Algerians fret about personal safety

Despite a rise in terror attacks, Algerians seem more concerned about getting mugged.

For a foreigner new to Algeria's capital people often tell you two things: "welcome" and "be careful."

In most Mediterranean cities the boardwalk at night bustles with tourists and locals packing into seafood restaurants, but meandering past the Algiers port admiring the moonlight on the sea, it seems, is not an option here.

"Oh no, it's too dangerous," warned a friend as we watched massive tankers coming into the port on a recent afternoon. She also advised me not to walk down the street while talking on my cellphone lest it be stolen from my hand, and not carry too much cash because there's a decent chance my purse will get snatched.

Another friend told me it was too dangerous to wait in the street to hail a cab at night. She insisted on driving me around the block to a "taxi phone" shop with its bank of pay phones where I could call the hotel to send a taxi and wait inside until it arrived.

When the West looks to Algeria, it sees the looming threat of global terrorism in the form of the new group there calling itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the large bombings it claims to have carried out in April in the heart of Algiers.

But the odd bombing doesn't worry most Algerians, who suffered through a civil war in the 1990s in which bombings, killings, and kidnappings were a daily occurrence. They're more concerned about mundane street crime.

"No, we are not afraid [of terrorism] because we are vaccinated," says a woman named Asia waiting at a bus stop, referring to the years of civil war Algerians call the Black Decade.

While numbers are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that robbery and other violent crime is high here. It's unusual for the Arab world, where authoritarian regimes and police states mean restrictions of basic freedoms but that the streets are safe to walk at any hour.

Here most people have car alarms and lock their doors when they are in traffic for fear someone will snatch things from their back seat. Women don't go out alone at night, but there wouldn't be much for them to do anyway: most shops close down after dusk.

It's a stark contrast from a place like Cairo – a city where 15 million people are so densely packed it makes New York City feel spacious – where a woman can walk alone or take the subway or a taxi at night without a second thought.

The reasons why are hard to pinpoint. But the civil war during the 1990s may have had something to do with it. Up to 200,000 people died, most civilians, and the conflict seriously tested the security forces.

Remnants of militant groups that fought the government still linger, reorganizing under the Al Qaeda banner and suggesting the grip of the regime is not as tight as in other Arab countries. Scattered militant attacks have continued in recent weeks despite heightened police patrols following the suicide bombings in April.

In much of the Arab world, opposition groups are routinely rounded up in arrests, tortured, or banned as part of a systematic repression of any challenge to their governmental authority. But in Algeria, people on the street feel free to criticize their government and civil society is vibrant with groups advocating for a spectrum of issues – although the ruling party is strong enough to keep them from effecting any actual change.

As a result of those freedoms, some say, crime is higher and personal security is on everyone's mind. Walking one afternoon with a colleague through winding, hilly streets lined with bougainvillea and whitewashed buildings, Algiers exuded charm. But a man passing by stopped us and spoke in thick Algerian Arabic.

"Be careful, be careful," he said pointing to the camera in my colleague's hand, someone might try to steal it. We smiled and tucked it away.

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