Algeria’s midwinter uproar

Jack Brown writes:

Soon after the onset of protests which eventually toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, a wave of riots swept through Algeria as well, with many neighborhoods in the capital of Algiers and dozens of smaller cities overwhelmed by thousands of angry young men who closed down streets with burning tires, attacked police stations with rocks and paving stones, and set fire to public buildings. For Algerians a few years older than the rioters, these events recalled the uprising of October 1988, in which violent unrest upended the single-party state.

The disturbances of January 2011 were sparked by a sudden increase in commodity food prices, local journalists maintained, although much of the international press also linked them to a domino effect emanating from neighboring Tunisia. Both of these accounts are strikingly incomplete, however: Food price spikes were certainly one immediate cause of the Algerian unrest, but they were not the underlying reason that crowds of youths spontaneously decided to set upon policemen and other symbols of the state. Likewise, the theory of Tunisian contagion, while it may capture another contributing factor, ignores the national economic and political specificities that both triggered the Algerian rioting and determined its eventual course.

In Algeria, in contrast to (formerly) famously quiet Tunisia, rioting is anything but unprecedented. Local street violence is almost a regular occurrence, and appears to have become a primary means for the country’s deprived to express discontent with a state that otherwise would pay them little attention. In some cases, groups of disenfranchised Algerians show notable self-awareness about the role of rioting, warning about the possibility of turmoil and even calling press conferences to discuss plans to raise a ruckus in the streets if certain demands are not met. Despite the unusual salience of urban unrest in Algerian politics, the midwinter riots fizzled out without really shaking the state. A more detailed comparison with Tunisia’s protests is useful for understanding why.

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