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In Algiers, residents chafe at mammoth redevelopment plan

Many say a post-civil war makeover of the city's waterfront ignores the needs of a struggling population.

By Liam StackCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2009

Algiers, Algeria

Ringed by low hills and rocky beaches that sweep far into the distance, people here say Algiers Bay is among the world's most beautiful coasts.

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But a closer look is less picture-perfect. The waterfront is littered and largely abandoned to young couples looking for privacy and troubled young men looking for a fix. It is the kind of place you don't bring your family or your wallet, and it is not in any way evocative of this city's French and Arabic nicknames: "Algiers the white" and "Algiers the joyful."

Since the end of its civil war in 2002, Algeria has strived to pull itself out of the physical disrepair and international isolation brought on by a decade of vicious fighting that killed as many as 200,000 people. Now, as a possible balm for the city's malaise, real estate developers and government officials are planning an $8 billion makeover of the waterfront – a glittering office park that would sit next to the third-largest mosque in the world.

But residents are decidedly cool to a project that would overhaul the physical look of the city without addressing the practical needs of its depressed population, which faces an official unemployment rate of 12 percent – though independent sources say it's roughly double that.

"We are Muslims and we love our religion, but how can the government agree to build a mosque like that when at the same time we need houses, universities, hospitals, and new roads?" says Hussein, a snack-shop owner in the hardscrabble working-class neighborhood of El Harrach who refused to give his last name. "They should be creating jobs, not spending all that money on one mosque."

Worries the project ignores the poor

In February, developer Groupe Dahli unveiled an ambitious plan to transform the waterfront with a megaproject dubbed "Algiers Medina."

Supporters of the project, which is separate from government plans for a $4.5 billion mosque, say it will bring the country into the modern world and give the Algerian people a capital they can be proud of after years of war.

"We want a capital that corresponds to our ambitions and is part of the modern world and an interconnected Mediterranean world," says Said Bouhadja, a member of Parliament who sits on the National Commission for Development. "We need to renovate the capital and give it and the country a new image," he says. "The Algerian people need a capital they can be proud of."

But the project has struggled to raise capital, and many ordinary people worry that the government is more excited about a modern skyline than thinking about the best interests of the poor.

For 40 years, Abdelnour Ziani has lived and worked on the same street in Hussein's El Harrach neighborhood, which is now abuzz with gossip about Algiers Medina.

The proposed project would take up a broad swath of neighboring Mohamadeyya.

"This area has not been renovated or changed since the French left," Mr. Ziani says. "The government never even builds a new road. All they do is put new asphalt on top of the old.

"Algiers Medina will be the biggest change any of us have ever seen," he says.

But the plan calls for no renovations to El Harrach, and residents say they doubt it will add anything to their lives, other than more traffic.

Sheikh Taher Belgasem, an elderly man who crunches numbers on a 20-year-old computer in a warehouse next to Ziani's shop, is grouchily pessimistic. He laughs at Dahli's troubles: "If they asked me for money I wouldn't give them a single dinar!"