Is a Late ‘Arab Spring’ Knocking on Algeria’s Doors from the Desert?

by Adam al-Sabiri, Al-Akhbar English

The sands of the desert in southern Algeria are moving to the beat of popular protests, and the ruling party has warned that the protests might evolve into an “Arab Spring.” Fears have particularly heightened after the dismantling of a terrorist cell of 12 members in sensitive areas in the south of the country. According to the Algerian army, the cell was planning attacks on oil sites in collaboration with foreign parties.

Algeria — Algeria has so far been able to evade the winds of the “Arab Spring.” However, Algerian officials have recently warned of its belated arrival, in light of the protests that are expanding across the areas of southern Algeria. The statements made by Amar Saadani, secretary-general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), confirm the concerns of the officials in Algeria.

At a meeting of the party’s politburo, Saadani said that the protests taking place in several states in the south may become a serious turning point. “We fear the possible advent of an Arab Spring from the south,” he noted. This concern by the Algerian authorities was not made public at the beginning of the protests, which were seen as ordinary given the popular demands ranging between development and job creation. But the launch of a shale gas extraction project in the oasis town of Ain Salah in the far south enraged residents, who took to the streets more than 10 days ago in mass protests that are ongoing despite efforts to calm the situation. Popular rage has extended to various areas in the south.

The expansion of protests in the south prompted the ruling party to raise the red flag, placing the responsibility on “hidden hands” and warning that the situation might further deteriorate.

The developments in the south coincided with renewed clashes between the Maliki and Ibadi sects in Ghardaia province, where the two have engaged in irregular confrontations for over three years. Despite the authorities’ cautious approach and employment of all possible means in dealing with the two groups, the confrontations reemerge and result in casualties. As a result, the opposition has exerted pressure on the government, which is looking for a way to end these movements.

In an attempt to calm the situation, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal stated that the government did not grant any party the exclusive right to extract shale oil in the desert, and the operations underway aim to explore Algeria’s reserves of this energy resource. Sellal’s statement was preceded by Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi and local officials’ visit to the province in an attempt to calm the local residents, but to no avail. To the contrary, the protests expanded and reached the capital as the opposition parties, citizens, and civil society activists held a sit-in protesting the suffering of the people of the south.

The drop in oil prices in the global markets raised concerns in Algeria over the possible advent of an “Arab Spring” from the south.

“The significance of the south in our history reinforces our fears,” said Saadani, in reference to the statement by the French authorities during the occupation of Algeria: “Take independence and give us the desert.” Saadani asked if these protests are innocent or orchestrated by hidden hands to destabilize the country, in a clear reference that France stands behind the events in the south.

“The situation in the south is not stable and requires urgent intervention by all political forces in the country,” announced the ruling party through its secretary-general. Saadani said that he contacted several parties concerned about stability in Algeria to plan a visit to the southern states to calm the situation.

“These protests are a problem that must be addressed by all Algerians, because the desert has resources for all Algerians,” added Saadani. He noted that “the people of the south have been marginalized for years in several fields. I come from the south and I know this as a fact. All projects and institutions are concentrated in the north of the country, though the south is the main source of sustenance for the Algerians.” These calls and appeals are an attempt to prevent political parties, especially the opposition, from exploiting the situation to their advantage and achieve their demands for change.

But the opposition believes that the FLN secretary-general’s statements aim to “frighten” the citizens from the “Arab Spring” that plunged Libya, Syria, and Yemen into chaos and internal strife, a strategy employed by the government during popular protests.

In an interview with Al-Akhbar, Ennahda Islamist opposition leader Mohammed Hadibi said that “the statements made by FLN Secretary-General Amar Saadani aim to gain public sympathy on the one hand, and intimidate the people by warning against the continuation of protests on the other hand.”

“The situation in the cities of the south is very serious,” said Soufiane Djilali, chairman of the new Algerian opposition party Jil Jadid (New Generation). Soufiane, who is currently visiting the areas witnessing protests, said that “the people of the south have legitimate demands, because they are demanding due respect as Algerian citizens.” He noted that “the government’s choice to not reverse its decision on shale gas exploitation will escalate the situation further.”

Soufiane said that “the president, the government, and the authorities are the biggest danger threatening the country, not the people who are merely demanding their rights.”

MP Oum al-Khir Tuhami representing Tamanrasset province, where the protests began, refuted the ruling party’s statements, downplaying fears of the spread of the “Arab Spring” to Algeria through the south.

Tuhami said that “the people took to the streets to demand their social rights and end the shale gas exploitation project, without resorting to chaos and violence.” She called on the government to “respond to the demands of the citizens and contain the situation before it is exploited by foreign parties to achieve ill-intentioned objectives, especially in light of the great marginalization suffered by the people of the south.”

All statements have stressed the seriousness of the situation and considered the ruling party’s statements as “intimidation’ attempts to thwart the “legitimate” protest held by the people of the south.

In related news, the Algerian army arrested 12 terrorists in different parts of the Algerian, who were preparing to carry out terrorist attacks in collaboration with foreign parties, which confirms the presence of real threats to destabilize Algeria.

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