ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika Thursday promised more political freedoms, saying a 19-year-old state of emergency would be lifted soon and the opposition would have access to television and radio.
The announcement follows mounting pressure from some government opponents who, inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, had been planning a protest march in the capital for next week.
Senior government officials had been insisting as late as Wednesday that the state of emergency was necessary to combat the threat from Islamist insurgents. However, the authorities seem to have decided that concessions were needed to prevent protests -- similar to those seen in other parts of the Arab world -- from building momentum in Algeria.
The risk of Algeria having a Tunisia-style revolution should not be overstated, however. With oil prices in the region of $100 a barrel, energy exporter Algeria has the cash to satisfy many of its citizens’ economic grievances. And Algeria has already had experience of political turmoil. An uprising in the late 1980s led to greater democracy, but that degenerated into a conflict between Islamist rebels and security forces that, according to some estimates, killed about 200,000 people. Few Algerians want to repeat that.
Nevertheless, the announcement by Bouteflika reflects the ability -- proven many times before -- of Algeria’s ruling elite to adapt to changing circumstances and do what is necessary to stay in power.
It is still too early to tell. A first test will be whether the coalition of civil society groups, trade unionists and small opposition parties planning a February 12 protest march decide to go ahead. Officials are still likely to ban that protest because, according to Bouteflika, restrictions on marches in the capital will stay in force even after the lifting of the state of emergency. If the government makes good on its commitment to open up television and radio, that will appease some. Algeria’s electronic media are all state-controlled, and they rarely give airtime to opposition voices. That is an anomaly, because Algeria’s printed media is one of the most outspoken in the Arab world. Even if Bouteflika’s promises are not enough to satisfy opposition activists, there is a good chance they will reduce pressure for change among ordinary people. They will look in particular to the promise of more jobs, and will be expecting the government to honor it.
For nearly two decades Algerian security forces have been battling Islamist insurgents, who in the past few years have been operating as al Qaeda’s North African wing. Officials said the state of emergency played a crucial role because, among other things, it allowed the military to be mobilized to fight insurgents alongside the police and paramilitary gendarmes.
The need for the military has receded as the violence has declined. Ambushes and shootings still happen in remote areas, but at a much lower level now and there have been no attacks reported in big cities for more than two years.
Security is still precarious in the mountainous Kabylie region, which al Qaeda insurgents use as a safe haven. The problem here is that the gendarmes withdrew from the more remote parts of the region a decade ago after clashes with local people who accused them of brutality. The military partially filled the vacuum they left. It is likely the government will seek to bring gendarmes back to Kabylie, or adopt rules which will allow the military to stay on there.
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood