CONSTANTINE — Algeria's third-largest city has been shaken after May 1 worker demonstrations, included one man setting himself on fire in front of the Constantine governor's office to protest rampant unemployment.
The Algiers-based daily El Watan reports that the man, indentified as Hamza, was participating in a demonstration organized by the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC). After the self-immolation, he was taken to a local hospital in critical condition. After several hours of protests in front of the city hall and a busy tramway terminus station, a delegation representing the demonstrators met with the city's governor.
Hamza's desperate act evoked the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, in December 2010. That moment sparked the Tunisian revolution, a popular uprising that rapidly spread to neighboring countries during what came to be known as the Arab Spring.
Algeria was relatively untouched by those protests, its people wary after a violent civil war in the 1990s between the authorities and Islamists. Despite the durability of a regime that has ruled since independence from France in 1962, Algeria is suffering a deep economic crisis due to collapsing oil prices and an intensifying power struggle over the succession to ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
El Watan reports that the government imposed a media blackout on the 79-year-old president's medical condition, though it is believed that he remains in hospital in Geneva. Bouteflika has not spoken in public since April 2012, and his departure from the country a year later led to a growing struggle for power in the capital.
Popular discontent is also rising, and demonstrations are intermittently held across the country. Riots erupted in the central town of Oued El Ma in February after the cancelation of a project that would have provided many local jobs.
It remains unclear who really holds power in Algeria as factions jostle for control in the capital, but the regime is nonetheless embarking on a crackdown on the press. According to El Watan, authorities have targeted opposition newspapers with charges of opposing the state or insulting religion, restricting their ability to operate independently.
Many Algerians are unhappy with the current situation in their country, as uncertainty grows over Algeria's economic and political future — and whether Hamza's gesture was carried out in vain, or will go on to spark an Algerian Spring.