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Algeria. Austerity, corruption and social injustice spill over into anger

Translated Wednesday 4 January 2017, by Tom Gil

Following Monday’s clashes and clashes in Bejaia, the police arrested about a hundred young protesters. After the adoption of an austere 2017 budget law, the government has accused the protesters of wanting to "stir things up " to "destabilize the country".

Calm has returned, public transport services have tentatively resumed, but the feeling of revolt against the austerity measures decided in Algiers remains intact. Yesterday, for the second day in a row, most businesses dropped the curtain in Bejaïa, the big city on the Kabylia coast, 180 kilometers east of Algiers. Already on Monday, the slogan of a general strike, launched on social networks, amplified by word-of-mouth, had been massively followed. Without the need for political or union intervention. On the same day, a march starting in the popular neighborhoods of Ighil Ouazoug, the Ihaddaden and the Remla slums degenerated close to the HQ of the wilaya (the equivalent of the prefecture), after the security forces tried to disperse young demonstrators using tear gas. The clashes continued until late in the evening. A BNP Paribas bank branch, the Condor household appliances showroom, the National Tobacco and Match Societies (SNTA) depot and the offices of the Education Ministry were targeted by the rioters. A bus and a riot police van were set on fire.

Other towns in the wilaya were the scene of clashes, with police stations stoned at Tichy, Sidi Aich and Tazmalt. In all, about a hundred young demonstrators were arrested and, as of Monday, the local branches of the UGTA trade union intensified calls for calm. "Only a peaceful framework is able to bring about legitimate citizen demands", said the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (Laddh), calling for "vigilance". For Said Salhi, vice-president, the violent turn of events in Bejaia was predictable. "The responsibility for these riots rests first with the government, which gagged civil society, refusing to let the Algerians express themselves in a free and organized manner. The authorities have cut off all channels of discussion and mediation", he said. At the centre of the dispute are the austerity measures in the Finance Act 2017, which provides for severe cuts in public spending, higher taxes and higher prices for fuel, electricity and basic goods. "Algerians are committed to social justice. To overcome the crisis, they are ready to make efforts - provided they are shared. However, [these] austerity [measures] weigh on the most vulnerable, the unemployed, the workers, the middle classes. Not on those who have amassed easy fortunes by illegal means, nor on the ministers with their expensive lifestyles", continued Saïd Salhi.

Above all, the lack of political direction fuels uncertainty and fears for the future. With the drop in oil and gas prices, the Algerian economy, highly dependent on these fuels, has experienced a sharp and lasting economic shock over the past two years. As a result of the 30% decline in hydrocarbon revenues, the resources of the the Revenue Regulation Fund, a sovereign wealth fund based on income from Algeria’s oil and gas reserves, fell from 25.6% of GDP in 2014 to 12.3% In 2016. And the forecasts, with growth expected at 2.9% in 2017, are not optimistic, despite the agreement to reduce production concluded this autumn by OPEC member countries. In fact, following the recommendations of the IMF to reduce its budget deficit (16.4% of GDP) and in the absence of reforms to its economy, Algeria faces a vicious circle of austerity. Perilous choices, in a country with colossal social needs, where the youth unemployment rate is close to 30%, according to official figures.

So many challenges remain unanswered: last week, during a televised speech, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal advised Algerians to consume oranges. To ward off the spectre of widespread social unrest, the government is heavily playing up fears aroused by a troubled regional context. Yesterday in Guelma, Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui attacked "those who want to stir things up among the Algerian people", even calling [for efforts to] "thwart the attempts to destabilize the country".

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