Berbers bring Algeria to brink of insurrection

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The Independent Online

There comes a time when the people have had enough. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the "velvet revolution" in Prague. And now Algeria. Could it be that the citizens of a country that should be as rich as Saudi Arabia ­ a land of immense oil and gas wealth, the 10th largest nation in the world ­ are turning against the old men of le pouvoir, the "authorities"? For what started as a Berber revolt in Tizi Ouzou after the death of a schoolboy in police custody is fast turning into an insurrection.

Just read the Algerian press. Le Quotidien d'Oran, never a beacon of revolution in the Algerian media, put it very well this week. As riots consumed the cities of Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika remained silent. "Algeria, on the edge of insurrection ... doesn't particularly seem to upset the President, who remains embarrassingly silent amid so dangerous a crisis," the paper reported. In increasingly violent street demonstrations ­ perhaps a million people were on the streets of Algiers at the weekend ­ at least 50, perhaps as many as 80, people have died, including two journalists. Yesterday the government, accusing protesters of "dragging the country into chaos and anarchy", banned all demonstrations in the capital.

Two years ago, Mr Bouteflika was welcomed as the man who could be the interlocuteur valable ­ the "neutral mediator" ­ between the Islamist guerrillas and the eradicateurs of the military-backed government in Algiers. He was supposed to be the man who would "root out" the corruption that had permeated the government for so long. But when faced with the first riots in Tizi Ouzou ­ provoked by the police-station killing and demands that the Berber language be recognised ­ he announced that the violence was the result of a "foreign plot", the last resort of Eastern European dictators for 70 years.

In reality, poverty, urban despair and unemployment are driving the youth of Algeria to revolution. In Algiers, where the young men and women sleep in three shifts in their homes ­ because there is no other way to rest with so many crammed into so few houses ­ the Berber revolt in the hills was an inspiration. Ignoring government statements that their demonstration would be illegal, they poured into the the capital at the weekend, smashing shops and attacking government offices. The crowds overflowed the coastal highway and marched to the capital along the railway tracks.

It is not difficult to understand their anger. Even when the French ex-general Aussaresses boasted in a book of his army's torture and murder of young Algerian nationalists, the Algerian government was apparently so fearful of damaging its relations with Paris that it remained silent. While the French were expressing their disgust at the actions of this vile old Frenchman, Algeria's leaders ­ the inheritors of the land brought through so much suffering by the men whom Aussaresses personally tortured ­ had no comment to make.

As long as the internal crisis involved only the Berber Kabyle region of Algeria, the government could present the violence as a foreign "plot". But once the demonstrations embraced Annaba, Skikda and other cities, it was impossible to deny that the youth of Algeria ­ and most of the protesters are in their teens or early twenties ­ were in revolt.

Nor were the reasons difficult to understand. In Annaba, the cause of the demonstrations was a lack of drinking water. "We are at the end of our tether," a protesters' delegation told the Mayor of Annaba. "We have had enough of power cuts and we're not going to go through the summer filling jerrycans. Do something or else it's war!"

Hocine Ait Ahmed, the head of the Berber Front des forces socialistes and one of the surviving leaders of the independence struggle, said of the President: "For as long as he serves the regime ­ and he has served it well ­ the army will protect him." The government ­ "in its bunker" ­ should undertake a re-examination and hold free elections for a constituent assembly.

According to the former minister of communications and culture, Abdelaziz Rahabi, Mr Bouteflika must call for a dialogue of all parties. "He has totally discredited all the state institutions ­ political parties, parliament, the government ­ even the army which brought him to power," he said. "He thought he would make himself popular by attacking these institutions but he has finally fallen into his own trap. Now, the people believe nobody and want everyone to go."