Sidelined youth has no choice but to riot
Algeria Interface, June 21, 2002
Daho Djerbal, history lecturer at the University of Algiers and director of the review, NAQD, explores the significance of nationwide rioting in the past year and asserts that it is the expression of a total revolt.
Algiers, 21/06/02 – Since the spring of 2001 Algeria has been hit by widespread rioting prompted by causes ranging from security force heavy-handedness to water shortages. In itself rioting is nothing new: the 1980s saw serious rioting in Algiers in 1984 and in Constantine and Setif in 1986, culminating in the violent unrest of 1988 that was to bring about the demise of the single-party state. All were brief, albeit violent, explosions of public discontent. The unrest of the past year is significant in that it has lasted and affected so many parts of the country at once.
The longest-lasting troubles have been those that have affected the Berber heartland of Kabylia. They are unlike what has happened elsewhere in the country where unrest has broken out spontaneously and sporadically. Indeed, they are unique in that they have affected an entire region for so long.
The causes are part and parcel of daily life in Algeria: discrimination, police repression and torture. The death of the high school student that finally triggered the ongoing rioting in April 2001 was in essence just one more example of routine repression.
There seems to be no way to settle the conflict because there is no-one to broker it. Neither the, mostly young, demonstrators nor the authorities are able to agree on any common ground to commence negotiations or on an acceptable broker.
The reason is that for the first time since independence in 1962 an entire region is seeking reparation for the wrongs done to it.
The Kabyle protest movement, particularly the clashes with security forces, is driven by young people. Youth was also a major component of the protests in the 1980s even though workers, trade unionists and employees, too, joined.The demonstrations and rioting were essentially urban and saw the emergence of youth as an unpredictable, non-organised player on the political and social stage.
In Kabylia since June 14th, 2001, young people have forced political parties and the Berber Cultural Movement (MCB) to act on their own terms within the framework of the village and tribal committees (known as ‘arouch’) that have spring up to channel protest. Conventional party structures have had their day. Youth has emerged as a force that is independent of any private or public production mode or educational or cultural institution. Across Algeria, including Kabylia, people as a rule somehow find a place in the system either through private sector jobs, the civil service or the informal economy.
But this young generation has no place. By demanding a place and recognition for itself it poses a problem to both society and government. It has no channels of expression as it is outside traditional forms of organisation and expression which are also in crisis. Youth goes unheard and its only voice is rioting.
Pluralism took shape in Algeria at a time when society and the political system were entering a period of crisis. Initially political parties channelled expression and protest against the political power structure, while the Islamist movement was a challenge to secular society. Both have failed, leaving the way clear for new forms of protest.
Sidelined by the margins
As the wage-earning sector has collapsed the informal economy has risen. So much so that it has, paradoxically, been able to organise into networks and monopolies. It has moved into the state apparatus and political life, enjoying leverage in political parties, parliament, the judiciary, army and police. It has become part of the mainstream economy and is controlled at least in part by the state. Its integration has been facilitated by legislation to liberalise the economy with relaxed import requirements and tariffs, while people who made their fortunes from informal economy are well placed in parliament, the judiciary and in the country’s tax administration.
As it has moved into the mainstream, the informal economy has been appropriated by officialdom and no longer offers excess labour a livelihood. Young rioters therefore attack state symbols like the police stations, courthouses and tax buildings because the state apparatus serves the interests of a privileged few. In Kabylia they attack gendarmes and police stations because gendarmes are used by local oligarchies to protect and control local resources and private interests.
Across the country, especially in border regions like Tebessa, Souk Ahras and El Oued, these oligarchies have monopolised the movement of merchandise and capital in what was once the informal economy, so forcing young people out on to the margins of activities that were once themselves on the margins.
It follows, therefore, that their protest is a protest against society as a whole. They target not only the state but also the new bourgeoisie that has taken over the distribution of national revenue to further its own interests. So sweeping is the protest that it shuns the traditional symbols of power and the hierarchical nature of governance. As Kabyle youth has sought to organise, it has opted for a collegial system in an attempt to put in place a representational system that can be constantly renewed. Their mode of protest is immediate, direct action, that rejects authority, be it in the form of the state, the MCB, or the war of independence war founding-father veterans. The only representatives of these disaffected youths are themselves, acting in the here and now. They have no previous history to relate to nor any future prospect – hence the cul-de-sac they find themselves in.
The state, for its part, is well aware that its very existence is at issue. But because it believes it is in the right right and because it has might on its side its response is, increasingly, repression –just one sign of its failure to give its people a place and a role in the present or any prospect for the future.