By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) – To Mohamed Kherfallah, the young men in his neighbourhood who hurled rocks and petrol bombs at police in the Algerian capital this week are performing a service for their community.
Kherfallah, like his neighbours, is fed up of waiting for the government to re-house him. “It’s always a nightmare here,” the 66-year-old said as he stood in the tiny one-room flat he shares with 11 members of this extended family.
The Diar Echams district where he lives erupted this week into rioting over poor housing and unemployment. Police used tear gas and water cannon in failed attempts to disperse the rioters and several officers were injured.
The worst public disorder in the capital in several years, it highlighted a deep problem: the anger and frustration felt by millions of poor people in this energy producing country at a government they believe has let them down.
“The youth achieved what we could not achieve through peaceful means. They are listening to us because the youngsters made lot of noise,” Kherfallah said.
The unrest is unlikely to threaten the government because opposition parties are weak and the state has a vast security apparatus to contain civil disorder.
But the frustration is growing, analysts say, widening the gulf between the government and the young, urban poor in a country that provides 20 percent of Europe’s gas imports and is still emerging from a conflict with Islamist militants.
“Unrest is now routine in Algeria,” said Nacer Jabi, a sociologist who teaches at Algiers University. “It is becoming a national sport simply because people see no improvement in their daily living conditions.”
In the slums of Diar Echams — Arabic for “houses of the sun” — it is clear why the residents are angry.
The area is made up of apartment blocks built during French colonial rule in the 1950s, and next to them a shanty-town of crudely-built shacks.
Local people said there were 1,500 apartments for a community of about 25,000 people.
Because of the shortage of space, Kherfallah converted the balcony of his apartment into a bedroom for his 41-year-old son, Ahmed, and his daughter-in-law.
He said the son, Ahmed, was depressed. “When I want to have sex with my wife, I need to rent a room for a couple of hours in a hotel,” Ahmed said.
In another apartment, 52-year-old Said Souakri told Reuters his three children were ill because of the unhealthy living conditions. “I am always afraid that a rat will eat my two-year-old boy,” said his wife.
In the slum, groups of bearded men in long robes — the customary dress of followers of the ultra-conservative Salafist branch of Islam — could be seen in the background, keeping their distance from reporters.
Islamists have influence within local communities in Algeria, though they have been keeping a low public profile since a conflict broke out in the early 1990s between armed militants and security forces.
That conflict killed 200,000 people, according to some independent estimates. The violence has subsided in the past few years, but a hard-core of insurgents linked to al Qaeda still carries out sporadic attacks.
The conditions for people living in Diar Echams are repeated throughout Algeria, Africa’s second-largest country by area and home to 35 million people.
Though unrest in the capital is rare, there are periodic riots in other cities and towns.
On Wednesday, hundreds of angry unemployed men protested in the eastern city of Annaba calling on the authorities for jobs, local media reported.
Last week, security forces used tear gas to clear 300 protesters blocking roads in the city of Biskra, about 500 km (310 miles) south of Algiers, according to media reports.
“A generation of Algerians is growing up frustrated, unable to find jobs (and) affordable housing, which is leading to social pressures as, for example, young people are unable to get married,” a diplomat told Reuters.
“I do not see this as an immediate threat to the government,” he said. “But it does highlight growing popular dissatisfaction with the government, which is only likely to increase.”
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, re-elected to a third term in April with 90.24 percent of the vote, has said improving housing conditions and creating jobs is a national priority.
He has pledged to spend $150 billion on infrastructure and modernising the economy in the next five years. That includes building 1 million new housing units by 2014.
However, critics of the government say the investment will not translate fast enough into jobs and housing because of red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency, and a Socialist-style economy that they say hinders private investment.