The massive wave of protests that have engulfed Algeria and the recent unrest in Tunisia are both premised on a fundamental political deficit -- the absence of credible political institutions capable of ensuring adequate representation of the society and so keeping the executive branch of the state under the kind of critical observation and pressure necessary to good government.
It has been widely suggested that the riots have been food or hunger riots, in that they were supposedly triggered by the steep increases in the prices of staple goods, notably sugar and olive oil. These increases were not decreed by the government; the private sector traders appear to have raised prices of their own accord, in reaction to the government's attempts to impose new regulations on their transactions. The government's decision was, in principle, part of the necessary and long overdue attempt to curb the rampant informal sector of the economy by subjecting the trade in foodstuffs to basic regulation and so bring it back into the formal sector. But if so, the government has clearly had no conception of the political difficulty and magnitude of this task and seems to have supposed that it could effect changes of this nature by simple ministerial fiat.
But there can be little doubt that the price increases were simply the last straw. The greater part of Algerian society has been in a permanent state of moral revolt against the regime for the last four or five years. In particular, riots have been a frequent -- one might well say a regular -- feature of the Algerian political landscape for the last decade, since the massive and protracted riots in Kabylia, the main Berber region, in 2001. Since 2005, scarcely a fortnight has gone by without a riot somewhere in the country.
The immediate motives have varied from case to case but have usually been connected to the state's failings as a distributive state. In January 2005, numerous communities across the country rioted over the steep increase -- in the depths of winter -- in the price of butane gas on which households depended for heating. The allocation of new public housing by local authorities has frequently been contested by the unlucky claimants, with angry demonstrations, accusing mayors of nepotism and corruption, often turning into bitter affrays. At other times, many villages and even entire municipalities have rioted as the last resort, having despaired of attracting the regional authorities' attention to their particular, long-neglected needs, whatever these might be (water supply, electrification, repair of the only road, a decent school or clinic) by more orderly procedures.
What all these forms of riotous assembly over the years have had in common is the visceral refusal of la hogra -- the arrogance and contempt with which the authorities at all levels routinely treat ordinary Algerians. At the same time, these varied resorts to direct action have universally expressed the Algerian public's disenchantment with the political parties and institutions established since the introduction of formal political pluralism in 1989. Public opinion long ago concluded that these formal institutions have nothing to offer them, that the last thing they can expect is for the deputies in the National Assembly, of whatever party, to represent them to any effect -- first because the parliament has no real power, and second because deputies' elections depend on their position in party lists in vast constituencies and in the circumstances are effectively insulated against the exasperation of their own electors, and are under no pressure to do anything for them. So the Algerians in their majority have learned the hard way that direct action -- making a nuisance of themselves to the authorities in one way or another -- is the only tactic that works. And rioting has accordingly become both a running popular commentary on the political status quo and the spuriousness of its pretensions to be a modern state (let alone one animated by democratic principles and subject to the rule of law) and a way of getting things done and thus, ironically, a kind of buttress of the same status quo insofar as this kind of local-level, single-issue rioting is manageable and has become routinised.
What is important about the events of the last few days, therefore, is that we have seen the national proclivity to riot taken to the next level. In place of serial rioting, the Algerians have managed to riot all over the country virtually simultaneously. The speed with which the movement spread from the first incidents in Oran and Algiers on Jan. 5 has been very impressive. This is, among other things, an index of the existence in Algeria today of a genuinely national consciousness, however threadbare and vacuous the official ‘nationalism' of the governing elites. But it has also had ominous implications.
As early as Jan. 6, El Watan, the national daily traditionally seen as close to the army commanders, was warning of a remake of "October," that is the traumatic riots in 1988 in which hundreds were killed after the army commanders imposed a State of Siege and troops opened fire on unarmed youths in numerous cities. But it is arguably the way in which the latest riots have differed from "October" that has been significant. While they have been far wider and more genuinely national in scope, the army has not acted; no state of siege has been declared. The Police, and occasionally the gendarmerie, have been responsible for coping with the unrest. They have, so far, exercised restraint and have undoubtedly been ordered to do so. Although several hundred people (rioters, police and gendarmes combined) have been injured, only three deaths have been reported so far, in massive contrast to the toll in 1988. We have not yet seen the end of this affair, however.
At this point the eventual political outcome of this national dust-up is quite unclear. The government on Saturday announced measures to get the price rises cancelled, which scratches only the surface of the problem. It has already been relying on the imams (religious leaders) to calm things down and may well seek to avoid taking any political initiatives, because it is probably incapable, as things stand, of envisaging a deeper reform of the sort that is definitely needed. But it should be noted that the rioters virtually everywhere have proved incapable of articulating intelligible political demands and have been acting in radical disconnection from Algeria's political parties, but also -- unlike the Tunisian protesters -- without any links to or help from the trade union movement or other organized associations.
Certain senior regime figures, in admonishing the rioters for their violence (stoning passing cars and the police, looting offices, ransacking public agencies, etc.) have called on them to "demonstrate peacefully," apparently forgetting that the State of Emergency in force since 1992 expressly forbids public demonstrations of any kind and that such peaceful demonstrations as have been staged -- by Algeria's teachers, by the mothers of the "disappeared" -- have been regularly dispersed with sickening brutality. The Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) has called for the repeal of the Emergency Law, as has the Socialist Forces Front (FFS). But this is only one of the reforms that are badly needed and the failure of the opposition parties to intervene with appropriate demands at this point has been very striking. It is therefore uncertain how this huge outburst of negative energy will be harnessed and exploited politically. That is probably the next chapter in this story and it remains to be written.
Hugh Roberts is an independent scholar and a specialist on North Africa, based in Cairo, and is author of "The Battlefield: Algeria 1988-2002, Studies in a Broken Polity."