Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, January 2011
Algerians Demands Democratic Rule, Defy Protest Ban, Clash with Police
Algiers Police Crack Down as Opposition Defies Protest Ban
France 24: 22/01/2011
By Joseph BAMAT (text)
Police broke up an opposition march calling for democracy in the Algerian capital on Saturday, with troops out in force and streets barricaded to prevent protests in the wake of a popular revolt that toppled the president in neighbouring Tunisia.
Algeria’s capital awoke to a virtual state of siege on Saturday, with a heavy police presence and many streets blocked in order to prevent protesters from reaching the May 1 Square, where opposition groups planned to stage a pro-democracy march.
The opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) planned to defy a 19-year-old ban against marches in Algiers, despite warnings from the authorities and in the wake of a popular revolt that overthrew neighbouring Tunisia's long-time president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali only a week ago.
“The atmosphere is very tense,” said Fayçal Mataoui, a political journalist with the independent Algerian daily el Watan. “Some buses headed into the city were forced to turn back, especially those coming from [the eastern] Kabyle region. The opposition’s headquarters are blocked off, and people are struggling to get out of their homes.”
Pro-democracy group makes call to protest in Algeria Report by Ahmed Tazir, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Algiers
According to Ahmed Tazir, FRANCE 24's correspondent in Algiers, a handful of protesters clashed with police close to the RCD's headquarters and around 10 people were wounded. Several people were arrested, including one RDC member of parliament, who was later released, Tazir added.
The RCD said the march was organised to demand the release of people arrested during previous demonstrations, lift the existing state of emergency, restore the individual and collective liberties guaranteed by the constitution and dissolve the government it claims was elected through fraud.
Demonstrations are banned in Algeria because of a state of emergency in place since 1992, when the government was fighting an Islamist insurgency.
On Friday, city officials warned residents of Algiers against joining the march, which was scheduled to start at 11am at the May 1 square and end at the Parliament building.
"Citizens are asked to show wisdom and vigilance and not respond to possible provocation aimed at disturbing their tranquillity, peace of mind and serenity," the Algiers administration told state news agency APS.
In a statement it insisted that public gatherings were “considered a breach of public order".
Speaking to FRANCE 24, RCD chairman Said Saadi said some 15,000 Algerian security forces had been deployed in the capital. “This is not simply a political crisis,” Saadi said, “We have reached a historical impasse.”
Fears of more Tunisia-style unrest
Opposition groups in Algeria have closely monitored the popular revolt that overthrew Tunisia’s Ben Ali and continues to call for the departure of his old guard.
The country shares a 960-kilometre border with Tunisia and has had the same president for the past 12 years.
The revolution in Tunisia was set off by the self-immolation and death of a desperate street vendor.
A small pro-democracy gathering in Algiers earlier this week startled residents and led to a handful of arrests. “At the police station the first question I was asked was whether we supported the unrest in Tunisia. For the authorities, our march is a call to violence,” said Sofia Djama, an Algerian filmmaker who participated in the demonstration.
According to Sorbonne scholar Burhan Ghalioun, who predicted Ben Ali’s fall, Algeria like Tunisia can no longer maintain a dysfunctional political and economic system under the guise of its war against Islamic terrorism.
The RDC’s Saadi, was also quick to draw a parallel between the situation in the two countries and the potential consequences: “If we cannot set off a peaceful process towards a transitional phase, the violence will be much more devastating in Algeria than it was in Tunisia.”
Copycat effect: How one man's self-immolation engulfed a region
How and why did one Tunisian vendor's self-immolation spark a chain of events that ultimately toppled a regime, led to a rash of copycat suicide attempts and spread panic across the region?
By Nicholas RUSHWORTH (video)
Leela JACINTO (text)
It all began on Dec. 17, 2010, on the streets of the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, when an impoverished street vendor, confronting the sheer hopelessness of his situation, set himself ablaze. Within weeks, a once seemingly indestructible regime was toppled and the fire of copycat self-immolation attempts appeared to engulf the region.
In Egypt, one of at least two men who set themselves on fire in recent days succumbed to his injuries on Tuesday. In Mauritania, a 42-year-old businessman alerted journalists before dousing himself with a flammable liquid and setting himself ablaze in a car parked outside the Senate.
In Algeria - a country that shares a 960-kilometer border with Tunisia and has had the same president for the past 12 years - there have been at least seven immolation attempts over the past few days. Algerian officials have occasionally tried to play down some of the cases as isolated incidents involving mentally-ill people. But few Algerians buy that argument.
When Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, he was in effect declaring his frustration over his inability to earn a living in a country beset with high unemployment rates, soaring prices, growing income inequalities and crippling political repression.
These are conditions that have plagued several neighbouring Arab nations over the past few years. But outside academic and policy circles, few were paying much attention.
Suddenly, that has all changed.
While Bouazizi’s suicide succeeded in ultimately ousting Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-old regime, the rash of copycat attempts has rattled hereditary or dubiously elected leaders across the Arab world.
At an Arab League meeting in Egypt on Wednesday, the 20-member body committed to a proposed $2 billion program to boost faltering economies region as Arab League chief Amr Moussa’s warned that “the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession”.
‘Burning monk’ highlights religious repression
Self-immolations may be brutal and horrific, but they’re also a startlingly effective form of public protest.
One of the world’s most iconic images of a public self-immolation is a June 1963 photograph of a Buddhist monk seated in a lotus position on a Saigon street engulfed in flames.
Taken at the height of the Vietnam War by Pulitzer Prize-winning US photographer Malcolm Browne, the images of “the burning monk” - as the photograph came to be known - horrified the nation and highlighted the repression of Buddhism by the US-backed Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.
Barely six months and several copycat attempts later, Diem’s regime had been overthrown and the tide of US public opinion had swung against the war.
In an interview with the New York public radio station WNYC this week, Browne noted that there seemed to be “very close parallels between the Indochina situation in the mid-1960s and the current situation in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Mideast. Certainly self-destruction has been a part of the weapons used by relatively weak people to bring their point of view to a very wide group of people.”
Comparing suicide bombings and suicide protests
The image of the weak prepared to die for the cause against the powerful is not new to the Muslim world.
During the Second Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s, Hamas adeptly exploited the symbolism of a poorly equipped suicide bomber rattling a powerful enemy – the Israeli state.
But Michael Biggs, a sociologist at Oxford University whose research on self-immolation appears in “Making Sense of Suicide Missions” (Oxford University Press), makes a distinction between suicide bombings and what he calls “protest by self-immolation”.
“Suicide attacks are intended primarily to kill the enemy. They require a lot of organization and are almost invariably orchestrated by an organization, however shadowy,” said Biggs in an interview with FRANCE 24. “With suicide protests, all you need is courage.”
Bouazizi’s immolation, according to Biggs, was “individual, spontaneous, and not aimed to kill anyone else. That gets a great deal more sympathy than suicide bombings.”
A religious dimension
But while the region has seen a fair share of suicide bombings, Biggs noted that suicide protests are rare in the Muslim world.
“Burning can have a more sacred sense in eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism and suicide protests are much more common in countries such as Korea, Vietnam and India,” he said, referring particularly to the wave of self-immolations by upper caste Indians in the 1980s protesting caste-based affirmative action policies.
“Muslim countries see comparatively lower suicide rates in part because Islam has quite a strong prohibition against defiling the human body,” he noted. “In religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, it can be viewed as an act transcending the body or an act intended to reduce the suffering of the world.”
As the recent rash of self-immolation attempts gripped the Arab world, Egypt's state-backed al Azhar, a prestigious centre of religious learning in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a statement warning anyone considering suicide.
"Sharia law states that Islam categorically forbids suicide for any reason and does not accept the separation of souls from bodies as an expression of stress, anger or protest," said al Azhar spokesman Mohammed Rifa al Tahtawi.
It’s not clear if a warning against the separation of souls from bodies will deter distressed or enraged Muslims from trying to emulate Bouazizi and make political history. The question now is whether history will repeat itself.
At least three Algerian demonstrators were killed Saturday after violent protests across the country entered their fourth day. The government promised to cut the cost of certain foods in order to quell the unrest, which was sparked by soaring prices.
News Wires (text)
Three people were killed and over 400 injured in riots in Algeria
linked to rising food costs and unemployment, the interior minister said
Saturday, as the government scrambled to tackle the crisis.
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