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Middle East :: Algeria
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ALGERIA'S SHADOWY regime - le pouvoir - has been rocked by the largest mass protests for over a decade.
On 18 April, school student, Massinissa Guermah, died at Beni Doula police station, near the city of Tizi Ouzou, capital of Kabylie, a Berber-speaking region east of the capital, Algiers.
The whole region became a battle zone. Government buildings have been attacked and destroyed and attempts made to overrun police stations.
Le pouvoir reacted in typical fashion, attempting to quell the movement by force. Live ammunition was used resulting in between 60-80 deaths on the first demonstration.
This brutal reaction, however, added fuel to the fire, with protesters proclaiming an Algerian intifada - inspired by the struggle of the Palestinian people.
There have been days of action and demonstrations by women, lawyers, doctors and civil servants. A million people marched in Algiers on 14 June. Banners voiced the anger: "Pouvoir Assassin; Down with the government; No forgiveness".
This was attacked when it tried to march on the presidential palace, demanding the withdrawal of the gendarmerie from Kabylie, punishment of those responsible for firing on demonstrators, for an economic plan to revive the region's economy, and official status for the Berber language.
A further four people were killed and a staggering 110 people 'disappeared', meaning that they could not be found in prison or hospital. 30 have now been released but 80 remain, presumably, in police detention.
The movement has now spread throughout Algeria, with people taking up demands against police/military oppression, unemployment, a chronic lack of housing and water shortages.
The widespread anger and frustration is reinforced by the fact that Algeria is rich in oil and natural gas supplies, the wealth of society siphoned off by the ruling elite. Unemployment is officially 30%.
For those under 25-years old, it is around 80%. In Algiers, it is commonplace for families to sleep in three shifts such is the housing shortage.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has exposed his own impotence. He has called a commission of inquiry and has withdrawn some police units from Kabylie and reshuffled his cabinet. This has impressed no one.
In Annaba, the protesters' delegation told the mayor: "We are at the end of our tether. We have had enough of power cuts and we're not going to go through the summer filling jerrycans. Do something or it's war!" (Independent, 20 June)
Bouteflika came to power two years ago promising an end to the systemic corruption and the civil war between the regime and Islamist guerrillas which has seen around 100,000 die over the past nine years.
He introduced a controversial amnesty programme, whereby thousands of guerrillas have handed in their weapons and returned to the neighbourhoods they once terrorised. There are daily protests by women who have received less in compensation for the deaths of husbands and sons than the guerrillas have received for accepting the amnesty.
Bouteflika's inaction in Algeria is being contrasted to his role in brokering the ceasefire between Ethiopia and Eritrea and his extensive tour of the world's capitals. The latest joke is that Bouteflika is considering another official visit - to Algeria!
The Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa, have a long and proud history of struggle for social, economic and cultural rights.
Around 20% of Algerians speak the Berber language, Tamazight. There are two political parties based in Kabylie, the Rally for Culture and Democracy, which has withdrawn from the government, and the Socialist Forces Front.
Both of these parties are discredited to the extent that local party offices have also been attacked. The political vacuum is being filled by action on the streets.
An opposition MP, Abdessalam Ali Rachedi, told The Economist: "There is no-one with the necessary credibility to talk to the young rebels. The divorce between the regime and society is total." (5 May)
The demonstrations and deaths are continuing. Last week, three protesters were killed in Bejaia about 250 km (160 miles) east of Algiers. Two paramilitary gendarmes were killed in separate clashes.
Two protesters were shot dead in Chrea 600 km east of Algiers when a hotel owner opened fire on the crowd. The hotel was razed to the ground and the owner beaten unconscious.
Another demonstration is due to take place on 25 June to commemorate the second anniversary of the assassination of the Kabylie singer and activist, Lounes Matoub.
Ominously, the regime has now banned all demonstrations in the capital. This increases the chances of the army being mobilised to crush any opposition.
Clearly, le pouvoir is making contingency plans to prevent a potential generalised popular uprising. A national demonstration in defiance of the ban is planned for 5 July.
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Article dated 29 June 2001
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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