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sábado, febrero 12, 2011

And Now Algeria?

Buoyed by the success of the Egyptian Democracy Protests, democracy supporters have taken to the street in Algeria. And there they face armed security forces that do not appear to be ready to back off and which clearly outnumber the initial wave of demonstrators. Whether the protests will continue, and more important whether they will lead to widespread violence is too soon to predict.

The New York Times reports:

Demonstrators, inspired by popular protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, protested here in Algeria’s capital on Saturday before security forces moved in to break up the demonstration.

Gathering in the central May 1 Square, demonstrators chanted “Bouteflika out!” in reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has ruled Algeria since 1999. Organizers said thousands had taken part, but news agencies gave vastly differing figures, from a few dozen to thousands.

The protesters were hemmed in by thousands of riot police officers and blocked from embarking on a planned march through the capital. Many were arrested, although there were also conflicting numbers for those detained.

A witness said the police had far outnumbered the protesters.

“There was a march of police, not demonstrators,” said a man standing near the square in the afternoon, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The marchers had asked to conduct a peaceful march and it was refused. This is how power here acts.”

The initial confrontations have led to widespread arrests:

The Interior Ministry posted a statement on its Web site saying that 250 people had taken part in the protests and that 14 people had been detained and later released, according to Reuters.

Human rights groups, however, said the number of arrests had been far higher.

A spokesman for the coordinating committee seeking democratic change in Algeria said that 70 people had been arrested and that about 30 remained in detention. Those detained included the group’s main organizers, as well as human rights activists, union organizers, members of women’s associations and groups formed to track the missing and killed during the civil war in the 1990s.

Is this the beginning of an Algerian democarcy?

The Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, having been elected three times, the third after amending the Constitution to permit more than two terms. Each of the elections has been protested or boycotted by opposition parties. And a "state of emergency" has been in effect for 19 years.

More alarming, as recently as last month, there have been numerous self-immolations in Algeria to protest Bouteflika's retaining power. These were inspired by sel-immolations in Tunisia:

As the widely reported protests sparked off by Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia began to have a clear impact on the Tunisian government, a wave of self-immolations swept Algeria. These individual acts of protest mostly took place in front of a government building following an unsuccessful approach to the authorities. Three self-immolators have died of their burns so far.

It began on 12 January, when 26 year-old Mohamed Aouichia set himself on fire in Bordj Menaiel in the compound of the daira building. He had been sharing a room of 30 square metres with seven other people, including his sister, since 2003; he had repeatedly approached local authorities to get on the social housing list and been rebuffed. He has so far survived.

On 13 January, Mohsen Bouterfif, a 37-year-old father of two, set himself on fire. He had gone with about twenty other youths to protest in front of the town hall of Boukhadra in Tebessa demanding jobs and houses, after the mayor refused to receive them. According to one testimony, the mayor shouted to them: "If you have courage, do like Bouazizi did, set yourself on fire! His death was reported on 16 January, and about 100 youths protested his death causing the provincial governor to sack the mayor. However, hospital staff the following day claimed he was still alive, though in critical condition. Al Jazeera described the suicide as "echoing the self-immolation that triggered the protests that toppled the leader of neighbouring Tunisia." He finally died on 24 January at a hospital in Annaba.

These suicides were followed by dozens more attempted or successful self-immolations across the country, so far without triggering nation-wide demonstrations, most of them after the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country on 14 January

Is this the start of a continuing, popular struggle to being democracy to Algeria? Will the Alergerian government restrain itself, or will it resort to violence to quell the protests?

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