North African Dispatches Riots rock North Africa

This week, Imad Mesdoua looks at the conflict across the streets of North Africa in his regular news round-up, arguing that recent developments reveal more complex motivations behind the “food riots”.

New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 10:51 - 10 Comments

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By Imad-Eddine Mesdoua

January 2011 is not likely to be forgotten by Algerians or Tunisians anytime soon. As both countries have seen living conditions deteriorate over the past few years, the unemployed youth are now letting their leaders know how they feel. In recent weeks protests spread like wildfire through their territories, leaving over 30 people dead and hundreds more injured . European mainstream media were quick to label them “food riots” or “poverty protests”, but recent developments reveal more complex motivations, which move beyond the ’empty stomach’ grievance.

The spark: Sidi Bouzid inspires a nation

In Tunisia, two young and unemployed men from Sidi Bouzid protesting the harsh reality of a Tunisian graduate seems to have been the spark to revolt throughout the country and indeed the  region. Ignored by local authorities, the attempted suicide of Houssine Ben Faleh Falhi (through immolation) and Lofti Guadri’s successful self electrocution were cries of anguish felt by many without socio-economic perspectives to look forward to. Cars were set on fire and students clashed with local police as a wave of rebellion swept through the small town. The rallies and protests slowly caught on in other major parts of the North African nation, and even the capital witnessed similar scenes of social unrest.

Tunisia’s authoritarian president Zine el Abidine Ben-Ali has repeatedly spoke out to call for calm,  promising government action to provide more jobs, while controversially labeling these riots ‘terrorism’.  His good-cop bad-cop approach has done little to quell resentment as the movement has gone beyond its initial grievances for economic reform. The movement set off by the riots was quickly joined by local elites and associations. Several key opposition figures and a large part of the lawyers’ associations were able to spearhead the protests in an effort to gain and maintain legitimacy both abroad and at home. They were also shrewdly able to shift the grievances.  Indeed, initial calls for better employment and living conditions in one city were immediately framed as an “anti-Ben Ali” movement in the whole of the country, much to the satisfaction of those exasperated with the country’s undemocratic political, media and economic sectors.  The opposition and self-exiled intellectuals are of those who hope the riots will signal the end of a regime considered to be among the most repressive in the world.

The armed forces were recently brought in to secure banks and other public institutions where the police were clearly overwhelmed by the rioters, most notably in Kasserine, Thala and Ragueb. In these cities clashes between state forces and rioters resulted in an unnecessarily large number of casualties. Protests were met with brutal repression and excessive physical aggression by the state, which is at the time of writing, are responsible for the deaths of more than twenty protestors. Videos from the scenes posted online attest to the viciousness of the police who have not hesitated to shoot with real bullets at protestors. The situation remains critical throughout Tunisia and the volatile reactions these videos may provoke suggest that this uprising is not likely to subside anytime soon.

Algeria: the new ’88?

Nearby, Algeria’s riots were also somewhat predictable due to the similar economic and political state of affairs. Algerians continue to be haunted by the events of 1988 when similar rioting erupted throughout major cities, marking the start of an entrenched civil war.  Twenty-odd years on, despite the end of widespread terror, the country seems unable to extract itself from the vicious circle of violence. As early as 2010, similar small-scale riots erupted in various parts of the country and observers within the free press warned that Algerian society had reached reach near-boiling point.  Moreover, the somewhat uneven distribution in wealth became a more and more apparent contradiction especially in an oil and gas rich country .Finally, the alarming ‘Harraga’ phenomenon (Arabic term for young Algerians hoping to emigrate to Europe) as well as its marginalization by public authorities, was an additional sign of a generalized malaise of discontent.

Images of angry protesters burning tires, buses, and public buildings are reminiscent of a dark past. As the rioting increased, many were quick to point to the recent sharp rise in oil and sugar prices as an explanation. But anyone familiar with the country will know that there is more to this violence than meets the eye. Over the past year, the unemployed youth of some of the poorest neighborhoods have taken to the streets and clashed with police forces to denounce injustices committed by local authorities. These were often related to the distribution of social housing; corruption and nepotism often left those most in need of housing without their rights. In this respect the riots of the past week could be attributed to the simmering anger felt throughout the country by a particular social class.

Despite a steady pacification/relaxation towards normality, the riots have not left Algerian society unaffected. Unlike in past riots, the youth who took the streets did so without any guiding political slogan, other than what Algerians call ‘Ras-Le-Bol’ (i.e. ‘being fed up’).  Unlike in Tunisia, Algeria’s opposition parties and civil society remained relatively distant to the events. It seems that now that the storm has momentarily passed many will attempt to use the riots to bring about much-needed reform to a political and socio-economic system which continues to be plagued by nepotism and mismanagement. Whether or not this will be accomplished is yet to be seen.

What to take from all of this

In both countries internet has played a central role in the direct distribution of information and messages. Activists are using the internet to move information beyond the censorship of the state. Much like in the Iranian protests of 2009, uploaded videos and twitter posts have been used to inform the world of the situation on the ground, and local citizen-journalists are using the net to spread their message to others across the country. Facebook groups and forums ridiculing the political leadership and passionately pleading for reform illustrate the populations’ defiance of the states’ media blackout. As one blogger put it: “Our parliament could well be burning tonight and the 20h’s (eight o’clock TV news) headline would still be how this year’s wheat harvest was amazing!”

Finally, readers should be wary of subscribing to simplistic arguments containing a form of political violence with or without any political agenda. The protestors are neither criminals nor heroes; they are a generation humiliated by the inability to picture a decent living in their own country, externalizing accumulated resentment by the only means available to them. Unrepresented at the highest levels of the political ladder they find themselves incapable of channeling their concerns, fears and anger through mechanisms other than violence on the streets. Fear for their future, a rejection of their present and a wish to settle past scores motivated both young Tunisians and Algerians to undertake what might be seen as nihilistic acts of vandalism. Seen in this light, the burning of schools, government institutions and banks, though counterproductive, can only be interpreted as a need to confront the sources of a continuous humiliation.

The generational gap between these countries’ political establishments and the majority of the population is obvious. No elite regeneration was undertaken in political environments almost identical to those of their first thirty years of independence. Unable to identify with their leadership or those meant to represent them, the young and poor feel (and are) excluded from public life.  Perhaps the most important aspect to these riots is the socio-economic grievance that they brought to the world’s attention. In economies in desperate need of reorganization, solutions to this crisis must inevitably seek to restore dignity to the lowest classes with steady employment, secure housing and long-term educational insertion.

Imad-Eddine Mesdoua writes weekly on African and Maghreb affairs for Ceasefire. His interests include politics, current affairs and Real Madrid FC. His column appears every Wednesday.

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nadia
Jan 12, 2011 11:35

This lost generation needs to see a light at the end of the tunel ,needs to be secured and reassured
where is the famous slogan of the Algerian president” Izza wa Karama’.?
every day the youth in both countries are humiliated and feel desperate ,discouraged and without any prespectives or objectives with all the human and other ressources in both countries
there is a need to involved youth and to give them real opportunities to play a role in the development of their countries.
there is also a need for more forums to allow the young people to express themselves freely .
A very good article indeed.

North Africa Dispatches Riots Rock North Africa – Ceasefire Magazine | algertoday
Jan 12, 2011 13:48

[…] would still be how this year’s wheat harvest was amazing!” … See the original post: North Africa Dispatches Riots Rock North Africa – Ceasefire Magazine Share and […]

Rayan
Jan 12, 2011 16:55

This is a truly exhilarating and insightful account of the events that have unfolded. Despite feeling sympathy for the lost generation suffering from uncertain prospects, one must acknowledge that this phenomena is affecting students and recent graduates across all the continents. Although I understand the anguish felt, as I am too a recent graduate in an increasingly competitive and saturated job market, I do not agree with the manner in which disagreement is exhibited – in fact, as you rightly pointed out, it is not only counter-productive in principle, but in fact will divert any funds that can be utilised to kick start the economy and increase employment to seeking to protect public property and civilians during the times of unrest. There is no easy solution, indeed there is no solution when faced with a global economic crisis of this magnitude….but alas one must remain hopeful that despite the increase in oil prices, amongst other things (which will necessarily cause a stunt in the economic recovery for many States.)
What is the alternative?
Thought provoking and very well written article! Well done!

Ramy
Jan 12, 2011 17:43

It’s pretty interesting because these are autocratic states, so I’m curious what type of solution might these leaders “find”
Let’s hope for the best 🙂

SIDI
Jan 12, 2011 18:12

La diferencia entre una democracia y una dictadura es que en una democracia, primero votas y después recibís órdenes. En una dictadura no tenes que perder el tiempo votando.”

zahra
Jan 12, 2011 18:43

Le Maghreb peut se résumer en un seul mot “gaspillage”:
– gaspillage de temps pour tous ces jeunes qui gâchent leur vie, soit en restant dans ces pays sans travail, sans argent et sans perspectives d’avenir, soit en fuyant, la plupart du temps se retrouvant dans des situations pires en Europe (ou autre). Etant, la plupart du temps clandestin, ils se retrouvent une nouvelle fois sans travail, ni famille, ni argent, et surtout avec l’impression d’être traqués comme des chiens par la Police.
– gaspillage/ pillage des potentiels de ces pays par quelques personnes, ou est l’argent provenant des sous-sols maghrébins?
– gaspillage intellectuel, la vie culturelle/ intellectuelle est quasi-inexistante dans ces pays, on ne laisse pas les gens s’exprimer par la parole alors c’est normal que les plus désespérés en arrivent à tout casser.
Je cautionne pas mais malheureusement ça a toujours été la seule manière de se faire entendre dans des sociétés sclérosées.

Heureusement que ceux qui se sont battus pour ces pays ne sont plus là pour voir dans quels états ils sont aujourd’hui !

ML
Jan 13, 2011 0:00

True that the generation gap between the gov and the people is huge in those countries ,that this youth are suffering from injustice and unemployment … we are all affected by the increase in prices… but riots are certainly not a way to express their discontent, looting and burning public institutions/properties are inexcusable.
But I must say that i have sympathy for those youth young men being manipulated by others seeking power at any price .

great analysis and well written article .

Philip
Jan 13, 2011 20:48

As always an insightful, informative and above all interesting article about a difficult subject. I’ll be interested to see where this situation goes for sure.

Sara
Jan 15, 2011 20:17

Firstly, its good to see an article about whats happening in North Africa. Without articles like this, people are unaware of the suffering in such places. Although the suffering isnt on as large as a scale than places such as Palestine or Iraq, i feel it still has the right to be documented. As news like this fails to be shown in the media in the UK, not many people are aware of whats happening. So im really glad to see that someone is taking notice of whats happening in the homeland and is documenting it for people to see!
The article was an incredible read. Really informative and really analysed the situation. Natural spark for writing!

dubturbo
Mar 9, 2012 22:07

dubturbo…

[…]North African Dispatches Riots rock North Africa | Ceasefire Magazine[…]…

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