Algeria launches charm offensive to head off unrest

ALGIERS Thu Mar 3, 2011 8:18am EST

People flock to a street where people sell wares in Algiers March 1, 2011. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

People flock to a street where people sell wares in Algiers March 1, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Louafi Larbi

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Ahmed Gotari, a 28-year-old unemployed man from the Algerian capital, has grown accustomed over the years to being treated dismissively when he calls on local officials to ask for a job.

So when he went this week to the district mayor's office, he was shocked at his reception: the mayor received him personally, welcomed him to his office and told him he would help.

"It was so great that I asked myself if he was going to bring me a coffee," Gotari told Reuters a few days later. "Not three months ago, we were treated like dogs and even the security guard would not look at us."

It is not an isolated case. Algeria's usually unbending officialdom is handing out business loans, letting off rule-breaking motorists, easing up on tax dodgers and turning a blind eye to people trading without a license.

What changed was the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and other parts of the Arab World.

Algeria's leaders, wary that their country, too, could succumb to a popular uprising, are taking unprecedented steps to try to win people over to their side.

Critics of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika say that despite its huge oil and gas resources, Algeria has deep structural problems: a lack of democratic freedoms, persistent unemployment and poor housing conditions.

These are issues that cannot be resolved overnight, so the authorities are targeting the problems that can be fixed.

"This is just an aspirin for somebody who has cancer. It would calm the pain for a while but it will not solve the problem," said Mohamed Lagab, a political analyst and teacher of political sciences at Algiers university.

BIGGER PROBLEMS

The government is not ignoring the bigger problems.

It lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency and gave opposition voices airtime on television, key demands of its opponents. It also is investing billions of dollars in modernizing the economy and building new homes.

But its tactic of focusing on day-to-day issues appears to be working -- at least for now.

In January there were several days of rioting across the country triggered by rises in the prices of sugar and cooking oil. Since then there has been no violence and a series of political protests has lost momentum.

Officials throughout Algeria have received instructions to take a more lenient approach with citizens.

In one example, police have been given instructions to take away the licenses of drivers who commit traffic violations only in "very grave" circumstances, according to a government document seen by Reuters.

An instruction signed by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia told the tax authorities to postpone some of their demands for payment.

A police officer said the authorities also were turning a blind eye to black market activity, known in Algeria as "trabendo," and which consists of youngsters selling cheap good in the street without a license.

"They don't pay taxes. We are not sure about the quality of the products they sell, but we don't care about this now," said the officer in the working class neighborhood of Bab El Oued.

"We want them to be doing something."

Another popular measure was the waiver of 24-month compulsory military service for men who had not done their service by the age of 30.

The government also has promised to fund 100 percent of the start-up costs for young people who present a plan for opening a small business.

Finance Minister Karim Djoudi said on state radio the new measures to help young people were costing the state 160 billion Algerian dinars ($2.45 billion).

The policy of making life easier for ordinary citizens has become the subject of satire, with newspaper columnist Hakim Laalam comparing it to a huge, nationwide free-for-all.

"I, who do not have a car, walk for hours in the streets looking at the beautiful and luxurious cars which pass," he wrote in the Soir d'Algerie newspaper.

"Who knows, maybe there is a government department charged with giving the keys of new cars to all those, who, like me, dream of having such a vehicle."

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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