ALGIERS, Algeria — The angry and determined men marched on Algeria’s Parliament, tossing aside metal police barriers in a bold display of defiance. But these were not disenfranchised youths or opposition leaders.
They were Communal Guards, state-armed militia on the front line of the country’s long battle with Islamist extremists, and their protest served as an eloquent example of the breadth of social unrest in this gas-rich North African nation.
Algeria’s leadership, riddled by corruption and at the mercy of the army, is sitting in a circle of fire, with a restive populace at home and pro-democracy uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Libya that are shaking the Arab world to the core.
Two months of strikes, sit-ins and attempted protest marches are raising questions about whether Algeria, which waged a brutal battle against insurgents for nearly two decades, can satisfy myriad and mounting demands for jobs, housing, higher salaries, proper medical benefits – and, trickier still, answer calls to end the army’s dominance and build a real democracy.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks a decade ago, Algeria has become a critical U.S. partner and Muslim ally in the global war on terrorism. Should Algeria unravel – as some say it well may if fundamental changes are not made – it would be one more strategic blow to the West.
Those in charge here are worried. They have lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency as opposition leaders and citizens have long demanded, cut prices of some staples, and pledged $286 billion to development of a country whose resource wealth hasn’t reached most citizens.
“Algeria is a mafia with a flag,” is the common street response to the question, “How goes it?” Such disdain is long standing. It is the growing indignation that is new.
A leading figure in what once was Algeria’s longtime single party, the National Liberation Front, recently denounced the exclusion and secrecy that defines the nation’s leadership, shared by the president with army generals in the shadows.
Abdelhamid Mehri compared the Algerian regime to those in Tunisia and Egypt, where the presidents were ousted in popular uprisings, and warned of a potential social “explosion” at home without a peaceful transition to democracy.
“The voices demanding regime change … are numerous,” he wrote in an open letter to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in office since 1999. “They have multiplied in recent months in such a way that it is impossible to ignore them or postpone the response.”
Gas and oil money, the memory of nightmarish past instability, and the veneer of democracy accorded in part by a noisy but tethered press are cushioning Algeria from the full-throttle anger that tipped countries like Tunisia or Egypt to push their leaders out.
Judicial and medical workers and university students are among those holding intermittent strikes, each with a set of demands. They join the jobless, the homeless and the hungry who rioted in early January around Algeria when the price of cooking oil and other staples increased. The violence left five people dead.
Five others have died by self-immolation, among numerous attempts, which mimic a Tunisian man who set himself aflame in an act that triggered the revolution there in mid-January – and sparked the Arab world unrest.
To defuse tensions, Bouteflika lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency on Feb. 24, while keeping bans on demonstrations in place in the capital. The president’s office has also announced a raft of economic measures aimed at placating the despair and, most recently, exempted men over 30 from required army duty if they have not yet served.
Despite the generous economic promises, these are fixes, not solutions.
“You can buy silence and peace, but it can’t last for long,” said Mostefa Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer who has led a now-fractured coalition of forces that drew thousands to two pro-democracy protest marches in Algiers in February – put down each time by battalions of riot police. “It can calm spirits for months, but it doesn’t solve the problems of Algeria.”
The voice of outrage is supplanting a pervasive sense of fear that long ensured the silence of the average citizen, and even the Communal Guards – the eyes and ears of security forces – are standing up.
The Guards, comprised of civilians, don’t want a confrontation with the state they have served at their peril. But they feel humiliated by lowly government job offers put forward now that the service is gradually being disbanded, and emboldened by the protesters from all quarters of society.
“We took up arms in 1994 and with terrorism declining they want to get rid of us,” said Ali Abdellaoui, 44, a detachment chief from Dar El-Beida, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the capital, who has spent 16 years with the force.
“Suddenly, we have no income, no rights … There are injured among us, those who lost a hand, a foot. They get a pathetic little pension,” he said as police hustled the protesters to the side of the boulevard.
Deputy chief Yahia Salim said the Guards want improved medical benefits, housing and a pay increase retroactive to 2008, to match increases accorded to police.
“Someone who fought terrorism now finds himself working as a housekeeper,” said Salim. “It’s unjust.”