Calm returned to Algiers on Friday, a day after the army intervened to quell three days of bloody rioting over price increases, food shortages and new government austerity measures affecting the poor, sources in the Algerian capital said.
But there were unconfirmed reports of new disturbances in Oran, Algeria’s second-largest city, and several thousand Islamic fundamentalists carried out a tense but nonviolent confrontation with police and soldiers in suburban Algiers.
“It is eerily quiet now,” a foreign resident said by telephone, describing the calm that had returned to the capital by Friday afternoon. “Except for the soldiers, the streets are deserted.”
900 Arrests Reported
Military authorities said that 900 people had been arrested in the rioting, the worst the capital has seen since Algeria was granted independence from France 26 years ago. Unofficial reports from witnesses and hospital sources spoke of dozens of dead and wounded.
The new military command, placed in charge of the city Thursday when President Chadli Bendjedid declared a state of emergency, admitted that there were casualties, civilian and military, but gave no figures.
The military “regrets the losses in human life, as much among the protesters as among the ranks of the forces of order,” the command said in a brief statement.
Mostly Young People
Judging by hospital accounts, most of the civilian casualties appeared to be in their teens or early 20s, the age group that accounts for nearly two-thirds of Algeria’s burgeoning population of 23 million.
The young people are the most economically disaffected demographic group in Algeria. Unemployment is said to exceed more than 40% in urban areas. Their frustrations, compounded by chronic food shortages and double-digit inflation, are widely regarded as the main reason for the rioting that erupted Tuesday.
Pouring out of the poor and overcrowded quarters of Algiers, the youths rampaged through the commercial and shopping districts of the city, ransacking government ministries, airline offices and banks and setting fire to scores of cars and buses, witnesses said.
When police, overwhelmed by the thousands of protesters, proved incapable of containing the violence, Bendjedid declared a state of emergency and called out the army for the first time since independence.
Most of the fatalities appeared to have occurred as the army, moving into the city Thursday afternoon with tanks and troop carriers, opened fire on crowds of stone-throwing demonstrators.
Scattered shooting could be heard throughout the night, and foreign residents living in the hilltop suburbs overlooking the city saw red tracer bullets arching across the nighttime sky as the soldiers clashed with roving bands of youths violating a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew.
Diplomats and other residents said the violence subsided by daybreak, when the demonstrations gave way to long lines of anxious shoppers waiting to buy bread from the few bakeries that opened in the capital. But tension remained high throughout the day because of fears that the rioting might erupt again after traditional prayers on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath.
Reports from the capital said that several thousand Islamic fundamentalists gathered in Belcourt, an eastern quarter of Algiers, after the prayer services and began chanting slogans calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in officially socialist Algeria.
Troops cordoned off the area but apparently did not interfere with the protest, and there were no reports of violence.
Although the riots clearly were sparked by mass frustration with economic conditions, Islamic fundamentalists also sought to make use of the opportunity offered by the unrest to agitate for their demands for the application of sharia, the Islamic code of law. A number of stores selling liquor, the consumption of which Islam considers a sin, were among the targets attacked by the rioters, witnesses said.
Much of the violence appeared to be spontaneous, but a government statement Thursday accused “enemies of the Algerian people” and elements “hostile to reform” of manipulating the young and provoking them to protest.
The government named no persons or groups, but diplomats in Algiers said they doubt that the fundamentalists had been the primary agitators.
“It was more an example of spontaneous social combustion,” one diplomat said. “The pressure built up and blew the lid off a Pandora’s box of social grievances.”
Now that the lid is off, all sorts of grievances, including those of the fundamentalists, are coming out into the open, the diplomat concluded.
The rioters appeared to have no specific demands, but their anger was clearly directed at the socially disruptive short-term effects of Bendjedid’s reforms, which have included a reduction of subsidies and the streamlining of large and unprofitable state enterprises. The former has fueled inflation, while the latter has contributed to unemployment.
That these two grievances were uppermost in the rioters’ minds seems clear from the fact that they attacked government ministries, banks, airline offices and other symbols of affluence.