Soon after the onset of protests which eventually toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, a wave of riots swept through Algeria as well, with many neighborhoods in the capital of Algiers and dozens of smaller cities overwhelmed by thousands of angry young men who closed down streets with burning tires, attacked police stations with rocks and paving stones, and set fire to public buildings. For Algerians a few years older than the rioters, these events recalled the uprising of October 1988, in which violent unrest upended the single-party state.

The disturbances of January 2011 were sparked by a sudden increase in commodity food prices, local journalists maintained, although much of the international press also linked them to a domino effect emanating from neighboring Tunisia. Both of these accounts are strikingly incomplete, however: Food price spikes were certainly one immediate cause of the Algerian unrest, but they were not the underlying reason that crowds of youths spontaneously decided to set upon policemen and other symbols of the state. Likewise, the theory of Tunisian contagion, while it may capture another contributing factor, ignores the national economic and political specificities that both triggered the Algerian rioting and determined its eventual course.

In Algeria, in contrast to (formerly) famously quiet Tunisia, rioting is anything but unprecedented. Local street violence is almost a regular occurrence, and appears to have become a primary means for the country’s deprived to express discontent with a state that otherwise would pay them little attention. In some cases, groups of disenfranchised Algerians show notable self-awareness about the role of rioting, warning about the possibility of turmoil and even calling press conferences to discuss plans to raise a ruckus in the streets if certain demands are not met. Despite the unusual salience of urban unrest in Algerian politics, the midwinter riots fizzled out without really shaking the state. A more detailed comparison with Tunisia’s protests is useful for understanding why.

Joining the Fray

The clashes that rocked Algeria started, as such things often do, with a mundane series of minor events: a post-match scuffle between soccer fans and police in the capital, an argument between a youth and a shopkeeper over the price of sugar in the nearby hill town of Kolea. But the fact that these disputes evolved rapidly into a nationwide rampage, replete with street battles between youths and police, points to the deep tensions in Algerian society, tensions that essentially have no outlet other than the street.

There is a kind of brute majesty to Bab el Oued, the seaside neighborhood where the Algerian disturbances began on January 4. Block after block of massive ten-story buildings built in the latter years of the colonial era to warehouse working-class pied noirs march down the slopes of the hills to the north of the city center. Along the esplanade at the water’s edge are the soccer stadiums where the quarter’s youth vent their passions for the city’s two most important teams. During the war for independence, Bab el Oued was a stronghold of the savagely anti-independence OAS and a flashpoint for rioting against the Algerian nationalists. With a population of over 100,000 in an area not even half a square mile, it remains the most densely packed neighborhood in the city, and continues to be the starting point for many episodes of urban unrest. The October 1988 events, which temporarily shattered the elite’s grip on power and ushered in a brief period of multi-party democracy, started here when police massacred rioting youths. On January 4, at the end of a soccer game, disgruntled fans began to skirmish with police, and the situation soon spiraled out of control, with mobs of young men chasing after policemen and attacking police stations. As news of the affray in Bab el Oued spread, other working-class quarters went ablaze — Cheraga, Rais Hamidou, Bains Romains; by midnight youths from the vast bidonville of Oued Ouchaiah were streaming down to the main thoroughfares to shut down traffic. [1] Other larger cities — Oran, Annaba, Constantine — were soon alight as well; in the coming days the unrest spread to smaller cities and towns across the country.

The local press universally ascribed the unrest to a sharp rise in prices for several commodities, in particular, sugar and cooking oil. For working-class Algerian families, the abrupt 33 to 45 percent increases in the prices of these foodstuffs as the new year began were a difficult shock to absorb. The price hikes were an indirect — though probably anticipated — effect of state policy. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has made reducing food imports (long an obsession of the Algerian state) a signature policy of his third run as head of government. A second initiative he has pursued is the elimination of untaxed black-market transactions by Algerian enterprises — by requiring payments in traceable checks rather than cash. In December, the agricultural products giant Cevital began requiring payments to suppliers and from distributors to be made by check, in anticipation of the new policy and to head off a tax investigation. Presumably, Cevital and its interlocutors had been declaring lower prices to the state until that point and setting them lower at market as well. Consumers and businessmen both benefited from the artificially lower prices, while the state lost its cut of tax revenue. In any event, the sudden imposition of fiscal accuracy by a player that controls most of the market in oil and sugar, combined with Ouyahia’s import restrictions, pushed prices up dramatically. [2]

The political character of the violence was clear from its targets: Rioters assailed and burned symbols of the state throughout the country. Police and police stations were a near universal object of ire; the new head of the national police force had spent the previous days bragging about the enormous — 50 percent — salary increase he was awarding to police, with two years of retroactivity, giving rise to particular bad blood among under-employed youths. [3] Post offices, municipal halls, water agencies, electricity stations and, in one case, a museum were demolished. Establishments catering to unattainable wealth — private shops and, in particular, car dealerships — were also widely sacked. Otherwise, though, the events in Algeria never took on a directed political character; the mobs of rioters did not become protesters. There were no marches, no shared slogans and no coherent demands.

Roots of Rage

In Tunisia, the events which toppled Ben Ali began with an equally mundane event, a seemingly small example of what both Tunisians and Algerians call hogra, injustice on the part of the powerful. A group of policemen confiscated the wares of one Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate who had been reduced to selling vegetables on the street in order to eke out a living. Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest; his suicide was the spark that ignited the enormous stores of resentment toward the regime in the poorest parts of the country. In contrast to the Algerian riots, the Tunisian unrest was at first primarily confined to the hinterlands of the country, underdeveloped areas that have been largely ignored by the state planners in Tunis.

The most significant contrast with events in Algeria was the political framing supplied by labor unions, opposition parties and political dissidents in Tunisia. This political framing was undoubtedly what sustained the momentum of the social movement and directed its fire at the widely hated Ben Ali. Bread riots and unrest by the unemployed thus became revolutionary protests. In Algeria, the “food riots,” as they were called, were never supplied with a political encasement by “civil society” actors. It is a counterintuitive fact, since Tunisia is (or at least was) a far more authoritarian state than Algeria, with one of the Arab world’s most comprehensively stifled presses, no freedom of association and a terrible record of torturing, imprisoning and murdering political activists. Algeria, by contrast, has a fairly open press, plenty of legal “opposition” parties and theoretically free organizing of labor unions.

In Algeria, the regime headed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika practices a subtler form of authoritarianism, which pulls its more robust opponents into a gentle embrace before smothering them politically. Since the civil war of the 1990s, the regime has successively neutered both of the main Islamist parties, allowing them to participate in elections and including them in governing coalitions, tempting them with the fruits of power, and then watching their support slump as they compromise to stay in Parliament. [4] In remarkable contrast to their role in 1988, Algeria’s Islamists remained mute in the face of January’s mass mobilization of anger. On the other end of the political spectrum, Louisa Hanoune and her Workers’ Party, among the fiercest critics of the military and the regime in the 1990s, have also been coopted by the perks of political office. Her party was at first tolerated as a kind of token opposition, but has evolved in the past five years into a tacit supporter of Bouteflika. [5] On January 8, as street violence engulfed every city and town of any size, Hanoune said, “Algeria is not in chaos. This movement is limited.” She blamed the riots on speculators pushing up food prices, echoing the official line. [6] An equal contrast with the past was provided by the General Union of Algerian Workers, which played a central role in the unrest leading up to the 1988 revolt. Since the end of the war, the Union has been decisively compromised by the replacement of the leadership with regime-friendly apparatchiks. There was naturally no industrial action in sympathy with the January events, and the Union kept mum, other than to decry the much-maligned speculators. The organized potential opposition thus sang in a chorus with the regime or was silent, and the enraged youth of the country were left essentially to their own devices.

Accordingly, the riots lacked focus. Anecdotal reports suggest that even the rioters themselves often did not know precisely what they were enraged about and were unable to articulate coherent demands or complaints. There is, of course, plenty to be angry about in Algeria, starting with the striking lack of vision on the part of the country’s leaders. The country is in the middle of a period of unparalleled fiscal affluence, but clearly is failing to invest in its future: Schools and universities are in a state of dismal neglect; the capital sprawls outward utterly unguided by urban planning, while heritage sites like the historic casbah continue to decay. Hospitals, clinics and the public health system as a whole have been allowed to deteriorate to a dismaying degree. Many large-scale industrial projects, potential generators of growth, seem to grind to a halt before completion, while the state becomes involved in pointless squabbles with the foreign multinationals that have made risky infrastructure investments in the country. In a sense, the country is caught in the classic rentier economy trap: Enormous petrochemical reserves have enabled the state to buy a kind of grudging acceptance from the populace, but the bounty has not been invested in the future, or in the kind of development that would lift all boats.

A Lever to Move the State

When Bouteflika arrived at the Rubicon of a constitutionally prohibited third term in 2008, and blithely crossed it with a hasty amendment, a group of Algerian intellectuals launched an unsuccessful campaign against his permanent presidency. In an open letter, the members of the Civil Initiative for Respect for the Constitution wrote that “the end of presidential pluralism is the latest move in a return to the pre-October 1988 autocratic pattern, to a primitive political era. It leaves the door open to only one form of expression, that of street violence.”

And, in fact, Algerians have become remarkably prone to such outbursts. A review of the archives of a single daily newspaper, El Watan — surely an incomplete record — suggests that there were at least 76 riots worthy of news coverage in Algeria in 2010, an average of nearly one and a half per week.

The year that ended with a nationwide explosion of such disturbances began with a telling moment in a recently erected and soon to be demolished slum outside Oran. In late January 2010, 200 inhabitants had arrayed themselves in the rain, facing down the bulldozers sent to raze their wood-and-tarpaper houses. “Up to this point, we’ve preferred not to resort to rioting,” one of the residents told a reporter as he faced the machines, “but if the bulldozers start, the situation is going to degenerate.” The casual reference to “rioting” suggests that poor Algerians view a fracas in the streets as the surest route to the resources of the state. Moreover, the newspaper accounts suggest that rioting often works: In the weeks and months following major street violence, the national press takes an interest in local issues, and the state seeks to resolve the problems. The state also treats rioters with surprising delicacy given the beatings that are meted out to peaceful political demonstrators. Killings of rioters are very rare.

That month, rioting broke out in Oran, Algiers, El Tarf, Tizi Ouzou, El Tarf again and, finally, Boumerdes. In March, the inhabitants of Mekla, a bidonville on the outskirts of the capital that lacked potable water and electricity, called a press conference. “We have noticed that the authorities only respond to those who riot, and we are thinking about organizing a riot,” they told reporters, but suggested that this course could be headed off if their needs were met. [7] As the year wore on, housing riots in particular seemed to dominate the headlines, although dam construction, local development, the need for hospitals and police brutality also brought young men into the streets of cities, towns and slums across the country. Tensions in the capital noticeably increased in the months leading up to the January 4 outbreak; there were 16 separate riots in December 2010, most of them in Algiers and its environs.

With this background in mind, January 4 comes into clearer focus. It was a form of commentary upon a broken political system in which many Algerians feel that street violence is the most efficient and effective way of communicating with an otherwise distant and inaccessible state. As one observer suggested, what made January 4 different was that “in place of serial rioting, the Algerians have managed to riot all over the country virtually simultaneously.” [8] The state made a few economic concessions, and after about a week of intense breaking of windows and burning of tires, the unrest tapered off. As in the local rumbles over the previous years, the state response was generally careful and limited — only three rioters were killed and the military was never involved. Again, there is an instructive contrast both with the events in Tunisia and with the state’s bloody repression of the 1988 uproar.

The Ouyahia government dealt with the early 2011 street violence in the most expedient way: The new rules requiring strict accounting in commodity food sales were abruptly and quite publicly abandoned for the time being. Thus, the state more or less explicitly restored the black market in wholesale food, a remarkable display of weakness in the face of unrest, but one entirely in keeping with the system as it has evolved in Algeria. The specter of October 1988, and that of present-day Tunisia, surely hung heavy in the room when the decision was made.

Endnotes

[1] Salim Rabia, “Algérie: La hausse générale des prix généralise l’émeute,” Maghreb Emergent, January 6, 2011.
[2] Ihsane El Kadi, “Ahmed Ouyahia s’est égaré dans sa lutte administrative contre les importations,” Maghreb Emergent, January 9, 2011.
[3] El Watan, December 27, 2010.
[4] See International Crisis Group, Islamism, Violence and Reform in Algeria: Turning the Page (Algiers/Brussels, July 2004).
[5] El Watan, April 11, 2009.
[6] Tout Sur L’Algerie, January 8, 2011.
[7] El Watan, March 23, 2010.
[8] Hugh Roberts, “Algeria’s National ‘Protesta,’” Foreign Policy, January 10, 2011.

How to cite this article:

Jack Brown "Algeria’s Midwinter Uproar," Middle East Report Online, January 20, 2011.
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