Algeria: A hunger for stability?

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Police scuffle with protesters in Algiers

Street protests in Algeria have failed to flourish, unlike those in some neighbouring North African countries. The BBC's Kevin Connolly considers why the country's opposition is struggling to find its voice.

Few historical events have managed to match the breathless demands of the modern 24-hour news cycle like the first phase of this year's Arab spring.

At the start of January it was unthinkable. By the end of February it had started to seem unstoppable. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt appeared to be creating a kind of shock-wave that was rattling regimes throughout the region.

Since then of course, the process has appeared to stall.

Events in Libya and Syria have demonstrated that governments prepared to use force against their own people can certainly slow down the pace of change and perhaps even reverse it.

The complex and ambiguous struggle for power in Yemen, too, offered further proof that the idea of a democratising wave sweeping through the Middle East was a little too simplistic.

Comparisons were made with the wave of creative destruction that swept through Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

But they were comparisons that ignored a crucial difference: Eastern Europe was under military occupation by a super-power (the USSR) and was in thrall to a unifying ideology - communism.

Once both had gone, change became possible.

And of course the truth is - as Leo Tolstoy once wrote of unhappy families - that every Arab autocracy is autocratic in its own way.

Letting off steam

To find the limits of the Arab spring I travelled to Algeria.

It was one of the countries which saw a brief flourishing of street protest in January - and it was also among those where the sparks of discontent failed to ignite into the flames of revolt.

To Algerian Information Minister Nacer Mehal the reasons for that are obvious.

Image caption,
State broadcasters are now being allowed to mention opposition activity

"Algeria is not Egypt and it's not Tunisia," he said simply.

"We already had our process of change going all the way back to 1988. I don't believe that Algerians are frightened of this government."

"Our windows are open," he said, sniffing in a great lungful of air by way of illustration.

The personable Mr Mehal is a former journalist whose easy-going style makes him an attractive front-man for the generals in civilian suits who wield real power in Algeria.

And as you would expect his explanation for the relative stability in his country glosses over some of the grimmer realities of recent history.

The defining moment in that recent history came in 1991 when a military-backed government over-turned the results of an election on the grounds that first round results suggested that an Islamic party was heading for victory.

The civil war which followed may have killed as many as 200,000 people and it has left deep scars in Algerian society.

There can be few countries on earth where the uniformed security forces have so high a profile and the heavy traffic around Algiers is frequently choked to a near standstill by police roadblocks which filter multiple lanes of traffic down to a crawling single file.

Even some members of the opposition will cautiously admit that the grinding years of violence have left many Algerians with a hunger for stability that might outweigh their appetite for immediate change.

No-one would call the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika subtle but its response to the Arab spring has been interesting.

Policing of protests of course has been heavy-handed, but it has been accompanied by measures designed to let some of the steam out of the momentum of the calls for change.

Photo warnings

Subsidies can always be tweaked and salaries changed to take the edge off the economic edge to the discontent.

The official media too can be subtly changed to take account of changing times.

Image caption,
There are plans to relax laws that make certain criticisms of the president punishable by a jail term

In a move which captures the very essence of incremental reform we were told that a planned revision of the constitution meant that certain criticisms of the president could still land you with a fine, but no longer carried the threat of imprisonment.

Journalists working for the state television service told the BBC that they enjoyed slightly greater freedom to mention opposition activity.

That might not sound like much - but in a country where photo editors get warning phone calls about not using pictures which show Mr Bouteflika's comb-over flapping in the wind, it is something.

After a week in Algeria we attended an opposition rally where we counted 32 protesters and 175 uniformed riot police backed up by a harder-to-count number of men in plain clothes.

One young protester said to me simply: "One day this will be bigger than Tahrir Square - but not today.

"We will keep returning every week though until things begin to change and Algeria has democracy."

For the moment though, that feels like a distant hope.

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