Correction: An earlier version of this story did not credit the reporting contribution of special correspondent Said Chitour. It has been corrected.
ALGIERS — Only a few weeks ago, Algeria seemed on the brink of revolution, with thousands taking to the streets to demand the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. But much like the crowd gawking at the few lonely activists who recently showed up for a political protest at a busy roundabout here, this North African country is now watching from the sidelines as the Arab spring tries to bloom.
Popular revolts are upending authoritarian systems across the region, spreading deeper into Arab countries with some of the harshest regimes, including Syria. But while there are democracy-fervent nations such as Tunisia, where the uprisings started and where sustained protests rapidly ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, there are many others, such as neighboring Algeria, where change is a moving target.
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.
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.
It may not work for long. With youth unemployment at 30 percent and millions of workers laboring in a precarious black market, Algeria could still explode, observers say. But for millions of Algerians — ruled since 1999 by the authoritarian Bouteflika, who fronts a hidden power structure of intelligence officers and military generals — the uprisings pose a particularly tough choice.
An Arab spring of sorts budded here in 1988, with a revolt against a one-party system that led to a much-heralded political opening. But within four years, the nation descended into civil war with Islamist extremists, ushering in more than a decade of terror that claimed upwards of 160,000 lives. That came only three decades after the end of a war for independence from France in which the death toll topped 1 million.
Fear of another cycle of violence is holding back Algerian society now. Standing near a faded belle epoque building in Bab el-Oued — a teeming slum where riots over food prices, poor housing and the lack of jobs broke out in January — Medhi Fadlane, 25, is one of the angry Algerians restless for change. But even he, like many others in the neighborhood, sounds a note of caution about pressing for it too fast.
“I remember the bombs that went off when I was younger, and I don’t want to go back to that,” said Fadlane, a physics major. He later continued, “I feel troubled in my heart about having no future, and I blame the government. We want them out, but I think it might take a little while. We don’t want chaos, either.”
In addition, uncertainty over Bouteflika’s real power — it remains unclear whether he runs the feared intelligence services or their chiefs run him — has thus far prevented him from becoming the obvious single target of street protests.
“If Bouteflika were ousted, it would make no difference,” said Karim Tabbou, secretary general of the opposition FFS party. “This is not Libya. Algeria is a country with a thousand Gaddafis.”
To be sure, Algerians enjoy somewhat more freedom than, say, Tunisians did under Ben Ali. State television is strictly controlled here, and Bouteflika won his third term in 2009 with 90 percent of the vote. But newspapers are able to openly criticize the government in ways that would bring jail time in some Arab countries. And the government has mostly employed batons and cattle prods against demonstrators, not guns.
Though most here doubt his word, Bouteflika has promised unspecified political reforms. He has lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency, but the move had little real impact because most of the government’s police-state powers are enshrined elsewhere in Algerian law.
Yet Algeria’s opposition is weak and divided. Though as many as 3,000 to 5,000 rallied for democracy on Feb. 12 in what was meant to be a sustained show of force, the movement has not drawn mainstream support.
But the force of the historic uprisings across the region is without doubt fanning social unrest here that could still turn political. Over the past four weeks, more than 70 unions and trade groups have challenged bans on demonstrations in Algiers by rallying for higher wages and better contracts from the government.
But many, such as Ain Defla, 43, are clear about the scope of their demands. Protesting with other teachers recently, she said: “I don’t care who the president is. We just need our economic demands met.”
To ease the pressure, the government is making extraordinary promises. A plan is being launched to offer virtually any Algerian 21 / 2 acres of land and cheap loans to farm it. Towns and cities are allowing the young and unemployed to set up unlicensed fruit and clothing stalls. Massive sums are being pledged to aid many more in establishing businesses.
But opposition leaders say even the oil-rich government cannot possibly make good on all its promises and is only prolonging a broader social uprising.
Special correspondent Said Chitour also contributed to this story.