Instead of a clamor for democracy, doctors and teachers, auxiliary police officers and transportation workers are taking to the streets of this energy-rich nation with demands for higher wages, while pointedly sidestepping calls for political change.
Much as Saudi Arabia did to quell protests there, the Algerian government is literally trying to buy time, doling out economic concessions that include promises to double salaries for everyone from police officers to court clerks and pledges to give millions of Algerians free land and cheap loans.
The cost of change
In the face of gilded promises, the Algerian public, weary after a long history of violence, seems to be weighing the cost of change. Lacking broad support and crippled by infighting, those directly calling for Bouteflika to step down have diminished in number, with the pool of die-hard protesters still rallying every Saturday outnumbered by riot police nearly 50 to 1.
“Why am I not protesting?” laughed Nouider Bakhi, 45, a school administrator gazing at the small pro-democracy rally last Saturday from the cooling shade of a cigarette stand. “Because what works in Tunisia and Egypt may not work in Algeria. . . . Of course we want change, but what will it take to reach that goal? Look at Libya. It is tearing apart and people are dying. You think we don’t watch that violence and wonder which way it would happen here?”
Algeria’s retreat from full-scale revolt is key to calculations of just how broadly the historic uprisings sweeping the Arab world might ultimately transform the region. In many ways, Algeria and its far smaller neighbor, Tunisia, present a tale of two countries.
This nation, sprawling from the blistering Sahara to the Mediterranean Sea, became the region’s first after Tunisia to see the outbreak of unrest, with riots over high food prices erupting in January inside the dense French colonial slums towering above the glistening Bay of Algiers.
In Tunisia, similar riots triggered a movement soon joined by unions, opposition leaders and members of the middle class to drive out Ben Ali, who fled the country Jan. 14. But here, the Algerian government has managed to check public rage through a combination of measured tolerance for social protests, food subsidies and pay raises, as well as minor political concessions.