June 1, 2008 / 12:32 PM / 11 years ago

Algeria riots pose risk of wider unrest

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Sporadic riots in OPEC member Algeria this year risk triggering wider protests against a political elite slow to turn unprecedented oil wealth into jobs and homes.

A view of a liquefied petroleum gas refinery in Arzew near the western city of Oran July 30, 2007. Sporadic riots in OPEC member Algeria this year risk triggering wider protests against a political elite slow to turn unprecedented oil wealth into jobs and homes. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Street clashes are a prickly issue in Algeria, a major gas exporter to Europe with a record of rebellion and where youth riots in 1988 forced the authorities to abandon one-party rule.

The country of 33 million people is still searching for stability following an undeclared civil war in the 1990s that cost more than 150,000 lives. The violence erupted after the cancellation of a general election in 1992 which a now-outlawed Muslim fundamentalist party was poised to win.

There is very little risk of a return to the bloodshed of the 1990s, Algerians say. But a return to nationwide civil disturbances that shook the north African country in 2001-02 and 1988 cannot be ruled out if violent protests continue.

“We have settled into a rioting phase which augurs no good,” wrote the independent El Watan newspaper.

Unemployed youths in the second city of Oran last week spent three days ransacking banks, shops, cars and bars and fighting running battles with helmeted riot police firing tear gas.

PETTY THUGS

The immediate trigger was anger over the relegation of the town’s soccer team to the second division. Commentators said that while the instigators may have been petty thugs, an atmosphere of despair over social ills helped draw in other youths and spread the turmoil to central districts.

The unrest followed street protests in dozens of other towns in recent months over worsening economic and social conditions.

Police have so far adopted a measured approach in tackling the disturbances, using tear gas and baton charges in towns such as Chlef, Oran and Berriane, but if rioters are killed the risk to national stability would grow, analysts say

Former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour, a critic of what he calls the unresponsiveness of the army-backed administration, said the unrest showed the authorities should pre-empt more unrest by promoting transparency and cleaner government.

“We need to work rapidly for change and set the conditions for its success in the interest of the Algerian people, or change will impose itself by force,” he told El Khabar daily.

Power is concentrated in the presidency, with parliament seen as a rubber-stamp. Some 75 percent of under 30-year-olds are unemployed and despite a state pledge to build a million new homes by 2009, demands for more housing are made daily.

“Citizens, above all the young, compare what goes on in the country to other nations. They seek a living standard and a future akin to what they see on foreign TV,” Benbitour said.

Communications Minister Abderrachid Boukerzaza said the Oran disturbances “were at the centre of the concerns of the public authorities” and the government had embarked on an effort to understand the violence and identify its causes.

Uppermost in many minds is concern to avoid a repeat of 2001, when a local revolt in the Kabylie region triggered by the death of a youth in police custody escalated into a national revolt against what protesters saw as authoritarian rule.

The government only defused the unrest when it agreed to demands to withdrew the paramilitary gendarmerie from Kabylie.

Some secular Algerians fear wider instability would present a window of opportunity to banned Islamist groups seeking a return to active politics: They could make political capital by using their extensive networks of informal influence in mosques and the black market to stabilize the situation, they argue.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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