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Bouteflika government tries to preempt pro-democracy demonstrations.
CASABLANCA, Morocco — Inspired by the wave of uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Arab world, Algeria's opposition has called for a pro-democracy march in Algiers next week.
A demonstration march is planned for Feb. 12 by opposition leaders, unions, students and human rights groups who want President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government to lift a state of emergency and end its ban on new political parties.
The Algerian government warned that the march is banned and that it will be the protesters fault if there is violence.
Signs that the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt may spread to Algeria caused the international credit rating agency Standard and Poor's to issue a warning Wednesday.
Algeria has high unemployment, rising food prices and an entrenched regime similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt. Some Algerians say their country is a prime candidate for a popular revolt.
"There is a profound dissatisfaction within the population," said Addi Lahouari, a native of Algeria and professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Lyon, France. "The practice of politics is banned in Algeria by the army. Meaning that it is impossible for the people to pick their representatives and hold them accountable."
Lahourari added: "It is time the military becomes aware of the extent of the disaster and initiates a peaceful change. It is time to break the deadlock by opening national television. It is urgent to let the various political currents in the country express themselves freely."
Already Algeria has had weeks of sporadic protests and riots. Calls for protest and change continue on Facebook, Twitter and on the streets. No large organized movement yet exists in Algeria. The government has tried to ease tensions by subsidizing food prices and promising more changes in the weeks to come. Despite their efforts, more demonstrations are planned and people’s demands are growing.
Algerian officials say the demands are not in the same league as those in other countries because protesters are not demanding a change of government, unlike the demands of protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.
"Protesters in Algeria want better social and economic conditions. They did not make political demands as is the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan," said Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the head of Algeria's ruling FLN party and a cabinet minister.
Bouteflika is considering high-level cabinet changes after more demonstrations were planned, Belkhadem told Reuters.
In several Algerian cities, including the capital, riots broke out in January after a steep jump in food prices. After an unemployed man immolated himself to spark the Tunisian revolt, there were 10 protest burnings in Algeria in which two people died. More than 1,000 Algerian demonstrators were injured during clashes between protesters and police. Protesters say they are rejecting a government system that protects a small minority of privileged elite while repressing everyone else.
Algeria, a former French colony, has a young population, with 70 percent of its 35 million people under 30. Unemployment is officially at 10 percent. The country's oil exports earned nearly $60 billion in 2010, supplying an estimated 20 percent of Europe's gas supplies.
To avoid the contagion of the Tunisian revolution and popular uprising in Egypt, the Bouteflika government has decided to use some of its oil money to subsidize the prices of sugar and oil. The Algiers government also ordered public companies to hire young people. It also prohibited gas stations from selling gasoline in cans to prevent self-immolation attempts.
Bouteflika also promised to spend $286 billion over the next five years on infrastructure, hospitals, schools and housing.
Although Algiers streets have been relatively quiet over the last week, human rights activists said they are planning several more demonstrations in the coming days.
Since mid-January, the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan have all come under pressure from populations they had long held in fear.
Bouteflika has been president of Algeria since April 1999 and is in his third term in office. Questions about the 73-year-old leader’s health have arisen in recent years and his brother is expected to succeed him. Critics charge that democratic freedoms have eroded during Bouteflika's presidency.
However, Bouteflika is generally credited with quelling the brutal internal conflict between security forces and Islamist militants in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed.
The coming week will show whether Bouteflika will be able to effectively quell the people's dissatisfaction or if there will be mass demonstrations that threaten the Algiers government.
"It is unclear whether these riots are the work of a clan to push Bouteflika out or if on the contrary they are the work of the presidential clan to lead the army ... to kill citizens and get discredited in the eyes of the population," said Algerian academic Lahouari. "We are completely in the dark."
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