Some thoughts on political responses to the Algerian riots

This post is a summary of political responses to the Algerian riots from parties and personalities. While public figures have differed in the nuances of what they have had to say the majority of them have been explicitly in urging dialogue and calm; virtually none have sought to egg the youth rioters on or claim leadership over them. While many recognize the overtly political dimensions of the riots most participating in parliament or other government functions have sought to refit the public narrative back toward economic or social issues that can be dealt with through changes or adjustments in policy under the existing regime. Even those assigning blame to systemic factors avoid blaming the President or specific individuals. Most with stakes in the current system have shifted blame to some kind of manipulation by economic actors or the exaggerations of outsiders. Bold condemnations of corruption and mismanagement have not meant calls for regime change or changes in the political order as a whole. Most political parties have put out communiques and their leaders have commented on the unrest itself, especially those in the opposition. The three ruling parties – the FLN, RND and MSP – have done the same though the FLN and RND have been less vocal as parties than all the others. The President and Prime Minister have been quiet.

There seems to be an onward trend in the tumult. Rioting has spread into the deep south, Bechar and Ouargla. The rioting has targeted banks, schools, post offices, foreign car dealerships, local government buildings, gas stations, shopping malls, the Ministry of Education and other locations not directly related to the high cost of sugar, olive oil or flour. 23,000 liters of oil have been looted in Setif, though with similar reports elsewhere. Youth have burst into hotels to loot “computers and even couches”. Videos of rioting in Bab el-Oued can be seen here. Young men have been arrested in the tens in various parts of the country, with the Interior Ministry reporting over 1,000 arrests in total. Contacts in Algiers say the rioting has been contained inside various neighborhoods while those in Setif and eastern Algeria say that when they have gotten underway, the riots have swept through large parts of towns and cities.  Paratroopers and other elite army units have been reported on the highway out of Benaknoun, perhaps in anticipation of more serious disturbances. Thus far the government and security services appear to be wary of a heavy response, hoping the riots will lose momentum without the explicit support of the opposition and seemingly no leadership of their own. The comments of various political and bureaucratic leaders seem to indicate a fear that things could fall out of their control if they react too aggressively. During previous incidents on this scale, former Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni was known for making inflammatory and callus remarks about youths. Though Ould Kablia and Djiar’s comments have been out of touch they have been less combative than in the past. Three Algerians died in Tipaza, Boumerdes and M’Sila. Hundreds of people have been injured. But the police appear relatively more disciplined than in previous instances of similar unrest. There have not been reports of indiscriminate beatings or shooting — at least not yet. Algerians report night raids aimed at picking up “trouble makers” and those suspected of organizing protests or whipping up riots. Though there is an obvious political line flowing from the riots these have yet to be harnessed by any visible political force.

On these riots, protests, demonstrations or  intifada in Algeria — whatever one wants to call them — the government has been relatively quiet except to announce its confidence that it will lower consumer prices or deploy more security forces to manage them. The President and Prime Minister have been silent. A grave statement from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika or Prime Minister Ouyahia would show weakness by condescending to the level of jobless boys and legitimizing their conduct. It could also escalate tensions as was the case following Tunisian President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali’s speech last week. Those high officials that have commented have done so in puzzling ways. The Minister of Youth and Sports, for example, was quoted as urging youths to stop rioting by arguing “violence has never had results, not in Algeria or anywhere else, and our youth know that”. Algerians that have grown up with stories of a million martyrs who brought the country independence through armed struggle have been taught through their whole lives quite the opposite. In a country with great streets, squares, airports and whole towns are named after men like Larbi Ben M’hidi, Che Guevara, Mourad Didouche and Mustapha Ben Boulaid — not to mention an entire Ministry of Moudjahidine — such a comment sounds remarkably detached (don’t even start on the national anthem). And even more directly, the young men in the street know full well the government has kept power with many of the same faces in power for so long through quite violent means. The Algerian national anthem declares: “had we not spoken up none would have listened” (لم يكن يصغى لنا لما نطقنا) (similarly, Jay-Z says “a closed mouth don’t get fed.”) The Minister’s statement reflects the long obvious gap between the old and the young. (None of this should be understood an endorsement of violence in any way.) Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia has described the rioters as criminals and explained the deaths of three young men, noting that one killed in M’Sila was liquidated as he attempted to enter a police station. The family of one of those killed says he went out looking for his missing brother and was shot dead by police. He additionally urged calm and reminded the public that if they wish to protest there is an official process by means of which their requests may be denied reviewed. The Interior Ministry has reported hundreds of wounded security personnel.

The political parties have issued their views. The following summaries come from El Watan and TSA Algerie. The head of the RCD’s Algiers section urged the government “not to save the regime but save Algeria, not to manipulate the people’s anger and misery but to meet their legitimate claims.” The party’s vice-chairman criticized the government: “Economically speaking, there is no vision. There is a total failure of investment and entrepreneurship, which adds to corruption. The state is limited to exporting oil only and launching grandiose projects, but is unable to create jobs.”

Moussa Touati of the Algerian National Front (FNA) called the riots “inevitable when the government does not respond to complaints raised against it, we can expect the worst.” Louisa Hanoune of the Partie des Travailleurs (PT) blamed “criminal speculation on prices” for the troubles. She has “expectations of appropriate and urgent measures to defuse the crisis.” The PT’s Politburo held an emergency meeting to discuss the riots and “make readings of messages from the young demonstrators.” After consideration, Hanoune declared “contrary to what some players want to believe, Algeria, is not in fire and blood. The movement is limited [. . .] this is not a movement of all youth, but the most disadvantaged.” Though she expressed “anxiety over the future,” she said she believes “this has nothing to do with” with previous outbreaks of unrest. “This is a period marked by a return of social protest but not as in October 1988 or event in 2001.” Solutions, Hanoune said, must be taken “as quickly as possible.” Hanoune further called for state television to engage youth by giving them a platform to express their outrage. “This will mean that the state holds out its hand and looks for solutions to their problems.” She went on: “the total lack of communication with young people has exacerbated their unconfident and apprehensive feelings about the future,” she said. “We need to be listening to this segment of society and meet their expectations to restore confidence and calm.” She called for the government to give unemployed youth unemployment compensation at no less than half the average wage. “Young people do not come out in the street because of rising cooking oil prices and sugar, but due to the accumulation of problems, such as unemployment and the housing crisis.” She blamed the after affects of structural adjustment and the Civil War: “Young people were born and raised during the years of terrorism. They are steeped in violence and have lost their bearings.” (Selima Ghezali relayed a similar view to Al Jazeera. Ghezali believes that the situation has Algeria “heading towards a social disaster [. . .] “they [the government] don’t seem to realise this.”) Increases in workers’ wages are absorbed by price rises, Hanoune said. Hanoune denied any comparison to events in Egypt, Tunisia and Ivory Coast and comparisons to 1988 — “the situation today is completely different”. Such comparisons serve the interest of “foreign parties who will rejoice at the collapse of the Algerian state so they can loot its wealth.” She accosted France for issuing a travel warning for Algeria (“their strange position”) and accused Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya of presenting a false reading of the uprising. Differing in nuance from many pro-government leaders, Hanoune said the unrest is not the result of “manipulators” but “importers who have raised their prices. This was spontaneous and a provocation.” “It is really disappointing to end up with an economy riven by a few barons who are left with their whole hands on the price of products for every citizens.” She balanced her criticism with praise of government programming: the plan to build one million homes and public works projects but said these have not been implemented sufficiently and that social policy fell short and that more work was needed in raising purchasing power and unemployment benefits. Like other political leaders she said: “The stakes are high and solutions can only come through dialogue.” She urged young people use peaceful methods to vent their frustrations.

The FFS released a communique rejecting interpretations of the unrest as mere food riots “and attempt to frame the dispute by denying any political dimension.” It declared: “Yes, price increases have exacerbated feelings of insecurity and fear among many Algerians. Yes, Algeria is an unfortunate country! No, it is not hunger that drives these young people on the street. [. . .] It is that the sense of injustice and the feeling of revolt are deeply rooted in everyday life. The vast majority of the population does not trust its leaders and is convinced that there is no other way than violence to be heard. Places of institutional debate have become cash registers. Television is the private domain of power. Associations of civil society are generally suppressed or manipulated.” It blames “the elites of the regime, corrupt and corrupting” for maintaining “confusion and preventing any release of the dynamics of change.” It urges the country to “look to our neighboring Tunisia” as an example to follow. It calls for an end to the state of emergency, the restoration of civil liberties, more media freedom and guarantees for freedom of association and expression. “The Algerian crisis is primarily a political crisis,” it declares. The FFS is the oldest opposition party in Algeria, founded by Hocine Ait Ahmed.

The MSP (the Ikhwan), part of the three party ruling coalition, also published articles and statements on the unrest. Its communique (Arabic) “invites everyone to not be drawn into the course of exploitation of some political parties that used to invest in crises” for their own benefit. It makes three points: 1) a “call for calm and restraint and the use broad social dialogue as a means of resolving different problems”; 2) an invitation to “the government, social partners and consumer protection associations to contribute to the alleviation of social tension through urgent action, achieved though the principle of capping the prices of consumer goods”; 3) a call for public institutions to pay greater heed to “the concerns of citizens and vulnerable parts of society, young people and protect them from attempts at political exploitation.” In the MSP communique, there is an echo of the widespread fear one hears when speaking to Algerians that witness the 1988-1992 events when basically uncoordinated and non-ideological discontent was channeled by religious groups (and ultimately the FIS) which led to a collision between the elite and the masses. The article mentioned calls for reforms in agriculture and light industry. It cites Turkey as an example of a country with similar economic problems as Algeria before the adoption of substantial economic and social reforms under the AKP. It urges youth to focus their energies on peaceful politics.

The Rassemblement National Democratique (RND), the party of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and one of the three ruling parties (with the FLN), issued a statement denouncing vandalism and violence. It blamed lobbyists and speculators who “never miss an opportunity to fish in troubled waters.” It called those who dare to manipulate the crowds “immoral,” and warned “against all manipulators with serious repercussions for their actions.” The youth, it said, should “be careful not to succumb to the provocations of those parties and should block their way” of spreading instability.

The RND posted a report on a statement made by the Prime Minister to the Council of the Nation (the upper house of parliament) on 24 December. Beyond this its response has been allusive and indirect. Ouyahia “highlighted [. . .] Algeria’s progress in various fields of socio-economic status, reaffirming the determination of the state to continue its efforts, including human development.” It mentions his intention to reduce youth unemployment by ten percent and that “rise in oil prices over the last four years has allowed the state to provide necessary training for young people, calling on parents and society as a whole to their role in educating young people.” He said of the haragas or sea-borne migrants to Europe, “whoever throws himself into the sea, if he does not drown and if he is not caught, will be hired as a seasonal worker, while in Algeria seasonal jobs offer 2,000 dinars a day but cannot find workers!” Illegal immigration, he said, “should never be legitimized.” In an earlier statement he made statements regarding youth that are relevant to the current crisis: “We must educate our youth on the progress [made] since independence, errors in terms of history, the events of the 1980s and how, due to our negligence, waste and populism, we lost our national sovereignty over our economy due to debt. [. . .] It is the responsibility of adults to feed more hope in the depths of today’s youth, and give them greater pride and patriotism, developing their ability to cope with future challenges.” The adults, he said, must educate young people “because we lived a hellish period and found ourselves in the midst of a national tragedy from we are still recovering.”

A discerning youth in the street might notice that in the Prime Minister’s comments the entire discourse runs from adult to youth, that while young people indeed have much to learn from their elders the fact that they make up the largest demographic in the country means that there might be wisdom in involving them in the consideration of the troubles they face. Ouyahia is famous for reporting on growing foreign currency reserves, booming gas profits and social progress; when President Bouteflika went to visit Berriane in the wake of terrible floods and told its residents that times would be rough in the near future and to pull up their pants and fasten their belts, Ouyahia was quoted as saying that Algeria would be insulated from the evolving crisis in most optimistic terms during the same week. The mismatch between these sunny reports and the government’s top-down style on the one hand and the average Algerian’s quality of life on the other are why youths have been reported as shouting Ouyahia’s name at the end of chants like “we have no money/we have no sugar/we have not hope/Ouyahia where are you?!” and “We want sugar/we want oil/where are you Ouyahia?” The timid response from Hanoune’s PT, on the face of things a Trotskyite party, is surprising given her reputation for criticizing Ouyahia’s economic policies. But there are other considerations, of course. If the demonstrations simply die down, opposition parties will not want to have been seen as opportunistically lashing out at the government, especially those with specific agenda items dependent on the grace of the government. And in the meantime they will not want to appear a part of an insurrection or open themselves to being accused of plotting against a state far more powerful than themselves.

The FLN, the former single party and member of the ruling coalition, has been as taciturn as the RND. The FLN’s politburo met and released statements calling on security forces to use “vigilance and help resolve the situation with wisdom in order to contain this ager [. . .] baring the way for those who seek to exploit such events in service of neither the interest of the country or its citizens.” Like the MSP, its communique called on citizens to “work to raise awareness and advocate dialogue and mediation in order to voice their concerns in civil ways.” It did not denounce “vandalism” as some ministers and commercial and labor groups have. “Protest must be made through peaceful and civil ways,” it reminds the public, echoing the Interior Minister, “not through violence, vandalism and looting the property of others.” It also committed to fight price increases with “firmness” and to address speculation, monopolies and corruption that might have contributed to the recent price spikes. This is based on TSA Algerie’s summary of the FLN’s statement.

The UGTA, the country’s major labor union, has called for urgent action to reduce prices while condemning the rioters and a meeting of various commercial groups “were unanimous in denouncing the excesses that led to the destruction of public and private property.” The head of the General Confederation of Algerian Entrepreneurs (CGEA), Habib Yousfi criticized the “communication gap” between the government and the public saying “the authorities could have explained the reasons for these [price] increases,” and that “there is unease in the country and the government should take steps to reassure traders and citizens.” The head of the Confederation of Algerian Industrialists and Producers (CIPA) said: “violence is not the way to indicate or assert or enforce rights [. . .] young people should not give into manipulation”. Imams, too, condemned manipulation and violence — though many young men took right back to the streets following prayers in the capital. But these were official imams and shiekhs. Yet the street religion that made the rise of the FIS and the guerrilla movement so devastating for the regime in the 1988-1990 period has a similar flat-backed posture. The government has grown adept as using religion — Sufism and even Salafism — as a means of depoliticizing young men. The result has been to divide up and neutralize unofficial religion, much of which is demoralized and actively rejects political activity pointing its followers away from sullen and worldly political activity — in exchange for patronage and non-harassment from the authorities. Its leaders tell young men to avoid the decadence and sin of looting and noisy protest, look to God for the way out.

Mohamed Larbi Zitout, of Rachad (an opposition movement in exile), told Al Jazeera: “It is a revolt, and probably a revolution, of an oppressed people who have, for 50 years, been waiting for housing, employment, and a proper and decent life in a very rich country. [. . .] But unfortunately it is ruled by a very rich elite that does not care about what is happening in the country.” A revolution is a rather particular, and frequently deliberate, thing. Whether these uprising constitute something more than a temporary upset will be discovered later, as will whatever manipulation carries or dampens the hopes of the young men in the street.


22 thoughts on “Some thoughts on political responses to the Algerian riots

  1. Will the “civilian” government of Bouteflika survive this? If not, will the military “replace” him and by whom? Hope this is a genuine question. It is also the most important.

  2. Just seen this from Al Jazeera and related.Hope one day soon decision-makers will have to realize that they need to trickle down wealth for their own good. With 200 billion $ in the coffer, they don’t need to put taxes on imported food and it is time to have agriculture on top of the countries priorities. A recent FAO study is indicating that most countries will be worse than in 2008 with regard to food prices hike. If I were a “ruler” today, I will give priority to agriculture production.

  3. I doubt Algeria can be food self sufficient. A way to encourage local agricultural production is precisely to tax imported agricultural products. Otherwise, local production can’t compete with for example canadian or US wheat.

    • Indeed a dificult issue. But you tax agricultural food imports and you get city dwellers on your back. Don’t know if FAO has a solution. With the billion $ available, you subsidize farm prices to give incentives to increase production. I am not a specialist on those matters. Food production is important for food self-sufficiency. Otherwise Arab investors and others will not be grabing land in Africa and Asia to secure their countries’ food needs. Algeria can throw in 15 billion a year to support food producers and it will be worth the hassle, I guess.

  4. It’s not too surprising to see no riots reported from most of the Sahara, but I find it rather interesting that Batna and Khenchela seem to be just about the only wilayas in the North with no rioting. Any thoughts?

    • There have been riots in the south (Biskra, Ouargla, Bechar for example). I haven’t heard about Khenchela but there were was rioting in Batna (based on what I’ve heard from friends there and media reports). Would be interesting to get a count of riots in municipalities based on the news reports. Would be interesting to see which parts were least heavily hit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s