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mardi 28 mai 2013

The Protest Movement of the Unemployed in Southern Algeria

On March 14, 2013 thousands of unemployed Algerians participated in a sit-in in the city of Ouargla in southern Algeria, summoned by the "National Committee for the Protection of the Rights of the Unemployed". The protest demanded an end to the policies of marginalization, and called for the employment of southern Algerians in the petroleum projects in the country's south. Since the Ouargla sit-in, protests have become part of daily life in a number of cities in southern Algeria. On April 10 and 11, another demonstration in Ouargla objecting the list of beneficiaries of the social housing projects provided by the state turned into violent clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces, leading to the death of a young man who suffocated after inhaling tear gas.
The protests began in February 2013 when a number of unemployed young men demonstrated outside the headquarters of Ourgla's National Employment Agency. College graduates who took part in the protest set their diplomas on fire in defiance against their living conditions and the lack of employment opportunities. The security forces dealt with these demonstrations by deploying tear gas, forcefully dispersing protesters, and utilizing other intimidation methods, including interrogation and detainment of the organizers, who were charged by Algerian courts for "organizing illegal assemblies". The protests rapidly began to spread in the south and the north of the country.
The March 14 protests encouraged other Algerians to take to the streets demanding their rights. On March 26, the "National Organization for the Resistance against Terrorism," an illegal body in Algeria, rallied its members to demonstrate in a number of provinces and demand their social and economic rights as compensation for their contribution to combating terrorism as members of the resistance, and as municipal defense units that were organized by the regime in the 1990s during the Algerian civil war.[1]
The protests began to take on a clear political dimension that was missing in previous social protests, with slogans raised by the protesters referring to the recent corruption scandals in the energy sector, demanding the trial of former Energy Minister Shakib Khalil and his aides, who were implicated in the corruption cases.[2] The National Committee for the Protection of the Rights of the Unemployed called for a demonstration in the city of El-Oued on March 30 calling it "the million-man march for the establishment of the state of law". Hundreds of unemployed youth participated in the protest, and the use of the term "million-man march"-directly inspired from the Arab revolutions-took the protests to a political level. Case in point, the slogan "establishing the state of law" is a political slogan par excellence that goes beyond demand-based slogans. The organizers of the El-Oued protest succeeded in rallying hundreds of young demonstrators despite the strict security precautions that were put in place. Algerian security forces prevented young men coming from the different provinces to protest from entering the city and blockaded the square where the demonstrations took place.
The protests took on a political twist with the participation of political forces and figures in the movement. In an attempt to propose a political initiative that could break the state of political stasis in Algeria, the former prime minister and potential presidential candidate Ahmed Benbitour, along with the chairman of the New Generation Party Soufiane Djilali, and Mohammad Mashati, former leader in the National Liberation Front (FLN) and part of the "group of 22" who sparked the 1954 Algerian Revolution, launched an open political initiative to all political and civic forces in order to prevent the running of current President, Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, for a fourth presidential term in 2014.[3]
The El-Oued demonstration was joined by a number of representatives of the opposition political parties and representatives of the civil society associations, including a delegation from the families of those missing during the 1990s civil war. In fact, Ali Belhaj, former leader in the banned "Islamic Salvation Front" (FIS), tried to join the protesters before being arrested by the security forces.[4]
These protests remain, nonetheless, principally youth protests in terms of both their structure and the identity of the organizers. The majority of the activists behind these protests belong to demands-based civic associations that were recently created. Despite the spread of the demonstrations into a number of provinces, the center of the movement remains in the southern provinces, and it is clear that those active in the movement do not belong to political organizations, in fact, there are no signs that the organizers and protest leaders carry political or intellectual positions on public issues. If anything, the protesters have tried to distance themselves from party-based or political frameworks. In fact, the protesters have rejected the attempt by some Algerian political forces to ride the wave of protests, claiming that they do not belong to any political current. The protesters went as far as expelling Ali Belhaj and rejecting his participation in their sit-in.
The Roots of the Protests in the South
While the triggers behind this protest movement are linked to a deteriorating economic situation, weakness of local development in the southern regions, and increased unemployment, especially among the youth and college graduates in the region, unemployment is not a problem specific to the country's south. It is a national phenomenon that afflicts all provinces and regions with an unemployment rate estimated at 10 percent, rising to 16.1 percent among university graduates according to the IMF.[5] Some factors are, however, specifically linked to the south.
To start with, despite the concentration of oil and gas wealth and oil installations in the south, this wealth did not translate into development projects that improve the population's living standard or raise the level of services provided. There is a general perception among southerners that the youth are marginalized in terms of employment in the oil fields that are located in their regions. This stands to reason despite the lack of verifiable data on the employment of local workers in the oil facilities. The unemployment problem in the south increased with the rising number of university educated southerners during the last three decades, especially amid the lack of suitable employment policies because the majority of companies able to provide new employment opportunities are concentrated in the country's north, which leaves southerners with the oil as their sole option, but, in these companies, the youth claim they are excluded. There is near-consensus in Algeria that having the presence of the central headquarters of the national oil company (SONATRACH) in Algiers, far away from the oil facilities in the south, and the predominance of personal relations in employment decisions, are the main reasons for the marginalization of Algerians in the southern provinces and the dearth of employment opportunities for them in the oil fields.
The protests of the southern youth go back to 2004, when "the Movement of the Southerners for Justice" was founded as a peaceful movement demanding the youth's right to be employed in energy projects in their regions and increased support for local developmental programs. The regime dealt harshly with the movement, subjecting its members to security and judicial persecution. The movement was disbanded and its coordinators received sentences of up to eight months in prison. Some of the movement's former members continued their peaceful activism and persevered in making their demands. They are, today, part of the new protest movement. Given the fact that the state did not heed the popular movement in 2004, southern Algerians reverted to peaceful protest. In the meantime, some of the youth who were active in the 2004 protests had left civic and political action, others got involved in illegal trade through the southern borders as means of securing a livelihood, and reports also indicate that some have joined violent armed groups.[6] Over the years, the sentiment of exclusion felt by youth in the southern provinces intensified, a situation that was validated by the Economic and Social Council, whose report confirmed regional inequality in development.[7]
Prior to the March 14 demonstrations, in an attempt to defuse the crisis in the south, the state changed six provincial governors in the southern provinces of Ouargla, Tamanghasset, Tindouf, Illizi, al-Oued, and al-Bayadh. The government also announced a number of measures to address youth unemployment in the south, including the professional formation and employment of southern youth in the energy sector. However, following years of unfulfilled promises, the youth had already lost their trust in the government. The protests continued, and the protesters demanded to meet directly with government officials in order to discuss their demands and ensure a solution.
At the start of the protest, attempts were made to delegitimize these protests through a media and political discourse that labeled the movement as regionalist and tainted with a secessionist agenda. The protesters, however, were careful to avoid such labels. The members of the National Association for the Protection of the Rights of the Unemployed stressed their patriotism, raising slogans that assert the unity of the nation, frequently raising the national flag in the demonstrations.
Algeria: Where to?
Due to the size and rapid spread of these protests, this movement represents a significant development in the Algerian political scene. Even if the movement is largely a social and demands-based one, it has also started to acquire a political dimension that has come with new slogans and demands. The fact that the protests are occurring in the southeastern regions, home to the production of oil and gas, represents a threat to the regime. This does not, however, mean that one can yet speak of a "Southern question" in Algeria.
What these protests have made evident is the fact that the main form of legitimacy the Algerian regime has based itself on is the preservation of security and stability. Despite President Bouteflika's announcement offering local political and developmental reforms in the spring of 2011, the regime failed to present political initiatives that changed the rules of the political game and opened a channel for political participation of citizens, in a manner befitting the changes imposed by the Arab revolutions. In addition, he proposed no economic or development initiatives that would aim to raise Algerians' standard of living, nor did he provide new employment opportunities, which would narrow the developmental gap between regions, even though over $200 billion of surplus is available.
Two future scenarios can be drawn from this analysis:
The first scenario entails the continuation of the protest movement, but one that would remain concentrated in the south. This would exclude the spread of protests to other provinces and present little pressure on the Algerian regime, at least until the coming presidential elections in the spring of 2014. The regime may in this case wager on specific measures and policies in order to contain these protests and weaken their momentum, portraying them as a state of mild discontent rather than a genuine political protest movement. The regime would continue to adopt "soft" and "semi-violent" security policies in dealing with the protesters, while offering monetary grants and work opportunities to a number of southern youth in in exchange for peace, given the scale of financial resources available to the regime. While this approach of dealing with popular discontent, lacking a real reform policy based on political and development principles, may quiet down the ongoing protests, this political strategy is not a guarantee for long-term political stability, as evidenced by the experience of the 2004 protests or the 2011 protests in the capital Algiers.
Another scenario sees the protests expand across Algeria until the movement gains a national character, and puts into force a political dimension. The chances for this scenario to take place are relatively slim, due to the weakness in organizing civil society and the citizens' lack of confidence in political parties. In short, the framework that can unite and mobilize the masses is absent, especially with the memory of the 1990s civil war still alive among the populace; the Algerians have to make a difficult choice between stability and security, on the one hand, and reform and freedom, on the other.
What remains clear is that the Algerian regime, which to an extent succeeded in combating armed terrorist groups, is still incapable of transforming this achievement into a comprehensive political project that would open the way for political reform.
In sum, the Algerian regime is facing a serious development challenge in providing an economic program that would have a tangible effect on the lives of citizens, along with a process of deep political reform that can renew and reinforce the pillars of legitimacy of the state and the political regime. The absence of such a process may lead to serious social and political repercussions that may threaten security and peace in Algeria. 

[1] During the civil war, the regime was supported by citizens who were organized into "civil defense" and regular units that were hurriedly established and called "the municipal defense units". The Ministry of Interior decided to disband these organizations in 2012.
[2] As the protests unfolded, a financial corruption scandal broke out in the oil sector, with the former Energy Minister Shakib Khalil and his aides standing accused of receiving over USD 200 million in bribes, according to a joint investigation, between the Italian ENI company and the national Algerian energy company, SONATRACH, of the SAIPEM company, in order to execute energy infrastructure projects in Algeria. It is worth mentioning that Algeria ranked 105 out of 176 countries on the corruption scale in the 2012 Transparency International report. See:
[6] Some of youth who were active in the "Movement of Southerners for Justice" opted for armed action, executing the first armed attack against an Algerian Airlines aircraft in the Jant airport (in the extreme south) in 2007. The man who executed the suicide attack against the national police headquarters in June 2012 was also a leading member of the movement, as well as Mohammed Lamin Bin Shanab, who was among the fighters who attacked the gas complex in Ain Amnas (January 2013), and who was a former member of the same movement.
[7] The Economic and Social Council held a series of meetings with civil society forces in a number of regions regarding local development. These efforts resulted in a report that included recommendations to narrow the development gap; however, the government did not adopt these recommendations, a summary of which is available on the following website:


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