The Long March North

The Algerian government has a long track record of subduing protest movements. Is it about to meet its match?

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

OUARGLA, Algeria — The province of Ouargla, some 475 miles southeast of Algeria’s capital, has streets that are rutted or simply unpaved, slum villages with houses built upon sand, and a power grid that frequently balks at the demands made on it in the summer, when temperatures routinely break 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is also home to the Hassi Messaoud oil field, which by the government’s reckoning accounts for 71 percent of the country’s total oil reserves — a bounty of some $34 billion. There’s an old saying: "Algeria is a rich country but its people are poor." Nowhere is that more true than here in this desert oasis.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that popular opposition to Algeria’s authoritarian government has found a new wellspring in the South. The National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed  — often simply referred to as les chomeurs or "the unemployed" by Algerians — has been slowly spreading a campaign of protest northward from its Ouargla base. A nationwide appeal to make Sept. 28 a "day of rage" throughout Algeria resulted in modest but passionate protests in 25 of the country’s 48 provinces, including many in the North.

The movement caught the attention of the country on March 14 when 10,000 took to the streets in Ouargla, a city whose population is just over 100,000, to demand economic justice. Never before had the usually quiet desert region seen such popular mobilization, and since then the group has received sustained media attention, with some publications portraying it as the champion of Algeria’s underclass and others framing it as a dangerous regionalist movement.

"We saw a great solidarity after the 14th of March. People started coming to the movement in Ouargla from many different provinces. We succeeded that day," said Aibek Abdelmalek, the 25-year-old Tuareg who runs the movement out of his bedroom in his mother’s house.

For the last 15 years, Algerians have more or less accepted the military-backed regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who took credit for ending the decade of civil strife which cost over 100,000 Algerian lives in the 1990s. Given that the election of an Islamist party had brought about the years of violence, Algerians were happy to trade democracy for the stability guaranteed by Bouteflika and the powerful army generals who supported his rule. (The photo above shows him receiving Algeria’s prime minister in a Paris hospital earlier this year after the president’s treatment for a stroke.)

But Bouteflika’s reign brought about political stagnation that has ossified Algeria’s economy. Burdened by nepotism and cronyism, the economy has failed to give rise to a job-creating private sector.

"The regime is based on lies and corruption," said Taher Bel Abbès, the 33-year-old founder of the Committee, who serves as its charismatic front man. "When it makes promises [of more jobs] it is lying."

And though the 76-year-old Bouteflika’s health is failing, his thirst for power remains strong. A drastic government reshuffle in September has led to speculation that the president, or his entourage, is trying to stay in office well beyond the official end of his mandate at the end of the year. With reform looking less and less likely, more Algerians are losing faith in the government and its ability to provide for its people.

The problems that the Committee targets — corrupt government spending, lack of employment, and bad housing — are certainly not limited to the group’s home region. Algeria’s official 10 percent unemployment rate is relatively low for North Africa. That number, however, hides the fact that only 40 percent of the working age population is active in the labor force, meaning that a large portion of adults simply aren’t looking for traditional work. Much of this is can be attributed to workers who have given up on finding contractual employment and who rely on the informal economy for survival.

Many such economically excluded workers live in the shantytowns that have sprung up over the last decade around large cities. On a recent tour of the slums surrounding Algeria’s capital city led by activists with the Algiers chapter of the committee, this reporter spoke to many residents who said they had not had formal employment in years.

The case of Muammar Bouzidi, in his late 30s, is fairly typical. A father of three who lives in a cement shack he built in the neighborhood of Baraki (about 10 miles south of Algiers), Bouzidi hasn’t had a contract since 2007. Instead, he lives on odd electrical repair jobs he performs for other residents of the neighborhood. Last year, Bouzidi was granted a loan from a public credit fund to finance the purchase of a truck. Six months later, Bouzidi has yet to receive the money, and continues to work informally.

"I live with the help of God," said Bouzidi with a resilient smile.

The rise of the Committee comes at a time when Algeria’s traditional opposition, which has a long history of vocal activism, appears as enfeebled as the country’s elderly president. The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, which maintained a fiercely critical position towards the military government throughout the 1990s, is now rent by an internal power struggle. Algeria’s political parties are tainted by their participation in a parliament that the public largely sees as a façade for the real power of president and the army. And a richly adorned façade at that: Algerian parliamentarians make over eight times the salary of an average worker.

The Committee, on the other hand, finances itself with the pocket change of its members, and has refused any alliance with Algeria’s political parties.

"They are the only opposition movement that the government has not yet been able to somehow co-opt," said Adlène Meddi, the editor of the francophone-daily El Watan‘s weekend edition. "That’s something the state is definitely worried about."

Even those in Algeria’s established opposition acknowledge that the movement is growing in significance. Addouce Abbas, a veteran of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights in the northern city of Tizi Ouzou, admitted that the upstart Committee had to be taken seriously.

"We should listen to them," he said at an interview in his hometown in September. "The government is afraid of them. The government is always afraid of movements that are nebulous in nature because it’s more difficult to intervene directly. And unemployment is a real problem."

The authorities appear conscious of the need to tread lightly around the movement, alternating between repression and capitulation. On the eve of the massive March rally, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal promised more jobs for locals and an elimination of interest rates on microcredit loans for youth. That was a stark contrast to January, when Bel Abbès and several other organizers were held in jail for three days for organizing a peaceful protest. Bel Abbès has also been repeatedly denied a passport by authorities, a move Bel Abbès speculates is aimed at preventing him from drumming up international support.

More frequently, though, the government resorts to small concessions to the movement’s members in order to dissipate its effectiveness. The Algerian government has long known that the most effective tool at its disposal for combating social dissent isn’t the stick but the carrot: the buying of social peace through the distribution of handouts. This was how it managed to ward off a brief spate of Arab Spring-style protests triggered by the events in neighboring Tunisia in 2011. The protests left five dead and 800 wounded — and the Algerian government quickly countered by raising public salaries, increasing access to credit for youth, and boosting subsidies on sugar and cooking oil.

Some might argue that the Committee could be vying for the central government to sprinkle that same kind of manna more liberally over the desert terrain of the south. Its organizers, however, say they want something more: to build a social power base capable of rivaling the army and the government, Algeria’s traditional first and second estates.

"Civil society should be the third power. But where is the civil society in Algeria? It’s been bought out," said Bel Abbès. "We want to constitute that third power. We want to be a counterweight."

Such challenges to Algeria’s balance of power are often held in check by memories of the decade of violence that accompanied the country’s attempt at democratization in the early 1990s. Those memories keep the movement committed to non-violent tactics to the point of avoiding confrontation. When marchers in last month’s "day of rage" found their way blocked by riot police, some of the Committee’s more hot-tempered youth looked ready for a fight. But Bel Abbès quickly scampered up a palm tree to shout instructions to disperse through a megaphone. In a manner of minutes, everyone was headed home.

The Committee isn’t going to throw stones yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t open to calling for radical change.

"We can’t ask for the fall of the system because we’re just a part of society, not all of it. But if all of society starts asking for that change, than we are with them," said Bel Abbès.

Algerian society may not be ready to make such demands. But as a new generation, too young to have experienced the violence of the ’90s, reaches adulthood, change may be inevitable. The Committee, with its populist credentials and young leadership, may already be the avant-garde of that coming change.

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