Algeria "not immune to Arab spring revolt"

ALGIERS Thu Aug 18, 2011 7:56am EDT

Riot policemen stand guard in front of a university entrance while a university student with an Algerian flag chants slogans during a demonstration in which they demand political change in Algiers May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Riot policemen stand guard in front of a university entrance while a university student with an Algerian flag chants slogans during a demonstration in which they demand political change in Algiers May 2, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria could be swept by an Arab Spring-style revolt if the government does not urgently fix social and political problems, the country's leading Islamist opposition politician said.

Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah, 54, head of a party called the Front for Justice and Development, said the government had tried to appease anger by handing out cash, but had failed to address a lack of democracy at the root of Algeria's problems.

"The sources of tensions may unify and become a tsunami that will destroy everything," Djaballah told Reuters in an interview.

"The regime wanted to fix the problem financially by saying that the crisis is social and that raising wages will be enough... It is true that the social aspect of the crisis is real, but the key problem remains political."

Algeria, an important gas supplier to Europe and a U.S. ally in its fight against al Qaeda, has been shaken by unrest and strikes since the beginning of this year, with people demanding better pay and lower prices.

The government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 74, feared the strikes and protests could lead to the kind of revolt which toppled long-standing rulers in Egypt and neighbouring Tunisia.

Bouteflika responded by using energy revenues to give hefty pay rises for almost all public employees and to raise subsidies on basic foodstuffs.

To relieve pressure for political change, he also lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency, promised to give the opposition a voice in state media and set up a commission to recommend political reforms.

Since then the number of protests has fallen sharply, but the problems are still there, said Jaballah, who wears a beard, like most Islamists, but also dresses in Western clothes.

"If someone has cancer, you cannot just give them a sedative and this is what the government has been doing so far," he said.

GRIEVANCES

As a prominent Islamist who is an outspoken critic of the government, Jaballah has influence with a large segment of the Algerian population. A previous party he led was the third biggest in parliament.

Moderate Islamist ideas are widely held among Algerians, but they are not well reflected in the secular political elite, which is nervous about political Islam after waging a nearly-two decade conflict against Islamist militants.

Speaking in his office in a run-down apartment building in a suburb of the capital, Djaballah said no amount of government spending can address the huge number of small local grievances over issues such as housing, unemployment and healthcare.

He said the root of these grievances was the fact that, in Algeria, ordinary people do not identify with their government and the only way they could see of expressing their views was to take to the streets.

That, he said, was because the authorities did not allow people the freedom to choose their own rulers. Algeria's government says it conducts free and fair elections.

"The regime has been using state money to sponsor its candidates versus other candidates, the regime has also been using the state media to polish the image of its candidates versus other candidates, the regime has also committed fraud during past elections... all this has widened the gap between the people and the regime," Djaballah said.

"This is a very dangerous phenomenon that indicates that a big explosion may happen at any time," Djaballah said.

(editing by David Stamp)

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