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Algerian Soccer Violence Signals Mounting Discontent

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An upsurge in soccer-related violence in Algeria serves as a warning that 18 months after the government quelled mass protests with increased wages and social spending frustration is mounting with the failure of the country's gerontocracy in control since independence to share power with a younger generation, create jobs and address housing problems.
In the latest incident, the Kuwait news agency reported that dozens of people, including a player, were injured this weekend when supporters of Jeunesse Sportive de la Saoura (JSS) stormed the pitch during a premier league match in their home stadium in Meridja in the eastern province of Bechar against Algiers-based Union Sportive de la Médina d'El Harrach (USM). The incident followed a massive brawl in September between players and between fans after a Libya-Algeria Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.

Relations between the two countries have been strained since Algeria refused to support last year's NATO-backed popular revolt that overthrew Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Algeria has since granted refuge to Mr. Qaddafi's wife Safiya and his daughter Aisha. One of his sons, Hannibal, is also believed to be in Algeria. Libya apologized last month after hundreds of Libyan fans surrounded the Algerian embassy in Tripoli and rippled the Algerian emblem from the building and burnt an Algerian flag.

Stadiums have long been a nucleus of protest in soccer-crazy Algeria. A 2007 diplomatic cable sent by the U.S. embassy in Algiers and disclosed by WikiLeaks linked a soccer protest in the desert city of Boussaada to demonstrations in the western port city of Oran sparked by the publication of a highly contentious list of government housing recipients. The cable warned that "this kind of disturbance has become commonplace, and appears likely to remain so unless the government offers diversions other than soccer and improves the quality of life of its citizens."

Mass protests early last year initially suggested that Algeria would join the first wave of Arab nations whose leaders had been toppled. The government quelled the unrest by hiking salaries and social spending on the back of its oil and gas revenues that have enabled it to build up foreign reserves in excess of $186 billion. The government also benefitted from the fact that many Algerians, who vividly recall the violence of the 1990s that left some 100,000 people dead, have become cautious because of the chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya and the civil war in Syria.

As a result, a tacit understanding has emerged between Algerian soccer fans and security forces that football supporters could express their grievances as long as did so within the confines of the stadiums. The recent incidents underline the fragility of the understanding and have aroused fears that protests could at any time spill back into the streets of Algiers and other cities.

Discontent over lack of water, housing, electricity, jobs and salaries pervades the country, sparking almost daily protests inside and outside the stadiums and clashes with security forces. A quarter of the Algerian population lives under the poverty line and unemployment is rampant. More than 70 percent of Algeria's 37 million people are under 30 and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) puts youth unemployment at 21 percent. Protests earlier this year in Laghouat and other oil and gas cities, symbolic of simmering discontent, have gone viral in social media. Soccer matches were suspended during last year's mass protests and again during legislative elections in May of this year.

"In a context of political closure, a lack of serious political debates and projects for society and of a weakened political society, football stadia become one of the few occasions for the youth to gather, to feel a sense of belonging (for 90 minutes at least), to express their frustrations over their socio-economic condition, to mock the symbol of the state's authority and to transgress the boundary of (imposed) political order and institutionalized language, or the narrative of the state's political and moral legitimacy," cautioned Algerian soccer scholar Mahfoud Amara in a book, 'Sport, Politics and Society in the Arab World,' published earlier this year.

Just how close discontent is to the breaking point is likely to become clear in the coming months as the government, apparently convinced that it has gained the upper hand, prepares to cut back on social spending that helped restore order. The government's draft budget for next year envisions an 11.2 percent cutback, according to documents seen by Reuters. The news agency said the budget was based on the assumption that oil prices would average $90 a barrel rather than the $100 that Algeria, according to the IMF, needs to balance its books. Oil accounts for 60 percent of government revenues.

Algeria's fragility is reinforced by its political uncertainty. With 75-year old Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika ill and unlikely to run for a fourth term, it remains unclear who in the country's dying leadership that consists of men in their seventies and eighties will take over after presidential elections scheduled for 2014. Two of the country's past presidents, 96-year old Ahmed Ben Bella and 82-year old Chadli Benjedid, have already died this year. "Bouteflika is in love with his throne, he wants another term," is a popular anti-government chant in stadiums despite the reports that the president will withdraw after his current term.

The sense that the government feels confident and may if necessary opt for strong arm tactics rather than reform was reinforced earlier this year when General Bachir Tartag was recalled from retirement to head the Directorate for Internal Security (DSI). Gen. Tartag, who is believed to be in his sixties, made a name for himself during the civil war against the Islamists in the 1990s as one of Algeria's most notorious hardliners and a brutal military commander.

The appointment positions him as a potential successor to aging Algerian spy chief Gen. Gen. Mohamed 'Tewfik' Mediene, widely viewed as the number two within the Algerian regime. Algeria has moreover recently adopted a number of laws that emphasize security rather than reform and impose restrictions on the media, associations and political parties, which according to Amnesty International violate international conventions signed by Algeria.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer where this story first appeared.