Algeria slashes food prices amid riots
By Nazim Fethi for Magharebia in Algiers – 09/01/11
Widespread unrest continued to rock Algeria on Sunday (January 9th) as protests continued against rising food prices despite government action to stem the riots.
The Algerian cabinet agreed on Saturday to lower the custom duties and taxes on sugar and other food stuffs by 41% as a temporary act to cut prices. But the measure, which will last through the end of August, did not end days of conflict in the streets between angry youth and security services.
"I can confirm the deaths of three young people in M'sila, Tipasa and Boumerdes," Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila said on Saturday, adding that more than 1,000 young people were arrested. The minister also said 736 security officers and 53 demonstrators were wounded in the violent clashes.
The first demonstrations broke out Tuesday night in the westerns suburbs of Algiers. The riots began growing in intensity on Wednesday, with protests in Oran, the country's second largest city. Later on Wednesday evening, the unrest spread to the working-class district of Bab El Oued in central Algiers. This set the scene, and one by one, the other working-class districts of the capital followed suit.
By Thursday evening, riots had broken out in a total of 24 of the country's 48 wilayas.
"I was born in the slum, I grew up with promises of being re-housed in decent accommodation," 19-year-old Mohamed told Magharebia. "Nothing, no job, no training, just pick-pocketing and unofficial odd jobs. The state did nothing for me, and this is my way of revenge for that state that ignored me."
An emergency meeting was held on Thursday at the headquarters of the Trade Ministry between with importers and processors of sugar and oil. Trade Minister Mustapha Benbada said that prices would fall next week onwards after his department gave into wholesalers who had refused to pay for goods by cheque, as a new law requires. The traders, who operated illegally, feared having to pay taxes.
"We haven't increased our prices. We are working with old stocks of raw materials," said Issad Rebrab, owner of Cevital, the largest importer and processor of sugar and oil.
Analysing the sudden flare-up of violence, sociologist Nacer Djabi asserted during an interview with daily newspaper Chourouq that this uprising, "even if it is due to economic factors, has political ramifications". He said that the riots would continue for a few days and spread to other regions of the country.
Most politicians have remained silent with regards to the unrest, apart from the Islah (Reform) movement, which has claimed that these protests are the result of the "failure of the social policies pursued by the government".
The ruling National Democratic Rally has accused "special-interest lobbies and speculators" of being behind the wave of riots.
Louisa Hanoune, the chief of the Labour Party, called on the government to establish limits for the prices of essential food item and to open "channels of communication and dialogue with young people".
"Young people do not come out in the street because of rising oil and sugar prices but due to the accumulation of problems, including unemployment and housing crisis," she said.
"The streets have become the only forum for expression at a time when the authorities have chosen not to listen to anyone," Rally for Culture and Democracy MP Othmane Maazouz said.
As far as the rioters are concerned, however, things are clear.
"We're fed up of being ignored all the time. We're fed up of being treated like guinea-pigs. We are telling this government: you've done nothing for us, we don't recognise you anymore," shouted Hamid, an unemployed man from Bab El Oued who said he has only known "terrorism and Bouteflika" throughout his lifetime.
Slogans hostile to the Algerian president were chanted by young people up and down the country. The rioters, whose average age is no more than 25, have been repeating the same battle-cry: "hogra (injustice), unemployment and high cost of living".
The young protesters are mainly operating at night due to the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras, especially in Algiers. However, in several areas of the city, these cameras have been destroyed by the rioters.
The situation remains tense across the country and police officers are on high alert, especially since major roads are still impassable to traffic, including the East-West Highway. The trains linking the central and western regions of the country have all been cancelled.
Due to fears of violent outbursts, the Algerian Football Federation cancelled all matches that were scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Most traders have emptied their shops for fear of being attacked.
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