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In Algeria, no taste for an uprising of their own

The violence and chaos of Algeria's civil war in the 1990s has left Algerians nervous about echoing the upheavals in other Arab countries – though many would like to strengthen democracy at home.

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Some Algerians say their revolt occurred in 1988, when riots over an economic slump and political cronyism prompted leaders to end the one-party system that was installed after independence from France in 1962.

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In 1992 the Army cancelled parliamentary elections that an Islamist party looked set to win, and the country slid into civil war. At least 150,000 are believed to have been killed in a decade of firefights, bombings, assassinations and disappearances that tore Algerian society apart.

“Everyone in our neighborhood hated us because my brother was with the terrorists,” says Anis Mostefaoui, a recent university graduate who lost two brothers to the violence.

Abdelkader Mostefaoui was killed in 1996 while fighting with an Islamist militia, while Ismail was detained the following year by government forces.

“Ismail had nothing to do with the Islamists,” Anis Mostefaoui said, attending a weekly gathering near the National Human Rights Observatory of families of the disappeared. “He spent six weeks in jail, and since then we’ve heard nothing.”

In 2005 voters approved by referendum a peace deal proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that ended most violence by offering amnesty to repentant Islamists and guaranteeing immunity to security officers accused of torture or disappearances.

Young people left out of voting, political positions

While some Algerians credit Mr. Bouteflika with bringing stability, others question the political system that has kept him in power since 1999. In 2008 a parliament dominated by his party, the National Liberation Front, lifted presidential term limits, allowing him to win a third five-year term in 2009.

The government billed parliamentary elections last month as a step toward greater democracy, with new parties and Algeria’s first-ever international observers.

The coalition that backs Bouteflika strengthened its majority in a vote that saw an official turnout of 42 percent. Several opposition parties cried fraud, while European Union observers said the vote marked progress toward reform.

Analysts, however, say that Algeria’s military and security services curb the role of elected officials by wielding influence behind the scenes.

For many young Algerians, voting lacks meaning. Last month’s election appears not to have attracted the under-35s who make up three-quarters of the population and suffer 20 percent unemployment – double the national rate.

Some leaders cite a need to empower a generation that remains in the shadow of an aging political elite.

“We’re two generations from independence, and people in their 50s still haven’t risen to power,” says Seddik Chiheb, vice president of the 2007-12 parliament and a member of the National Rally for Democracy party, which backs the 75-year-old Bouteflika.

Grass-roots youth organization takes action

Mr. Chiheb sees presidential elections in 2014 as a chance for a younger political class to emerge.

Young people such as Bendjoudi are not waiting. His grass-roots organization, the Movement of Independent Youth for Change (MJIC), is trying to raise pressure for reform on Algeria’s leaders by coordinating the country’s many local protest groups.

“It’s true that many strikes and demonstrations don’t voice clear political demands,” he says. “But they make social demands that are related to politics.”

One partner of the MJIC is the National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Workers (SNAPAP), which helps represent public-sector employees.

On a warm night early last month, several days before elections, SNAPAP’s office in a dank suburb of Algiers was buzzing as activists tallied reported arrests nation-wide of workers’ rights demonstrators.

With them was Abdelkader Kherba, who was given a one-year suspended sentence and 20,000 Algerian dinar ($260) fine in May on charges of inciting an illegal gathering after he attended a sit-in by court clerks in Algiers.

The son of a builder, he left his hometown of Ksar el Boukhari to seek work in the capital. Last year he joined the newly formed Defense Committee for the Rights of the Unemployed.

“We’ve done demonstrations – in Skikda, Béjaia, Ouargla – always peaceful,” he says. Then he holds up a slip of paper like a protest placard. “This is our only weapon.”


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