en Broad-Based Revolt Gains Momentum in Algeria

Broad-Based Revolt Gains Momentum in Algeria

By Keith B. Richburg Washington Post Foreign Service Friday, June 15, 2001

ALGIERS — As a sweltering Mediterranean summer takes hold, social unrest is exploding in many parts of Algeria, fueled by high unemployment, a critical housing shortage, a stalled economy and a creaky, outdated political system that people see as both repressive and opaque.

In the Kabylie region east of here, security forces have shot dead as many as 80 people and wounded hundreds in a drive to quell seven weeks of anti-government protests by members of the Berber minority. Elsewhere, Algerian journalists have rallied for press freedom and women have marched for an end to repression. Family members of the thousands of people who disappeared during Algeria’s decade-long civil war gather for weekly vigils.

Here in the capital, demonstrations have been the largest in a decade, demanding civil liberties and an end to corruption. [Hundreds of thousands of people paraded through the city yesterday, with riot police charging the protesters as they neared the presidential palace, the Associated Press reported. Two Algerian journalists were killed in the violence when they were run over by a bus.]

« It is the reaction of young people revolted at the economic situation, and they have political demands and they want more liberty, » said a human rights activist in Tizi Ouzou, a major town in the Kabylie region.

For the last decade, Algeria has been known for one of the world’s bloodiest wars, between government forces and Muslim insurgents. But now, with the world hardly taking notice, that war has been largely isolated to remote mountain areas. And the government finds itself facing a more broad-based street revolt, led by discontented youths who have no religious agenda but worry instead about the oppressive quality of daily life.

What some young people term their « intifada » — modeled after the Palestinian uprising and adopting the Arabic word to describe it — has become the most pressing challenge faced by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his backers, a shadowy clique of generals and power brokers who are collectively known as Le Pouvoir, or The Power. For now, they are hanging on.

« The terrorist threat they’ve learned to live with, » said one European diplomat. « It’s been marginalized and is only affecting people mainly in the countryside. I believe the social-economic problem is their greatest threat. »

Bouteflika came to power two years ago with a promise of peace and amnesty for Islamic insurgents whose rebellion had claimed about 100,000 lives. He has succeeded in dampening the violence: Deaths are down to about 150 a month from a peak of 2,000, although many Algerians say the violence began waning in 1997, before Bouteflika took office.

With the winding down of the war, this once-gracious seaside capital, like the other main cities, has restored some semblance of normality. Diplomats are venturing out of their fortified compounds to travel around the city far more frequently these days, but still with armed protection. The U.S. Embassy in Algiers, which has 31 American staffers, half of them for security, has its first public affairs officer in five years, and next month will host its first Fourth of July reception in nine years.

It is only foreign journalists who are still told by the Algerian government that they must travel with a police bodyguard each time they set foot out of their hotels.

Under Bouteflika’s amnesty program, thousands of guerrilla fighters laid down their arms to return to their home villages, often to the horror of neighbors who lost family members and can recognize the culprits.

The amnesty program, called the civil concord, has proved controversial on another level. On a narrow side street in the congested downtown of Algiers, dozens of women — some weeping, some angry — gather each day outside the office of a group assisting terror victims. The women’s complaint is that their sons or husbands have been killed by the Islamic militants, and the compensation they receive from the government is less than what the terrorists got for accepting the amnesty.

« We accept the civil concord, » said Seoud Aicha, whose husband was killed in a 1997 bomb attack, leaving her with three children. « But the president swore to us in his campaign speeches, he swore to the widows, that he would give us all our rights. But he lied to us. He didn’t do anything. We are in trouble. »

While their plight is worse, these victims are also suffering from the same problems as Algerians not directly touched by terrorism — an economy collapsing under years of Soviet-style mismanagement and corruption, and a government unable to deliver some basic services. Algeria is actually rich in resources, with one of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas and a large supply of oil to sell. But as one Algerian journalist here put it, « The petrol receipts are better — but at the same time, the misery has increased. »

Despite Bouteflika’s lofty promise that « everything will change, » an effort to reform the country’s socialist-modeled economy through privatization and banking deregulation has largely stalled, either because of a lack of political will or opposition from vested interests among the ruling clique.

Foreign capital is still coming to the oil and gas industries; U.S. interests have $4 billion invested in Algeria and more than 500 Americans reside here. Oil and gas now provide 85 percent of the government’s revenue.

But otherwise foreign investment is stagnant, no longer because of worries about terrorism but because of a sense of general economic malaise.

The banking system is archaic; credit cards are impossible to use in most places and checks can take more than a month to clear. Telecommunications, including the mobile phone network, are a shambles. The legal system is corrupt, with no guarantees that contracts can be enforced.

« They’ve talked for quite a while now about the need for change, » said a European diplomat here. « Privatization. Banking deregulation. Opening up the internal market. Lots and lots of talk, lots and lots of plans. But no action. »

The biggest problem, and the one apparently stoking the widespread unrest, is unemployment. The unemployment rate is officially estimated at about 30 percent, but among people under 25 it is thought to be closer to 80 percent, according to Algerian journalists, businessmen and diplomats. The teeming streets of Algiers and its ancient Casbah quarter are filled with idle young men, many of whom say the only hope of escape is flight to France, Canada or the United States as a refugee.

It is that simmering frustration that has fueled the often violent protests in the Berber-speaking Kabylie region, east of the capital. The trigger for the unrest was the death April 18 of a teenager who was taken into custody by the gendarmes, the national police based in the region. Protests turned to violence, with near daily reports in surprisingly robust newspapers of new clashes and new deaths.

The demands of the protesters at first were limited and included a withdrawal of the gendarme unit responsible for the violence and such cultural initiatives as official recognition of the Berber language and culture. But as protests and violent crackdowns became a deadly cycle, the demands soon escalated to calls for a complete removal of Le Pouvoir, and for democracy and an end to corruption — not just in the Berber region, but in all of Algeria. The young protesters were joined in separate marches by women, journalists and lawyers.

During a recent visit, parts of Tizi Ouzou resembled a combat zone, with street lamps uprooted and turned into makeshift barricades, tires and other debris burning at key junctions and several streets blockaded by protesters. « This is our intifada! » said a young man holding rocks in one hand and a bandanna covering his face from the sting of tear gas in the air. The Palestinian revolt, with its images of defiance broadcast nightly on French and Arabic satellite television channels, has inspired many of the young protesters here.

What has struck analysts most about the protests is that they have been sustained over many weeks and have been relatively spontaneous, without orchestration by any of the traditional opposition political parties. And perhaps most important, this time there is no Muslim religious component, unlike during the country’s last period of widespread unrest, in 1989-90.

The government has tried to portray the uprising as an isolated case of Berber cultural demands from a region with a long history of restiveness. But many people in Tizi Ouzou and Algiers reject that characterization.

« Before, people were afraid to speak out, » said one professional woman who joined a march. « But the young people understand well now. The shortages, the unemployment — they are fed up. » She added, « I didn’t go out because of Berber language demands. I went because of the crisis. People are fed up. »

In a massive Berber rally in Algiers on May 31, which drew hundreds of thousands to the largest march in more than a decade, the crowd at one point chanted to onlookers: « Please understand, this is a national problem! »

Are the demands from the street reaching Le Pouvoir? Bouteflika responded first with a call for a commission of inquiry, then a withdrawal of some of the police units from the Kabylie region. Later, he reshuffled his cabinet. But these moves have been criticized by the increasingly strident opposition as too little, too late from a man who, at 64, is widely seen as out of touch with a young and angry nation.

Bouteflika was foreign minister in the 1960s and 1970s, when he helped make Algeria a leading voice for Third World causes. But he spent most of the 1980s and 1990s abroad. Since returning from self-imposed exile to win the presidency in 1999 under a cloud — the six other candidates withdrew, claiming the vote was rigged — he has spent much of his time traveling out of the country.

He helped negotiate a cease-fire between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and has toured world capitals promoting Algeria as recovering from its civil war. But critics say he is mired in Cold War rhetoric and spends more time jet-setting than addressing his own country’s difficulties.

« The president goes off to America, to England, everywhere, but he doesn’t sort out his problems at home, » said a taxi driver, offering an unsolicited comment on Bouteflika. « The problem here is, we are a state of generals. »

One newspaper cartoon here showed Bouteflika leaving his presidential jet and stepping onto a red carpet, which led directly to another jet. A joke making the rounds is that Bouteflika is planning an official visit — to Algeria.

A lingering and unanswered question here is: How independent is Bouteflika? Some see him as a mere figurehead of the shadowy Pouvoir. Others assert he is a real reformer who finds himself circumscribed as he tries to pull Algeria’s crusty political and economic system into the 21st century.

« He has no power, because he was never really elected, » said a well-connected Algerian journalist. « He does not have a free hand, because he is blocked. The majority of generals want to fire him, but the question is how. They are worried about the international reaction. »

« I think there’s a divergence of interests, » said a Western diplomat. « I think he would like to do more, but he cannot, because of Le Pouvoir. The situation is so hot for the president, he has two options: leave everything as it is, or hope these young people go on making pressure, so he will be able to change things. This might help him implement his reforms.

« We are at a crossroads now. »