The departure of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11 sparked conjectures about Algeria as the next country in the Arab world to attempt to rid itself of authoritarian leadership. While Egyptians have lived under “state of emergency” laws since Mubarak came to power after Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Algeria’s version, also prohibiting any public demonstrations, was enacted in 1992 after the country`s first national multiparty elections and runoff set for January 16, 1992 were suspended. A military coup d’etat deposed then President Chadli Benjedid who had ruled since 1979.
By January 21, 2011 a network of Algerian oppositional movements had formed under the organizational umbrella of the “National Coordination for Change and Democracy,” made up of labor unions as well as human rights, feminist and student associations from civil society. When they called for a demonstration on Saturday February 12 for the main May 1st Square in Algiers the capital, some two to three thousand participants met violence at the hands of a force of 30,000 police. A second peaceful march a week later on February 19 never reached the square impeded again by police force, all amply documented by videos and images posted on YouTube and Facebook. In Oran, Algeria’s second largest city, organizers had to content themselves with calling for a meeting on Saturday February 19 in a public hall absent the requisite permit to march or demonstrate in public space.
Patterns of Algerian civil unrest differ from Tunisian and Egyptian versions not only in frequency of protests over the past few years but also in the composition of participants and the spaces they temporarily and respectively occupy. On the one hand, low figures of intellectuals, political parties members and civil society groups have turned out for peaceful takeovers of the main squares in Algeria’s larger cities or in front of government buildings throughout the country as they unfurl banners and shout slogans to make clear demands. At the same time, much larger numbers of youth protests occur often concentrating within their own poorer and crowded neighborhoods such as Algiers’ densest urban neighborhood of Bab el Oued. These are young men acting against an all encompassing hogra (oppression) in ways that have been termed rampages, looting parties, and bread riots regardless of the diverse precipitating causes – rising prices for basic foodstuffs, bad housing, no jobs, and government clampdowns on the informal economy.
So-called bread riots and food protests are not mere “rebellions of the belly,” argues Edward P. Thompson’s classic study, but best viewed as a “highly complex form of direct popular action, disciplined and with clear objectives.” Thompson’s formulations about the eighteenth-century English crowd offer one description about Algeria where years of large-scale urban antigovernment revolts play out his concept of a “moral economy of protest.” These latter uprisings are examples of power and resistance in which the strategies and inchoate language of demands for justice articulated by protesters are dynamic evidence of social claims for greater equity. Specific acts by young male crowds target banks, shops, and cars for destruction and looting as symbols of economic injustice and evoke widespread fears of a return to the violence of the bloody decade of the 1990s that is said to have claimed 200,000 Algerian lives.
However, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the Algerian economy posted $160 billion in foreign currency reserves. Due to immense natural gas and oil resources that account for two-thirds of the country’s revenues, one-third of the GDP (gross domestic product), and more than 95% of export earnings, Algeria’s hydrocarbon sector has assured a low external debt hovering at 1% of the GDP. Sporadic government moves towards a market-based economy means that state spending and state-created employment have shrunk. Nonetheless, the populace accurately perceives the government as the principal engine for job creation. Fueling the population’s demands is the knowledge of growing hydrocarbon revenues that barely trickle down to make a dent in low living standards and high rates of youth unemployment.
“Mubarak chased from power: Egypt one, Algeria zero” is a recent cartoon tagline by acerbic Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem that depicts a demonstrator waving the flag and urging current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to leave so that Algeria may even the score. By 2009 as Bouteflika approached the limit of two presidential mandates, he initiated a third one after swiftly pushing through a constitutional amendment to allow the president to run for office indefinitely. Echoing the Algerian soccer team’s elimination of Egypt from the 2010 World Cup matches in which Algeria scored one and Egypt zero, Dilem’s cartoon image acknowledges Algeria’s preeminent position as the country in the Arab world with the highest number of political demonstrations and marches, local violent protests and street riots. In the year 2010 alone, estimates range from one hundred to thousands of discrete, newsworthy incidents that made and will continue to make the constant eruptions of turmoil and unrest, peaceful and violent, as the principle strategy for sectors of Algerian society to direct their grievances vociferously and en masse to their government leaders.
 E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, Past and Present 50 (1971): 76-78.