OUED EL MA — High tensions persist in Algeria, a week after police and security forces violently cracked down on protests in the impoverished central town of Oued El Ma. Algiers-based daily El Watan reports that the violent crackdown laid waste to houses and businesses and left the town largely devastated, and what the daily describes as a "under shock."
The town erupted in anti-government protest after the cancellation of a long-awaited project to build a solar panel factory in the predominantly agricultural region, meant to bring jobs to the legions of unemployed youth.
The protests began as a general strike on January 19th against the decision to transfer the project to the city of Djelfa, before degenerating into an attack on the local prison, which drew live ammunition from local police.
News site Le Matin d'Algerie writes that the national gendarmerie was called in to suppress the protests, which spread to neighboring towns and continued for four days even while going largely unreported in the national press.
Locals reported being beaten by the police, with numerous reports of assaults on bystanders and raids on several homes. The heavy-handed repression in Oued El Ma, both of protesters and other villagers, has now caused indignation across the country.
Oil-rich Algeria saw riots and protests in 2011, but unlike its Arab Spring neighbors — notably Tunisia — the government maintained control through a combination of repression and public subsidies.
The one-party state, led by the National Liberation Front (FLN) since independence in 1962, has remained in power through populist measures and an ever-present state security apparatus, wielded by a select elite commonly known as le pouvoir, "the power."
Rising food prices contributed to the crisis in 2011, which was inflamed by an initially aggressive crackdown that eventually died down with the removal of a decades-old state of emergency and an increase in food supplies.
But in recent months, the collapse in the price of oil has deepened an already dire economic situation in the country — inflation has risen to 4.8% and youth unemployment is at a staggering 29.9% — and the overzealous police response could be seen as a sign to prevent protests against the regime from spreading across the country.
According to Jeune Afrique, the ailing 78-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has become increasingly marginalized by the armed forces after more than 16 years in power. He is rarely ever seen in public and doubts persists over whether he is still the leading authority in the country. The behind-the-scenes power struggle — combined with the country's economic woes — could create a perfect storm for unrest.
According to El Watan, Algerians have increasingly taken to the streets to vent their frustration with the authorities' failure to address the myriad problems facing their country. Oued El Ma is the epicenter of what could become a new national wave of protests, particularly if the uncertainty over succession in the regime continues.