Algeria leaders have lost touch, risk anger: review

ALGIERS Wed Dec 28, 2011 1:42pm EST

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seen at the presidential palace in Algiers December 11, 2011. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seen at the presidential palace in Algiers December 11, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Louafi Larbi

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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria's leaders are out of touch with their people who are growing increasingly angry about unemployment, red tape and poor housing, said a senior official carrying out a presidential review of the country's economic and social woes.

"Demands for radical changes are huge. People want to see a new way of governance," Mohamed Seghir Babes told Reuters in an interview.

He did not say that Algeria could face the kind of uprisings seen this year in its neighbors Tunisia and Libya and across the Arab world.

But his language, and his warning over public anger, were unusually strong for an official linked to the government.

"People are still unhappy. They are still demanding jobs, houses, less bureaucracy and a better life," he said.

Algeria, an OPEC member and supplier of about a fifth of Europe's imported gas, did see some riots in early 2011. But they died down after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika used emergency funds to raise state wages and subsidies.

Bouteflika also ended 19 years of unpopular emergency law and ordered Babes to carry out a seven-month tour of the country to take stock of Algerians' expectations.

"President Bouteflika asked me to visit the country, speak to the people in particular those representing the civil society, and come back with an answer as to 'Why is it that Algerians are still unhappy despite billions of dollars invested in economic and social programs'," Babes said.

Babes, who heads the National Economic and Social Council (CNES), said he found Algerian leaders "have lost touch with the people ... We must reconnect with the people ... A radical change and deep reform are essential to restore the link with the population."

He said people were particularly angry with a Centralized decision-making system which often overlooked the needs of local communities.

"This has to change rapidly. People are fed up," he added, citing the government's low-income housing program as an example of an unpopular scheme.

"The design of an apartment built in the capital Algiers should be different from one built in the desert, but in Algeria there is no difference because everything is decided in the capital," he said.

Babes said unemployment among graduates was "important" but could not give a figure. Official figures put unemployment at 10 percent but independent sources say it is much higher especially among the youth.

Algeria has launched a five-year development plan worth $286 billion to revive the economy.

With $188 billion in foreign currency reserves and huge oil and gas wealth, Algeria's socialist-style economic policymakers have, to date, not made attracting foreign investment a priority.

(Writing By Souhail Karam; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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