The Middle East Channel

Algeria’s protests in the shadow of Tunisia

Algeria’s protests in the shadow of Tunisia

Since the fall of Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Benali on Friday, four young Algerian unemployed have immolated themselves in imitation of the inspiration for the demonstrations that transformed their North African counterpart.  Riots taking place in Algeria last week only calmed down following the arrests of 1,100 people and didn’t end with the government’s decision to cut the price of oil and sugar. Some have even started a hunger strike, ironically snubbing sugar packages and oil bottles. 

The Algerian government claims that these events are typical bread riots by individuals angry about rising prices. But in fact the riots and peaceful demonstrations across the Maghreb are deeply political and not just economically inspired ‘bread riots.’  Admittedly the young protesters, sometimes only 14-years-old, would not claim to be members of a vast political movement. But there is no doubt that most of the rioters are demonstrating against a government system based on protecting the privileged and repressing everybody else. Beyond the price of food, these riots have revealed a new way to protest — one based on autonomous mobilizations and direct confrontation with the state.

The authorities have tried to delegitimize the protesters demands by describing the January, 2011 riots as only carried out by "lazy thieves" and by some "economic and political circles" which were uncomfortable with the government’s reforms. The fact that they are reading the anger in the street in such terms, and in terms of intrigues in advance of the 2014 presidential election, only reveals how out of touch and illegitimate the ruling elite has become.  

The Algerian government has also tried to deflect the political character of the insurgents’ claims by pretending to reduce inequalities through an unfair redistribution of social housing, or the subsidizing of imported products that only benefit speculators and the black economy. The unemployed — including those nominally in work who have not received their salaries for months — who have tried to commit suicide during the previous and latest riots are above all asking to be treated with dignity and respect. They reject the economic irrationality of a repressive state which, in paying its graduates $100 for useless jobs, simply immobilizes them.

Student strikes and Facebook calls for demonstrations launched these past few days have not been very successful, as people are scared of the police, or simply not well informed. However, one can see that the repression of both violent and non-violent marches has reinforced a political feeling of resistance. On the Internet, in cafes, at work or universities, everyone is calling for a change.

Far from believing that after the riots life will get back to normal, Algerians are looking for a way out. If the vast majority condemned the vandalism and robberies that took place last week, they also massively supported the protests. This sums-up the Algerian dilemma. How can citizens engage in a dialogue with their leaders while the country has been under a state of emergency since 1992, with peaceful demonstrations forbidden by decree since 2001?

This is the main lesson of the riots’ recurrence: Algerians are now looking for solutions independently of the regime’s promises which have gone unfulfilled for the last 40 years. Relying on themselves where the state fails is not something new to them. But paying for private lessons for their children to compensate for the failure of the state’s educational system, or asking for help from family to find a specific medicine or a record of civil status are solutions only for individual survival.

After each riot, more and more micro-mobilizations appear. Neighborhood associations have been created during the riots in order to protect the inhabitants, and are now volunteering for the reconstruction of what has been sacked. On YouTube, more and more citizens are shooting cases of corruption with hidden cameras. Mohamed Gharbi, an old anti-colonial fighter who killed a repentant terrorist who was threatening him, has seen his condemnation to death transformed into a prison term, thanks to the mobilization of ordinary citizens. All of these micro-initiatives are headed by young people who have not been socialized politically, but who are still trying to shift the domination of the government’s authoritarian policies.

Protests are not new, then, but the way Algerians are looking toward Tunisia places their struggles in a wider regional outlook. Circulating videos of their neighbors, rioters dream of the same insurrection. Algerian opposition political parties are also looking at the way Tunisian Islamists, leftists, students, human right and union activists stood together. 

After having lost 20 years exclusively looking for the consideration of the state, the Algerian opposition now needs to get on the ground and seek the recognition of the people. Whatever their ideology, all Algerian reformers should focus on the people’s need to get better organized politically in the coming days. Indeed, agreeing on basic demands for change without getting lost in partisan politics is definitively the main lesson of the Tunisian success story.

Amel Boubekeur is a research fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, and co-author of "Whatever Happened to the Islamists?"