The clashes between police and young people protesting poor housing conditions in Algiers earlier this week reflect growing efforts in recent weeks to stem public demonstrations by a government which, fearing terrorist threats, is determined to maintain a grip on order.
The unrest in the capital followed an incident earlier this month in which police prevented 300 human rights activists, students, journalists and NGOs from commemorating the uprising of October 1988, in which hundreds of people died and many young people were imprisoned and tortured.
That uprising eventually led to the end of 26 years of single-party rule by the National Liberation Front. A new constitution later endorsed more freedom to political parties, unions and the press. But the social agitation also ultimately helped trigger the Algerian civil war in 1991, and since it ended in 2002, demands for greater freedom have haunted Algiers.
Despite greater political freedom allowed by the constitution, in recent years a state of emergency has enabled the Interior Ministry in recent years to limit the activities of unionists, prevented the creation of new opposition parties and prohibited activists or writers from holding public lectures.
Public demand for dialogue over the current system is suppressed and criminalized. This was reflected on June 14, 2001, in the most significant public mobilization in Algeria since independence from France. A peaceful march which brought together two million people from across the country, mainly from the Berber area of Kabila, was suppressed by the authorities, who described the protesters as "a mob of thugs."
Even demonstrations of support for the people of Gaza, organized spontaneously in Algiers in January of this year, were restricted. In fact, the only opportunity for citizens to congregate freely on the streets is to celebrate football match victories – those parades, though often violent, are not perceived as a threat.
The ruling elite are not solely responsible for the difficulties Algerians face in taking back the streets as a place of political protest. Most opposition parties sidelined themselves when in November 2008 they supported a constitutional amendment allowing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to seek a third term.
Most ordinary Algerians, exhausted by years of conflict between Islamist groups and the armed forces, lack the strength to take to the streets and oppose government decisions. The only survival strategy for many is to reject party politics. Not seen as citizens by the system, they can only become its clients and negotiate individually with a corruption-ridden public administration in the hope of getting a house, a scholarship or consumer credit.
The security-oriented state’s responses to street demands highlight its inability to devise a new political plan to revive the country. Its strategy of consolidating power through a state of emergency is faltering and is in conflict with the framework of national reconciliation established by President Bouteflika. His aim is to turn the page on terrorism, but the security restrictions of the last 20 years seem to have had the opposite effect.
Events of the last months have shown that the less the state engages in dialogue with the street, the more the street will resort to violence and abandon the tools of voting and peaceful demonstrations. Prohibited from displaying banners, taking part in processions or demonstrating their views, setting fire to urban areas is now seen by rioters as the surest way to secure social rights.