Friday, February 18, 2011
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in power since 1999. 74 years old.
Center of Action - May 1st Square
Chief Opposition: National Coordination for Change and Democracy (NCCD)
Algeria protesters to stage new anti-regime rally
(AFP) – Feb. 18
ALGIERS — Algerian protestors are due to hold a new anti-government rally Saturday in the heart of the capital, a week after 2,000 demonstrators braved 30,000 riot police at the same place. On Friday, police were already out in force around May 1 Square, the site of last week's rally and where the next one is set to begin.
Both have been organized by National Coordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD), a month-old umbrella group made up of the political opposition, the Algerian human rights league and trade unions.
Another anti-government protest is scheduled to start an hour earlier in the Mediterranean city of Oran, where -- contrary to a week ago -- local officials changed course and authorised it.
Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said Algerian authorities did not receive a formal request to authorise the protest in Algiers, where demonstrations have long been banned.
"To my knowledge there was no request to march," Medelci said, speaking in Madrid.
"Perhaps there was a will to do so but we are an administration which functions in a transparent manner and we respond when we are solicited."
Meanwhile, posters against the demonstration sprouted on the walls of the capital on Friday night.
"Don't march on my tranquility and my freedom," one said.
Another, unsigned, appealed to residents of May 1 Square to fly an Algerian flag from their balconies "as a sign of love for their country."
A group of youngsters there said they were clueless about the possible author.
"It's certainly the people in power," one said.
Algerian demonstrators have been emboldened by fellow anti-government protesters in neighbouring Tunisia and in Egypt that ousted the leaders of both north African countries.
Criticism of the government has widened to include a senior former leader of the Algerian regime, Abdelhamid Mehri, who called for sweeping political changes in the north African country in an open letter to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika Thursday.
Mehri, a onetime secretary general of the ruling National Liberation Front and government minister, accused the regime of being "incapable of solving the thorny problems of our country...and even less so of preparing efficiently for the challenges of the future, which are even more arduous and serious."
The CNCD wants the immediate end of Bouteflika's regime, citing the same problems of high unemployment, housing and soaring costs that inspired the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Those grievances also triggered early January riots in Algeria that left five dead and more than 800 injured.
A protest called by the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) in Algiers on January 22 also left many injured as police blocked a march on parliament.
Like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, the protesters have used Facebook and text messages to spread their call for change.
For its part, the Algerian government has recently announced a series of conciliatory measures including lifting the country's 19-year state of emergency by the end of February.
Bouteflika has also called on state-owned broadcasting companies to offer coverage of officially authorised political parties and organisations -- a key demand of the opposition -- and acted to curb price rises.
But the CNCD says these steps are not enough.
In power since 1999, Bouteflika, who turns 74 next month, was reelected in 2004 and again in 2009 after revising the constitution to allow for an indefinite number of terms.
Algiers on Tuesday. Although conditions are ripe for revolt, the upheavals of neighboring countries are unlikely to be immediately repeated in Algeria.
By ADAM NOSSITER
Published: February 18, 2011
ALGIERS — Even as North African neighbors have smoldered, the oil-producing giant Algeria has kept a sullen calm in the wake of a stifled protest march here last week, with the regional upheaval, for now, not catching on.
Enlarge This Image
Sidali Djarboub/Associated Press
Algerian protesters on Feb. 12. Demonstrators were estimated to be vastly outnumbered by the police.
The New York Times
A store window in Algiers reflected men waiting for a bus. For now, street protests appear to be the expression of a minority.
Police officers deployed widely in the whitewashed streets to tamp down an antigovernment rally on Feb. 12, and they are expected to do so again on Saturday, though pro-democracy activists and a handful of opposition parties vow to go ahead with the march anyway.
The government has promised concessions in the wake of the turbulence that has swept the region, accelerating vows to lift a years-old state of emergency and speaking of new jobs and housing. A top official appeared Thursday night on state television to talk of “errors that must be corrected.”
Discontent with the government is real. Five died in riots in January, and hundreds of small protests throughout the country punctuated all of 2010, analysts say. The repression, youth unemployment and large-scale corruption that provoked uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt exist here, too, they said.
Conditions are ripe for revolt. But the upheavals in those neighboring countries are unlikely to be immediately repeated in this vast desert nation of 34 million, four times the size of France, say analysts and some political figures here. The scars of a decade of recent civil war are still too fresh — more than 100,000 people were killed during the 1990s in a bloody uprising of Islamists that was brutally repressed by the army.
The government is awash in oil money — Algeria has Africa’s third-largest proven reserves — and is adept at distributing it to dull discontent: wages for civil servants have risen 34 percent recently, according to the International Monetary Fund. The ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 73, is a holdover from the earliest days of independence but is considered a mere figurehead for aging military officers who hold real power, but whose precise identities are considered opaque.
“The real deciders, who are they?” asked one of the demonstration leaders, Mostefa Bouchachi, the head of the Algerian League for Human Rights.
Opposition parties with long memories of compromises made during the decade of Islamist insurgency distrust one another and appear uninterested, for the moment, in coalescing around a common set of grievances.
For now, little sense of revolutionary fervor bubbles up from the smart shops and winding hilly streets of a seaside capital that claims insurrection along with Parisian-style edifices as its heritage. The generation that waged guerrilla war against the French a half-century ago still wields power, now rich from oil but nationalist talk intact — providing both an irritant and a hold on the population, over half of which is under 30.
Yet credible estimates of the Feb. 12 demonstration at an austere intersection called May 1 Square put the turnout at no more than a few thousand, vastly outnumbered by the police.
“There is enough anger, but is anger enough? I don’t think so,” said Karim Tabbou, national secretary of the largest Algerian opposition party, the Socialist Forces Front. His party is snubbing the demonstrations, which are banned under the emergency laws but which smaller opposition groups vow will be repeated every Saturday until the government changes.
“Most Algerians don’t want to risk an adventure,” Mr. Tabbou said. “Physical confrontation, Algerians want no part of that.”
“Symbolically, people are still traumatized by what happened before,” he said. “The authorities play on this fear,” he added. Indeed, police checkpoints and roadblocks, ostensibly to counter the Islamists, still exist in many parts of the capital.
For now, the street protests here appear to be the expression of a minority, even among those who oppose the government. In particular, the political party leading the movement, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, is distrusted for having backed the army’s brutal campaign against the Islamists in the 1990s.
The country’s “democratic forces must do an immense amount of work to reconstruct their credibility,” said Luis Martinez, an Algeria specialist at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris, noting that they were “associated with the repression of the Islamists” and were considered to have “played the regime’s game.”
The government of Mr. Bouteflika — he was re-elected to a third term with a widely derided 90 percent of votes in 2009 — is not popular, Mr. Martinez and other analysts said, but neither is the opposition.
The protests are being pushed by “elite intellectuals,” said Nacer Meghenine, who runs a youth cultural organization in the working-class neighborhood of Bab el Oued. He opposed the Feb. 12 rally, even though he said he believed that “the people are demanding radical change.” It is not going to come through Algeria’s political parties, however, in Mr. Meghenine’s view.
“The day the people go out on the streets, they’re not going to ask for permission,” Mr. Meghenine said.
His neighborhood was packed with street vendors and men and women, some veiled, doing their daily shopping. The riots that broke out here in January were provoked partly by police harassment of the men making their living selling in the street — what one shoe seller, Amar Laksas, called, “injustice, contempt, no work.” Though he took part in those earlier protests, he did not demonstrate on May 1 Square.
Down the street, about 40 families are crammed into the shell of what was a pharmaceutical factory; raw sewage flows through a makeshift pipe system into the building’s basement. A third of Algerians live on less than $2 a day, Mr. Martinez said.
“There is a feeling of injustice in this country,” Mr. Bouchachi said.