By Emad Mekay
CAIRO, Jan 9, 2011 (IPS) – At least three Algerians have died and hundreds have been injured in four days of protests over housing shortages, rising food prices and failing economic policies that only three months ago won praise by the International Monetary Fund and other Western financial institutions.
The protests in Algeria come as similar demonstrations continue unabated in the neighbouring North African nation Tunisia, also hailed previously as an economic success story by Western banks and investors.
At least four Tunisians have died during the ongoing protests against the poor economic performance of Western-backed autocratic ruler President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
The protests in both Arab countries were initially ignored by the Western media and Western governments but as the protests escalated Washington began to take note.
A Middle East advisor to former U.S. president George W. Bush and leading neo-conservative Elliott Abrams said on his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations that Tunisia was an “unimportant” country, but expressed concern that the fallout from the demonstrations could be dangerous for other Arab nations.
The spillover from Tunisia was quick to come in neighbouring Algeria, a country that provides Europe with 20 percent of its gas needs and is the world‚Äôs sixth largest natural gas producer after Russia, the United States, Canada, Iran, and Norway.
The unrest in Algeria, saw thousands of young people hurl stones at the police, set tires on fire, storm mail offices and government banks, and demand better living conditions and a greater share of the country‚Äôs oil wealth.
The unrest was widely reported in the Arab region and was seen as a symptom of growing impatience with regimes considered in the West to be “moderate” for toeing Western policy lines but that are in fact dictatorial and brutal towards their own people.
“The protests in Tunisia are a warning message to all Arab rulers,” wrote columnist Fahmy Howeidi in several Arab newspapers, just days before the unrest spilled over to Algeria.
“The revolution of the hungry and the deprived couldn‚Äôt be ignored any more‚Ä¶The message from Tunisia is that tyranny can extend the life of a regime but it cannot keep it alive forever. All Arab countries suffer similar conditions to the ones that started the Tunisian protests,” Howeidi said.
Now the Algeria and Tunisia “uprisings”, as they are being called in the region, are front page stories in many independent Arab newspapers including Masrawy, a popular portal and AlMesryoon, an online daily newspaper in Egypt, the Arab world‚Äôs most populated country, as well as top pan-Arab news portals such as Aljazeera.net and Alarabiya.net. Even Yahoo‚Äôs Arabic version couldn‚Äôt ignore it for long.
Like other Arab countries, the regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflica in Algeria is perceived as corrupt and inept despite high oil revenues. Algeria, a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), saw its oil income rise sharply in 2010 as a result of higher oil and gas prices, but the benefits didn‚Äôt trickle to the disenfranchised Algerians.
Similarly, Tunisia‚Äôs President Ben Ali has worked to develop the touristic coastline, leaving the majority of Tunisians mired in poverty and unemployment.
Both countries see conspicuous display of wealth by the rich, spread of bribery to obtain government benefits such as housing, as well as nepotism ‚Äď issues that have inflamed public sentiments for years.
Many of Algeria‚Äôs 36 million people find it hard to get by on daily basis, with many complaining about the difficulties of finding housing and providing for their families.
Algeria‚Äôs state-owned energy giant Sonatrach was hit in 2010 with a major corruption scandal after several senior officials and members of their families were found to have illegally tampered with contract awards for personal gain.
More specifically, the trigger for this week‚Äôs riots in Algeria came at the beginning of the month when staple food prices such as flour, cooking oil, milk and sugar averaged a 30 percent increase in the four days prior to the break-out of the protests.
Algerians, who had admiringly watched Tunisians shrug off their decades- long image of meekness during weeks of protests, also took to the streets venting their frustration at several government offices, mail offices and some banks.
Algerian Trade Minister Mustafa Benbada was forced Saturday to act to bring down rising food prices. He announced that the government will cut food prices by 14 percent, the official Algerian News Agency said.
Several blogs from Algeria said the protesters were still upset at the corruption, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the abuse by the Western-backed ruling autocratic regime. Protests continued in several cities in Algeria.
“All over the Arab world, we are left to be eaten by the wolves,” said one Algerian blogger named Bousaad.
“Algeria has turned into a jungle where the beastly eats the weak,” a blogger named Rabei wrote Sunday. “The gap between the rich and the poor is getting larger by the hour.”
“The Arab nation is looking to you, young people, who are carrying out the protests for change,” said another blogger, Sawan. (END)