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Anger, bleak prospects, poverty fire protest mood for young Algerians

Tens of thousands defy a ban on protests in Algiers

ORAN: Algerians shout slogans and raise signs and national flags as they protest outside the city hall in the northern coastal city of Oran, about 410 kilometers west of the capital Algiers during a rally against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in power. — AFP

ALGIERS: Suffering from lack of work and affordable housing, Nasredine and 40 of his relatives live squeezed into a three-room flat in a poverty-hit housing project outside Algeria’s capital. On Friday, just like last week, the 28-year-old planned on taking to the streets with friends to march against the “system and injustice” after a decision by ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to stand for a fifth term unleashed pent-up ire.

Just outside the city centre of Algiers, the graffiti-strewn streets of the housing project are filled with pot holes and there are no squares of parks. In a country where half the population is under 30, there is little to occupy Nasredine and his friends. Instead they spend their ample free time on social media, where calls for rallies saw tens of thousands defy a ban on protests in Algiers last week and pour onto the streets.

The scale of those demonstrations took many in Algeria by surprise, and they were followed by smaller protests. On Friday, demonstrators geared up to march against Bouteflika’s bid to hold onto power at an April 18 election, but also against “the system” as a whole. In the lead-up to those rallies, youth in the project have prepared their gear: a national flag along with water and vinegar to treat the effects of tear gas.

‘We can’t take it anymore’
The youngest of 12 children, Nasredine lives in the tiny apartment with his parents and siblings, along with their spouses and children. At night, they sleep “like in prison, lined up next to each other… no intimacy is possible”, he says, refusing to give his surname. He would know about prison. He’s been locked up twice for a total of eight months after trying to scratch out a living as a “parkingueur” like many other of the country’s unemployed.

A common sight on the streets of Algiers, drivers pay these informal attendants a nominal fee to watch over their parked cars. “You express yourself, you go to jail. You try to cobble (together a living) doing odd jobs, you go to jail… we can’t take it anymore,” says Nasredine. His friend Youssef, 34, recently secured a job as a security agent after long years of unemployment.

But he still can’t find housing. He shares one of four rooms in his family’s flat with his wife and two children. The 16 other members of his family live in the remaining three. Despite the many government-sponsored social housing projects established over Bouteflika’s 20 years in power, Algeria is still suffering from a housing crisis. The reason is simple, say Nasredine and his friends. No bribe, no social housing.

‘Against the system’
Abdenour, a 29-year-old hairdresser, cuts hair on credit for his friends, including Nasredine. He regrets that Bouteflika has used “the people’s money to build just for show the largest mosque” in the world in Algiers, after those in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. That money should have been used to build hospitals, the group of friends say, noting that their leaders, including Bouteflika, seek treatment abroad.

The ailing head-of-state flew to Switzerland on Sunday for what the presidency called “routine medical checks” and has not yet returned. Bouteflika uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. “We’re not against him, he’s sick, he’s resting. But we’re against the system,” says Youssef. For them, “the worst” is when they hear some leaders “say that people are happy and want Bouteflika to stay” in power.

“That’s wrong!” the group of friends cries-adamant that none of them are happy. “Lack of hope” has pushed many young Algerians to opt for illegal bids to Europe, drugs or radical Islamism, says sociologist Nacer Djabi. Amine, a 23-year-old welder who’s been out of work for four years, says he’d jump at the first chance to cross the Mediterranean on a makeshift boat. “There is no future in Algeria,” he says. “(Only) if the entire system is removed… then I would have some hope and I could stay”.- AFP

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