Algerian authorities Thursday declared a state of emergency and called out the army as thousands of demonstrators clashed with police in downtown Algiers on the third day of widespread rioting over food shortages and rising prices.
There were no official figures on casualties, but residents and other witnesses in Algiers reported hearing sporadic gunfire throughout the city. They said the rioting was the worst they had ever seen in the Algerian capital.
“The destruction has been extensive,” a foreign resident said by telephone. “Large crowds of looters and rioters have appeared all over town. Last night, from our windows, we could see fires burning across the city.”
Witnesses reported seeing columns of tanks moving into the capital from the south in the mid-afternoon, about an hour after President Chadli Bendjedid declared the state of emergency and warned that the state would “intervene with all vigor” to quell the rioting by thousands of youths, some of whom were said to be armed.
An announcement read repeatedly over the state-run radio said the president had invoked a “state of siege” provision in the Algerian constitution to place “all civil, administrative and security authorities under military command.”
The radio gave no indication whether the army, taking up positions at key intersections and government buildings, had been able to bring the rioting under control. But several diplomats reached by telephone said the sound of gunfire had diminished by late afternoon and that relative calm appeared to have returned to the city by nightfall.
But these diplomats, along with most other foreign residents of Algiers, live in a hilltop suburb far removed from the commercial center and the poorer neighborhoods where the most violent disturbances have occurred.
Algerian authorities characterized the rioting as a spontaneous outburst of “hooliganism and vandalism.” It appeared to reflect the frustration of the young and unemployed over food shortages, inflation and other manifestations of the economic crisis gripping this North African nation of 23 million people, nearly all of whom live in a narrow belt of arable land along the Mediterranean shoreline.
However, accounts furnished by diplomats and other witnesses in the capital suggested a pattern of violence not likely to occur without at least some form of low-level organization. There were also indications that at least some of the rioters may have been inspired by Islamic fundamentalism, a burgeoning movement in the Muslim but dourly socialist state.
Pamphlets calling for a general strike began circulating throughout poor quarters of the capital a day before the rioting erupted Tuesday night, several diplomats said. In the first 48 hours, the rioters “systematically attacked” government ministries, public buses and offices that opened in violation of the strike call, they said.
“Much of the violence seems to have been directed against people and enterprises that were not participating in the strike,” a diplomat said. “The rioters were trying to shut things down by force.”
At the height of the violence Wednesday and Thursday, the rioters appeared to number at least several thousand. They attacked, looted or burned dozens of government buildings and related offices, including the ministries of energy, commerce, culture and education, the headquarters of the ruling National Liberation Front and the offices of the Algerian state airline, witnesses said.
Scores of buses and cars were overturned and burned, among them a limousine belonging to the Swiss ambassador, one diplomat said. He added that Algerian authorities had warned “all foreigners to stay off the streets and keep out of sight.”
Unconfirmed reports indicated that a number of liquor stores were targeted for attack, and several witnesses said they heard demonstrators in some parts of town shouting Islamic slogans.
“There does appear to be evidence of some organization, but by whom and how extensively is not known yet,” a diplomat said. “It is still too early to tell.”
Eruption of Frustration
But other analysts blamed the disturbances more on a spontaneous eruption of frustration over deteriorating economic conditions and the imposition of more austerity measures, which have included the gradual elimination of state subsidies and the cancellation last week of an annual bonus at a large state-owned auto assembly plant.
They noted that in scope and motive, the riots were similar to large-scale protests over food shortages in the Algerian cities of Constantine and Setif two years ago.
“What’s happening now is not another Beirut, and it’s not another intifada ,” an Arab journalist who is a longtime resident of Algiers said, referring to the civil war in Lebanon and the prolonged Palestinian uprising in Israel. “What is happening is a spontaneous outburst expressing people’s discontent with the economic problems and all the shortages.”
A severe drought this year, coupled with a virtual freeze on imports necessitated by the government’s refusal to be forced into debt rescheduling, has contributed to shortages so severe that beef now sells for the equivalent of nearly $12 a pound. Drinking water costs $4 a gallon.
The ruling National Liberation Front, in a statement issued after an emergency meeting Wednesday night, conceded that there were serious problems with prices and shortages. But it emphasized a need to move ahead with Bendjedid’s economic reforms, which are aimed at streamlining bureaucratic controls and decentralizing authority at state enterprises to give managers more leeway to hire, fire and otherwise attain profitability.
A party congress scheduled for December is expected to ratify these reforms. But, according to diplomats, there is still considerable opposition within the large and lethargic government bureaucracy.
It appears too early to say how the riots will affect Bendjedid’s position, but the diplomats noted that he was able to turn the 1986 disturbances in Constantine and Setif to his advantage by arguing that violent social unrest underlined the need for economic reform.
The party statement issued Wednesday night echoed this argument by suggesting that it was those who resisted the government’s reforms, not the reforms themselves, who are to blame for the current economic crisis.