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Algeria Oasis Towns Clamor for Jobs in Shadow of Al-Qaeda

Algerian Oasis Towns Clamor for Jobs in Shadow of Al-Qaeda
The authorities are already tightening security after a January attack by militants linked to al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, at the An Amenas gas plant that killed 38 foreign workers. Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Amar Kouiten’s life has fallen apart since he lost his job last year as machine operator at an Algerian gas-liquification plant.

His wife left him and took their two children to her parents’ home. Kouiten, 36, joined a group of unemployed workers and began organizing protests in Ouargla province, where clashes with police left 40 people injured on April 10.

“We’ve really had enough of all this,” he said in an interview, explaining that he only has enough money to eat once a day. “All we want is the right to have a job.”

Rising unemployment is sparking unprecedented unrest in the southern oasis towns in Algeria, the third-largest gas supplier to the European Union. It comes when the authorities are already tightening security after a January attack by militants linked to al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, at the An Amenas gas plant that killed 38 foreign workers and amid preparations for elections next year.

The government is “aware of two possible future dangers: escalation of the protests and AQIM taking benefit of something that explodes,” said I. William Zartman, professor emeritus of international studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Below the oasis towns is the desert, home to most of nation’s oil and gas reserves. Algeria produces about 1.2 million barrels of oil a day, pumped mainly by state-run Sonatrach, London-based BP Plc, Norway’s Statoil ASA of Norway and ENI Spa of Italy. The industry provides the government with about 98 percent of its revenue.

‘Cash Cow’

“The instability in the south is definitely something the authorities are worrying about in the run-up to elections,” Riccardo Fabiani, a North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a telephone interview from London. “It could threaten the cash cow of this regime.”

Until now, the south has remained largely free of the sporadic protests over living conditions that erupted in the north and east before and after the Arab Spring that toppled rulers in neighboring Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

The worsening of security in the south has curbed job opportunities for the majority of people in the area who depend on cross-border trade, selling handicrafts and tourism, said Mahmad Saib Musette, head of research at the Algiers-based Center of Applied Economy for Development.

“This is one of the main reasons of the current unrest in the south,” he said. “The international companies need highly skilled laborers, who can’t be found there.”

Civil War

The violence of the protests has been tempered by memories of the civil war in the 1990s, sparked by the military’s decision to annul elections that Islamist parties were winning. As many as 200,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict, while thousands of northerners fled to the south, according to Algerian authorities.

“Algerians are scared stiff of the memory of the 1990s when the Islamists took out their revenge on various parts of the population, and the government on the Islamists, and no one cared who they killed,” Zartman said.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika 76, has responded to the unrest with increased police action and programs designed to assuage the anger. The government said it would make zero percent loans available to Algerians aged 20 to 40 who want to start small businesses, and require companies such as BP and Statoil to hire more people locally.

Algeria’s police force, the Directorate For National Security, announced plans to recruit 6,000 young people in eight southern provinces including Ouargla, Algiers-based El-Khabar newspaper reported today.

‘Just Slogans’

With oil production declining for four consecutive years, the government’s ability to buy off discontent is waning. Bouteflika, who came to office in 1999, hasn’t announced if he will stand in the 2014 election.

So far, the new measures aren’t satisfying the unemployed. The government has sent envoys to the region to meet with protest leaders, who have insisted on direct talks with ministers in Algiers.

Economic growth of 2.5 percent last year and a forecast of 3.4 percent this year won’t reduce the jobless rate, according to the International Monetary Fund. Officially, unemployment in Algeria is 9 percent, and about 20 percent among youth.

“What the government is offering us is just slogans,” said Kouiten, who’s a member of the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed. “There is nothing concrete in there for us.”

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