ALGIERS (Reuters) - Many Algerians believe their country needs new people at the helm to restore hope and create jobs, but change must be smooth because after years of Islamist strife in which 200,000 died they cannot face more turmoil.
Algerians have watched with fascination the revolts in Egypt and neighboring Tunisia, and opposition groups say they will defy a police ban and hold a protest march in the capital on Saturday inspired by the popular uprisings elsewhere.
But so far there are few indications that the planned protest, organized by a coalition of civil society groups, some trade unionists and small political parties, has captured the imagination of people in the street.
“Change yes, chaos no,” said Aicha Chikoun, a 48-year-old employee at a post office in central Algiers.
“We must never forget the years of blood and tears during the 1990s when hundred of people were killed and beheaded daily,” she told Reuters.
Algeria plunged into chaos in 1992 after the military-backed government scrapped a legislative election which a radical Islamist party was poised to win. According to independent estimates, 200,000 people were killed in subsequent violence.
“There are not enough coffins,” Algerians used to say as the death toll climbed at the peak of the war.
In the past few years the violence has subsided, though insurgents linked to al Qaeda carry out sporadic shootings, ambushes and kidnappings outside the big towns.
The return of relative security has given Algerians the opportunity to think, for the first time in years, about their standard of living and many are deeply unhappy.
They are angered by high unemployment, poor housing, high prices and corruption. They ask why they have not felt more benefit from the billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue the government spends on public projects.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, trying to stop mass protests from erupting, promised last week to allow more democratic freedoms, lift a 19-year-old state of emergency and generate more jobs.
Organizers of the protest march planned for Saturday say that is not enough, and that Bouteflika himself should step down. They say they will ignore an official ban on the protest.
“We will march because it is our right to demonstrate peacefully and it is up to the government to protect us,” Rachid Malawi, head of the independent union of civil servants and one of the protest organizers, told Reuters.
A banned march on January 22 organized by opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) did not succeed because of an impressive presence of helmeted riot police armed with batons and shields, but also because of little interest among normal citizens.
At place May 1 in Algiers where the march was supposed to start, only few protesters showed up while people around them were doing business as usual.
Algeria witnessed several days of rioting in January, triggered by price rises for sugar and cooking oil, which killed two people and injured hundreds. More riots could put at risk political stability in Algeria, a top gas supplier for Europe.
“We must never forget that there is not a single Algerian family that has not been plunged into grief during the past 20 years,” human rights activist and well-known lawyer Mokrane Ait Larbi told the El Watan newspaper.
“We should do all we can to facilitate a peaceful change and avoid blood,” he said.
In a strong indication of the attitude in the street to the planned protest, prominent Algerian Islamists say they will not be taking part.
“We are against this march because the organizers are just a small minority that doesn’t represent Algeria’s people,” said Sheikh Abdelfateh Zeraoui, a preacher of the hardline Salafist branch of Islam that has a strong following in Algeria.
But he too acknowledged the need for limited change. “Bouteflika is all right, but the government must leave because it failed to create jobs and solve Algeria’s youth problems,” the cleric said.
Sharing the same line, Sheikh El Hachemi Sahnouni, founding member of the disbanded Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), said he would not attend the march because it will not solve Algeria’s crisis.
“The youth should avoid confrontation, it is useless. The youth should establish a dialogue with Bouteflika, and he must listen to the youth and address its problems,” Sahnouni told Reuters.
Editing by Giles Elgood