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On Algeria’s recent riots

October 26, 2009
by

I recently wrote an overly-long post about the setting that has produced the riots in Diar Echems, the run down and over crowded neighborhood in Algiers that has recently exploded with  protests-cum-riots. Though the violence in Diar Echems has piqued western media attention, riots and urban unrest, are common in Algeria, and struck the famous Bab el-Oued not long before Diar Echems’s residents hit the streets — Annaba, Souq Ahras, Tizi Ouzou and Illizi (among other towns) have also seen rumblings in recent months. Images of the confrontations between the security forces and youths, who posture triumphantly on top of overturned cars and rubbish, are all over YouTube and chain emails in Algerian communities abroad. Those images contrast starkly with the emails that have become popular in the diaspora during the last month, videos of Algeria’s victory over Rwanda and Algerians in North America and Europe celebrating in the streets. World Cup or none, Algeria’s problems persist.

Here are the important parts of the post.

El Watan ran an article on the “culture of rioting,” that has become common place in Algeria. Its emphasis is primarily urban but recognizes that over the last ten years, riots have taken place in all the major areas, especially the medium and small sized ones, almost always involving young men broken into factions or pushing back against the police or gendarmes. El Watan lists the riots over “bread, football, gas, and electricity” caused by “social injustice, corruption, hogra, nepotism, cronyism, non-management [not mismanagement, “la non-gestion”] and non-governance,” pointing to “inter-neighborhood violence in Bab el-Oued, inter-communal clashes in Berriane and Illizi and tribal conflicts in Djefla, Laghouat and Bejaia.” Venturing to explain this violence it quotes an Algerian social scientist who connects it to “the failure of State patronage,” a lack of fair distribution of the benefits of clienteleism, and “the political crisis, which refuses the institutionalization of social conflict, the autonomous expression of claims and the political representation of society” forcing those excluded from and faceless within the system to violence. In another piece this week, El Watan reported bluntly: “The ‘wretched of the earth’ still exist in Algeria in 2009.”

*****

This week has seen days of rioting between youth and police in Diar Ech-Chems, a neighborhood in Algiers. The violence has shocked many in the capital, as rioting has mostly taken place in medium-sized cities until recently. The youth have taken to hurling bricks, Molotov cocktails and rocks at riot police. As these things often due, it began with a demonstration by the residents of the ramshackle semi-finished housing complexes — that is, the realization of president Bouteflika’s promise for 6 million new housing units — chanting “كرهنا الوعود الكاذبة” (We hate false promises!”). The government has built some 1500 apartments for a community of 25,00. Those left out set up tin huts on foot-ball pitches, to the government’s displeasure. El Khabar writes that those protesting claimed to have attempted to register their complaints over their housing situation, including living twelve people living in an apartment, a lack of prayer spaces, exposed electrical wiring — “deadly to the touch” — and leaky water pipes, but were ignored by authorities. All of this not minutes from the presidential palace. Thus, they took to the streets hoping that they would attract the attention of the media and the authorities’ sense of shame. Instead, police (and then riot police) attempted to disperse their demonstration, resorting to tear gas, sending many to the hospital. By the time women and the elderly were handled, the young men took back to the streets in reprisal, and by the next day 100 demonstrators, mostly young men, were struggling against 400 riot police. When municipal leaders finally ventured to address the people, the impression was not relief. Instead, residents who protested, and whose shanty homes were disrupted by the security forces (these are the ones who did not get put up in the already crumbling housing projects), fumed that “the mayor has forgotten his promises during the campaign which was to help us maintain our tin houses, but now that he is in office he just wants to defend the law as it is.” It is a familiar story.

*****

Algeria will continue to rumble so long as political, and consequently economic and social, life is the exclusive purview of a narrowing elite. Algeria’s rulers rule by notables with no constituencies, as the repeated failures at mediation and “reconciliation” in Berriane have shown. Any analysis that reduces the greatest threat to stability in Algeria to political Islam or terrorism dangerously misses the fundamental sources of Algeria’s troubles.

That one nowadays sees young men tearing up their habitat shows that the forces  reigning dominant over the Algerians does so very precariously and very weakly. That the “hypothetical rule of law” El Watan bitingly denounces is very likely just that, and is as transitory as the other periods of order in Algerian history. What the rioters are saying is that they find no voice within the political system, which they hardly recognize as having much to do with them anyhow, and demanding that it engage them on their own terms. The development of the Algerian State, however, has grown ever more in the direct of the unresponsive and rigid one that the early elite sought to avoid. What Algerians are left with is a “national reconciliation process” that has neither reconciled any contradictions, political or economic, nor resolved any of the fundamental problems that have made the relationship between the mass of the people and the State so painful and so destructive. The reconciliation process has meant the cooptation of all the ideals and leaders that were at one point held to be credible and legitimate in the eyes of the people. Nowadays one is hard pressed to find a political outlet for the youth or the unlucky. A diplomat told Reuters:

“I do not see this as an immediate threat to the government,” he said. “But it does highlight growing popular dissatisfaction with the government, which is only likely to increase.”

Popular dissatisfaction does not pose an immediate threat to the government because the current order has roughly the same expiration date as the President, who is likely to die in office. But it poses a serious threat to the long term stability of Algeria going into the next ten years.

Broken promises, elite impunity and fundamental dishonesty within the political class reveal, as Amel Boubekeur writes²: “the less the state engages in dialogue with the street, the more the street will resort to violence and abandon the tools of voting and peaceful demonstrations.” But even more: the more the State fails to meet the basic demands coming from the street — such as the fundamental respect for the rights and dignity of citizens, livable housing, decent education and a sense that someone within the structure regards the people with something other than contempt — the less it is likely that Algeria will see even medium term social and political stability, especially after Bouteflika passes out of office. Algeria’s chief problem is not Islamism or any other ideology. Rather, it is a political elite whose primary interest is its own power, at any price.

The rest is here.

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