes and public transport. He has a two-hour journey to the school in the run-down suburb of Baraki where he teaches maths.

He is by turns wistful, angry and resigned. “Allah will provide,” he says. His dream is to be posted to a school in Algiers where he would have his own room and save on his hotel bill. If he could save a little he could get married to his fiancé, also a teacher whom he describes as a “good family girl”.

So he spends his time at the local education authority trying in vain to get his application through to the inspector. He does not know what to do and sometimes feels like he is squaring the circle. At time he wonders whether he should chuck it all and go into the pizza business. But every which way he turns he comes up against the problem of money. And when he sees somebody his age strutting his stuff at the wheel of a brand-new 4WD he realises Algeria still has a long way to go and looks ahead to a remake of the October 1988 uprising…only 10 times as violent.

Lucky to have a roof over his head
Official statistics put the number of Algerians living below the poverty line at 12 million. Unemployment is rife, reaching levels of 40%. No jobs, no housing, no water, no future and endemic violence – whole swathes of the country are disaster zones and the authorities are powerless to act.

The government might boast currency reserves of $22 billion, the economic situation of ordinary Algerians is desperate. Inward investment shows no signs of arriving, privatisation plans threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs and many companies which live on government loans. Both employers and employees fear Algeria’s eventual membership of the WTO, accords it has signed with the EU and rampant globalisation.

When young people look for work they have no choice but to take the odd jobs they find: peanut vendor, shoe-shiner, hairdresser’s assistant. Othmane, a mild-mannered 20-year old sells fabric in a busy street in Algiers. When the shop closes he stretches out on a foam rubber mattress and there he spends the night with a roof over his head.

He counts his blessings-year old because he knows that down by the seafront and in nightlife neighbourhoods, more and more people sleep rough. Most are women with children, who have been kicked out on to the street by their husbands. The entrance halls of downtown apartment blocks have become dormitories after nightfall. Some of the rough sleepers are clerks who work in nearby government offices.

Sadek is an old man. At 70 he has sold the house in the Upper Algiers quarter of Kouba in which he has lived since Independence. With the proceeds of the sale he has bought two flats. It was the only way his 30-year old daughter and his sons could set up house and home. He now lives in the house his elder son, Aziz, recently built. Says Aziz: “It’s a vicious circle. We used to live with him, he now lives with me.”

There are similar stories of the demise of the middle class to be heard in cafés all over Algiers. Society has gradually become to be made of two extremes that look over the divide once filled by the middle classes. At one end of the spectrum are those who lack the basic necessities of life, at the other are those who can afford the luxuries for which the fancy takes them.

Middle-aged Mohammed is a qualified sociologist. He harbours no illusions. “It’s an endgame we’re playing now. We once had a beautiful dream but we missed out. So once again the country will come to blows. Violence is the only language everybody understands in this country.

Mustapha Chelfi