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Riots in Algeria: Import traders blamed

Bejaia, a coastal city in eastern Algeria, has seen clashes between youths and the police amidst the backdrop of strikes by traders
In Béjaïa, located 250 km to the east of Algiers, clashes between young people and the police followed a strike by traders against rising taxes and costs (Twitter/@JaimeOran31000)

ALGIERS –  “There is no bread left! So everyone has switched to cake. None of the shops are open except for a few sparse cafes where people go to talk.” Hocine, 45 years old, can’t believe it. “The whole city is paralysed”, this resident of Bejaia states after being contacted by Middle East Eye.

Since Monday, the small coastal city located 250 kilometres from Algiers, in Kabylie, has been shaken up by clashes occurring, after an all-out strike by traders billed as a protest against the rising cost of living and higher taxes imposed by the finance law which came into force on 1 January. The 2017 law voted in December included new increases in taxes on fuel, tobacco and electricity to stem losses due to falling crude oil prices.

“A burnt out bus drives by, there is an electrical appliance store completely looted, and a burnt police van,” said Lamine, another resident of Béjaïa who witnessed the clashes, and was contacted by MEE. “Young people were joined by youths from other districts and they began to throw stones at the police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. People were injured on both sides.”

The local media also stated that there were barricaded roads and damage across the entire wilaya (prefecture). Bus shelters were vandalised, police stations damaged by stones and local stores completely ransacked.

On Tuesday evening, the tension was still tangible. “Young people once more started to throw stones at the police. There are around a hundred or so of them, they’ve come from various different districts,” continued Houcine.

This sharp rise in violence is similar to that in Algiers at the start of 2011. At that time, the young people’s uprising, which started in Bab el Oued before spreading to other districts in the capital, had been described as “bread and sugar” riots (two products subsidised by the state) in protest against the increase in the price of basic products.

However the government went on to blame certain business interests for the unrest in 2011 and is making the same claims about the riots in Bejaia. “Subsequently, it appeared [in 2011] that the rioters had been manipulated by import barons who wanted to place pressure on the government so the measure imposing cheque payments for any transaction in excess of 500,000 DA (4,000 euros) be lifted,” stated a director from the Ministry for the Economy who has also today expressed some doubts as to the real motivations behind the latest strike.

'There are people who are seeking to exploit this strike action'

- Boulenouar El Hadj Tahar, National Trader and Artisan Association

And he is not the only one. Boulenouar El Hadj Tahar, president of the National Trader and Artisan Association, is also convinced behind-the-scene forces are at work: “There are people who are seeking to exploit this strike action,” he told MEE. “We know, for instance, that import barons want to see import licences annulled [a measure taken in spring 2016 by the government to reduce the cost of imports which in large part contribute towards the fall in the Algerian economy]”.

Several analysts have told MEE that the riots could benefit businessmen who have grown rich on the backs of the import-export trade following the opening up of the country since the 1990s. These traders want to see the removal of recent taxes that the government has implemented and, they say, maybe using the strikes and unrest to force the government’s hand.

“A strike needs support, claims and a declaration. However, we have not seen anything of the sort,” economist Mourad Ouchichi, in Bejaia, told MEE. “Moreover, many of the traders stated that they had closed because they were threatened, not because they were siding with the strike.”

Boulenouar El Hadj Tahar also stated that several traders “whose profit margins are not affected by the finance law” closed because of a fear of retaliation. “Young people came to see them telling them that it was an all-out strike, and if they did not close down they would have their stores ransacked."

Algeria’s Minister for the Interior Noureddine Bedoui stated the “violence was not spontaneous, but provoked,” warning that the state was going to “face up to any manoeuvres led by people inside the country seeking to impose their own views by using uncivilised methods”. He added that $10 billion had been freed up “by the government so as to guarantee the purchasing power of Algerian people”.

Local academic and author Rachid Oulebsir asked whether “these barons of the unofficial economy (finance experts and masters of the currency markets, importers, wholesalers, dealers, distributors) have joined together in an unofficial union… They came together in order to show, through the riots in Béjaïa, that they are masters of trade in Algeria and that the state is no longer able to serve the population as in the time of public monopolies for external trade.”

Amidst a context of riots, including in certain districts in Algiers, amplified by social networks, some opposition parties have also condemned the actions, including the Labour Party (PT) member of parliament Ramdane Tazibt: “The riots and violence called for by unknown people and usurpers, who are not seeking to cast doubt on anti-social measures of the government, but are likely to once more plunge the country into a cycle of violence/repression which can only harm the country,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

The French language daily Liberté asked questions regarding the “political designs” of the strike but also condemned the “imprudent and hazardous governance” of the state, warning that this was “subject to the insatiable caprices of the oligarchy”.

Time will tell whether the protests lead to government concessions or some kind of crack down on the unrest, in a country that has still has bad memories of the bloody years of the 1990s.