Algeria is no stranger to uprisings

Although the protests of recent weeks fall short of a revolution, dissatisfaction is mounting in Algeria and will not abate without concrete solutions

As regimes have collapsed around it in recent weeks, to say that Algeria has been an island of tranquillity would be an exaggeration. The food riots that broke out across North Africa in early January in response to rapidly rising prices drew thousands of Algerians out to protest.

Since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in Tunisia, weekly demonstrations have been organised in the streets of Algiers and protests have been held throughout the country.

And in a nation not renowned for its political openness, a new organisation has been set up to bring together opposition parties, trade unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in a call for substantive political change.

Common uprising issues

There are significant common elements between the circumstances of the population of Algeria and of those countries in which uprisings have taken place.

These include high unemployment, particularly among the youth, an inequitable distribution of resources and a political system from which the bulk of the population is disenfranchised.

Unemployment in Algeria is about 10 per cent. Almost three quarters of those without jobs are under the age of 35 and a substantial proportion of them have a university education.

This situation has become increasingly hard for people to accept in a country that enjoys huge hydrocarbon revenues. Oil and gas receipts have enabled Algeria to build up foreign exchange reserves in excess of $150bn, but the government has been unable to translate this wealth into improving the quality of life of the ordinary citizen.

Despite there being much common ground between Algeria and its neighbours, the results of political demonstrations in Algiers and other towns have been not nearly so spectacular as elsewhere in the region. Government security forces have maintained control of the protest movement with apparent ease. There has been no crisis of government and, two years into his third term as president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika remains unchallenged.

To judge the achievements of Algeria’s dissidents by comparison with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, which are each experiencing their most dramatic period of change for decades, is to use an unfair yardstick.

Algeria only recently emerged from a decade-long civil war that began in 1992, following cancelled parliamentary elections in which an Islamic party was poised to win the majority of seats. The conflict lead to the deaths of 150,000-200,000 people. A generation before, an estimated 1.5 million Algerians lost their lives in an eight-year-long war of independence from France. It is no surprise that there is little appetite for a return to violent protest.

There are other important differences between Algeria and its neighbours. Although the rights of its citizens are heavily proscribed, Algeria allows a degree of criticism that would never have been permitted in any of the countries currently in the middle of political revolution. Algeria’s press is one of the freest in the region, with several independent newspapers openly criticising the government and its leaders on a daily basis.

There is also a degree of tolerance for the expression of public discontent, with strikes and economic protests commonplace. According to government figures, there were almost 11,000 such actions in 2010 alone.

Protests gaining momentum

The significance of the protest movement in Algeria in recent weeks should not be underestimated just because it has failed to topple the government.

The protests in early January against rising food prices were quickly bought off by the government’s introduction of price caps. But demonstrations on 12 February and 19 February attracted several hundred participants, despite a security presence that numbered close to 30,000. Organisers have pledged to continue to hold weekly protests until their demands are met.

Not only has the recent civil action defied a government ban on street demonstrations in Algiers, but its agenda has been more overtly political than has typically been the case.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.