Without sugar and without oil - protests in Algeria


On 5 January, the frustration, deep unease, and hopelessness of young Algerians exploded onto the streets. Since then, they have been throwing stones, burning tires and brandishing any object that they can turn into a weapon. By Amel Yacef

Given the non-existence of space in the precarious housing situation, these streets have become their homes. With their mounting anger, Algerian youths are organising stocks of stones and improvising Molotov cocktails.

Instead of watching others driving cars and shopping in fancy new shops - built to showcase how modern Algeria has become, fooling people into a notion that 'development' has arrived - they smash those very cars and loot those very shops.

From luxury goods to bread, these kids have been stocking up on anything they can put their hands on. This seems to frustrate the general population that sees it as unjustified robbery. However, without condoning looting in any way, it does appear that it is basic products that are being robbed more so than luxurious items...

October 1988, when thousands of young Algerians took to the streets resulting in the fall of the governing National Liberation Front (FLN), comes to mind. This time, however, protests are not confined to the capital or even the major cities. The whole country including towns in the Sahara (traditionally very quiet and with no track record of violence even during the darkest hours of the 90s) are being set alight.

Minister for Trade Mustapha Benbada has responded by saying the government will decrease the price of sugar and cooking oil "as early as next week". There is little mention of the riots and silence from the authorities. The police seem to be dealing with the whole thing with no support and the only answer from the government to the infuriated mobs of young people, some as young as 13 years old, is a promise to decrease the price of the sugar and cooking oil.

The international take on the riots seems to focus on the high prices of food and linking these events to the world food crisis. However , similar to what is happening in Tunisia, the crisis in Algeria goes beyond the price of sugar.

The question which needs to be asked is why are these kids on the streets in the first place? The Algerian government has been bragging about having €155 billion in the foreign exchange reserves. At the same time not a dime is going to be invested in education, training or job creation when more than 70% of the population is under 30 years old. Not a dime is going towards building housing for people who lost everything in the earthquakes of the 1980s let alone the most recent natural disasters. Not a dime is going towards health and hospitals or the thousands of forgotten victims of Islamist terrorism.

In a country where protesting is against the law, where any film, documentary or other media work has to be approved by the Minister for Culture; where human rights are always viewed as a hindrance; where unions are brought to their knees and any attempt at free speech is violently aborted it is not surprising that new and innovative channels for expression are growing in popularity.

Thousands of people are blogging, tweeting and facebooking; armed with their camera phones and praying the internet will not be cut as it is their only way of telling the world their truth.

Rumour has it that the students and other groups are getting organised and there is talk of a general strike despite a very present sense of fear: fear of Islamist extremists highjacking the situation, fear of the army being brought back into the streets, fear of reliving the sudden disappearance of loved ones and overall fear of a very uncertain future.

In the midst of the tear gas and burning tyres a sense of hopelessness felt by so many young people is turning into spontaneous action which needs the meaningful support of the whole nation in order to bloom into a real beginning of hope for a better life.

WORDS: Amel Yacef, first published on www.politico.ie