Algeria's Government Braces for Revolt -- Coming Down Hard on Demonstrators
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While they showed the same kind of courage as those who brought down Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, the demonstrators on the streets of Algiers on Saturday, February 12 really never had much of a chance. The odds were not good. 3,000-5,000 protesters braved a security force that was estimated to be no less than 30,000, outnumbering the protesters by 6 or 7 to 1.
Still the Algerian government is nervous. 30,000 security police sent out to surround 3,000 demonstrators suggests a high degree of state paranoia. While Egypt is key to the transport of oil through a pipeline and the Suez Canal and Tunisia has very little of the 'black gold', pretty much the entire Algerian export economy is based on crude oil and gas production. This helps explain the security police overkill presence, that along with this shaky regime's nervousness.
The February 12 demonstration was called by a newly formed coalition, the National Coordinating Committee for Change and Democracy (in French, la Coordination National pour le changement et la democratie, or CNCD). The CNCD came together quite recently, since the January demonstrations and is spearheaded by the Algerian League for Human Rights and four independent (public sector) unions. Its goal is to extend the peaceful protest movement with an eye on getting the Algerian government to lift the state of emergency that has been in place since 1992.
The February 12th demonstration was made smaller no doubt by the road blocks set up throughout the country to prevent protesters from arriving in the capital. If the numbers of demonstrators -- compared to Tunisia and Egypt they're modest -- this does not minimize the strategic importance of the Algerian protests. They are the first signs of deep unrest in a major oil and natural gas producing country and one in which U.S. Special Forces have been operating not so quietly and non-stop since at least 2004.
In an attempt to minimize the political damage, the government has promised economic reforms -- jobs, completion of long promised public housing projects, better education, and replacing subsidies on sugar and cooking oil recently suspended as part of World Bank, IMF structural adjustment programs. These are the same empty words that sputtered from the mouths of Ben Ali and Mubarak before their flights, the same song now being sung in Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Kuwait. Algerians have heard this song before many times and are not moved.
In an effort to further divide and conquer, government spokespeople also kept repeating "these demonstrators do not represent 'the majority'," this being code to describe the country's Berber minority, many of whom hail from Kabylia, east of Algiers, a region whose cultural capital is the city of Tizi Ouzou. They refer to themselves as the Amazigh.
While the government's claim that the current demonstrations are 'Berber organized' is exaggerated, no doubt the Amazigh are among those calling for reforms if not sweeping political changes in Algeria. Consisting of some 7 million of the country's 35 million inhabitants, the Amazigh have long suffered from cultural and linguistic discrimination; a result of the country's pronounced 'Arabization' campaign.
It is true that the traditional opposition -- the country's main, largely government controlled trade union movement, moderate Islamicists -- were not involved on February 12. Perhaps many Algerians are nonplussed about removing the country's president, Abdelaziz Boutiflika, from office without changing the system itself. They see Boutiflika as little more than window dressing, covering the long time genuine power brokers of Algerian political life, the military. Some Algerians speculate that even if Bouteflika leaves, who would replace him and what would it matter? Another mouthpiece for the military?