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State of Siege Over--but Algeria Is Still Viewed as ‘a Social Tinderbox’

Times Staff Writer

The old man sat stiffly on a stool in front of his fire-gutted storefront, trying to ignore the stranger who wanted to know what he thought about the riots that convulsed Algiers last week.

Finally, without saying a word, he raised his right hand and pointed to a slogan scrawled in large letters on a wall across the street. “Chadli assassin,” it said. “Give us our rights.”

President Chadli Bendjedid has lifted a state of siege, the tanks have withdrawn and most of the debris from the worst riots here since the French left Algeria 26 years ago has been swept away.

But the writing on the walls in the many overcrowded and poor neighborhoods of Algiers serves as a vivid reminder of the upheaval, in which at least 200 people reportedly were killed.

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More troubling for the Bendjedid government is another thing that plainly endures: the desperation of Algeria’s frustrated and angry youth. About 60% of Algeria’s 23 million people are younger than 25. In Algiers, the capital, an estimated 40% of them are unemployed.

Most of the rioters in Algiers, and in the dozen or so other towns and cities where similar disturbances broke out, were in their teens and early 20s. For them, one theory has it, the rioting had a cathartic effect. Now that their anger and frustration have been vented, things can get back to normal.

But the problem with this theory is that a normal day for most of these youths consists of hanging around the video-game parlors or lingering on street corners. To return to normal means to return to nothing--for nothing relieves the dispiriting boredom of their daily existence.

“Nothing has really changed,” one Western diplomat said. “There is talk of political reform, but the people who rioted are still living seven to a room, in the same poverty that made them erupt in the first place. This is still a social tinderbox, and all it needs is another spark to set it off.”

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A Nation Divided

Algeria today is a nation deeply divided between the few who have and the many who have not, between those who obtain luxuries through the back door and those who have to stand in long lines, between those with “connections” and those without them.

Having influence, or piston , as the Algerians refer to it, using the French word, is all-important here. It is piston , more than money, that gets a car, the foreign currency needed to travel abroad, or an apartment after a wait of only six months instead of the customary five years.

But there is yet another division, ones less tangible but perhaps more important: It is a division of time between an older generation that fought and won a bitter war--a generation that is still willing to make sacrifices--and a younger generation that looks to the future and sees only continued unemployment, poverty and despair.

“In Algeria, the only way to avoid despair is to live in the past,” one university professor said. “Only the ones who live in the past can fail to see that they have no future.”

Mirroring these divisions is an intense political debate that diplomats say is taking place in the upper levels of the government, the army and the ruling National Liberation Front, Algeria’s only political party.

The recent unrest has sharpened that debate, honing it into what many observers believe will be a serious struggle for power between reformers and traditionalists before a pivotal December congress of the FLN, as the National Liberation Front is known.

Since succeeding Houari Boumedienne 10 years ago, Bendjedid has become a demagogue with an ambitious reform program aimed at dismantling some of the more inefficient aspects of Algeria’s swollen socialist bureaucracy and lethargic Soviet-style economy.

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He has tried to break up large state enterprises into smaller, more competitive companies, and he has shifted the emphasis in planning from heavy industry to agriculture, where private enterprise is being encouraged. More recently, foreign investment--a concept anathema to Algerians since independence--has also been encouraged, although with only limited success.

In recent years, these efforts have taken on new urgency because of the steady fall in the price of oil and gas, from which Algeria derived virtually all of its foreign currency earnings.

In 1981, when oil earnings peaked at $12 billion, Algeria did not have to worry so much about the cost of pampering an unproductive population growing at the rate of 3.1% a year. But since then, oil revenues have fallen to only a fourth of what they were, forcing the government to impose severe austerity measures.

Imports have been sharply restricted, resulting in shortages; subsidies have been eased, fueling higher prices; some unprofitable industries have been shut down, increasing unemployment, and the construction of new housing has virtually stopped, adding to the already substantial social discontent.

On top of this, a drought this year has dealt a severe blow to agriculture and exacerbated the food shortages.

Grist for the Mill

All this has turned out to be grist for the mill of those in the party, the army and the bureaucracy who oppose Bendjedid’s reforms, either for ideological reasons or because they stand to lose their positions of privilege as a result of them.

Until last week, the conventional wisdom was that Bendjedid was succeeding in spite of all the backstage opposition. Last February, he managed to stack the People’s National Assembly with his supporters and seemed likely to force ratification of most of his reforms at the party congress in December, when he will also stand for reelection.

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But the riots have introduced an unknown factor into this political equation. Diplomats say that although the riots themselves seemed to have been largely spontaneous, the spark that touched them off was struck by Bendjedid’s leftist opponents, who were trying to stall the implementation of further reforms by stirring up labor unrest in advance of the party congress.

A recent spate of wildcat strikes was probably instigated by leftist union elements loosely allied to Bendjedid’s adversaries in the government, the party and the army, these diplomats believe. It is impossible to associate names or faces with this alliance because officially there is no opposition in Algeria.

The diplomats believe that printed leaflets calling for a general strike were widely circulated in Algiers a day before the rioting erupted.

“I don’t think anyone predicted the riots,” one diplomat said. “The intention was just to call another strike, and things just went haywire after that.”

Youths Took to Streets

Surging out of Bad el Oued, the Casbah and other poor quarters of Algiers, thousands of youths took to the streets to vent their frustration. They were quickly joined by Islamic fundamentalists, who represent another hidden but influential trend in Algeria.

The fundamentalists tried to take control of the protests and issued several clandestine statements in the name of the Movement for Algerian Renewal, a group previously unknown to foreign observers here.

But Sheik Fodel Amar, the elderly amad at a small mosque in Bad el Oued, said he knew of the group. Asked who was in it, he replied, “Anyone you see with a long beard.”

While it is still not clear how much support the fundamentalists have, it is obvious that they succeeded in exploiting the unrest.

Fundamentalists Surface

“Before the riots, the fundamentalists were an underground movement,” a diplomat said. “Now they are an accomplished fact.”

Another diplomat said that now Bendjedid has to worry about two kinds of opposition--from the left and from the Islamic right.

There seems little doubt that, for the moment at least, the president’s position has been weakened. Between now and the party congress, much will depend on his relations with the army, which are said to be good. But the army, having been called on to restore order, “now has a much larger place at the table,” a senior Western envoy said.

Referendum Scheduled

Evidently believing that the best defense is a strong offense, Bendjedid wasted no time going on the attack. Without saying much about what they will be, he has promised broad political reforms and scheduled a referendum on Nov. 3 to approve the first of them.

This will involve a strengthening of the prime minister’s role in government by making him technically accountable to the National Assembly, instead of to the president and the party.

Enhanced Roles

But whether this will be enough to mollify the denizens of the tea parlors, video arcades and street corners of Algiers remains to be seen.

The army and the fundamentalists may have emerged from the turbulence of the past two weeks with enhanced roles, but it is the unemployed, the alienated and still largely nonaligned youths who have demonstrated that theirs is the most important allegiance that must be won.

Sitting in the shade of the small courtyard in front of his mosque, Sheik Fodel recalled that he has lived through three wars--World War I, World War II and Algeria’s long and bloody war for independence. But the young people, he noted sadly, have no memory of these conflicts and therefore no restraints.

“The kids are being urged on, but no one can control them,” he said. “Once the kids get started, no one can stop them.”


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