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Algerians use regional unrest to press pay demands
Wave of protests, strikes over pay and conditions; Officials fear Arab revolts could reach Algeria; Government gives in to some demands to placate protests.
March 14, 2011 12:42 by Reuters
When thousands of young Algerians rioted earlier this year over price rises and living conditions, the government asked state-employed Muslim clerics to preach sermons in the mosques appealing for calm.
Now, two months later, the clerics themselves are protesting.
“We are very angry, and our daily living conditions are bad,” said Hajaj El Hadj, an imam at a mosque near the capital for over 20 years. “We demand a significant pay rise.”
Algeria’s 100,000 imams have joined municipal police, students, doctors, legal clerks, chauffeurs and oil workers who are demanding better pay and conditions and are threatening strikes or protests if they do not get what they want.
This phenomenon has come about, in part, because many Algerians realize there has never been a better time to have their grievances resolved.
The government, anxious to stop a wave of popular revolts in the Arab world spreading to Algeria, has been paying out huge sums in subsidies, wage increases and interest-free loans to placate discontent.
But it is not without risks. The protests and strikes — which have so far been small, orderly and localised — could develop into something more unpredictable.
“There is a risk different sectors demanding a pay rise may unify their position and behave as one sector. If that happens it will add more pressure on the government,” said Mohamed Lagab, teacher of political sciences at Algiers university.
Many analysts have predicted Algeria could be the next North African country, after Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, to witness a revolt. If it does, it could have far-reaching consequences because Algeria supplies a large share of Europe’s natural gas.
So far, most protests have not voiced any political demands, and those that did quickly ran out of steam. But the uprising that toppled Tunisia’s ruler also began as a small local protest about living conditions.
As one of four imams at a mosque in the town of Staoueli, 50 km (30 miles) west of Algiers, it is El Hadj’s duty to lead prayers five times a day, give a sermon at the mosque every Friday and carry out pastoral care in the community.
He, like all Algeria’s officially-registered imams, is employed by the state. He and his colleagues decided to act after seeing the pay rises other public employees were receiving.
“The police got a 50 percent pay rise but the government forgot to include us in the list,” El Hadj said. “After 20 years serving as imam, my salary is 23,500 Algerian dinars per month ($317). This is unacceptable.”
He recalled the riots in January, when the government asked Muslim clerics to help restore calm. “We did the maximum to convince the young people to stop the riots, but the government has done nothing to reward us. This is not fair,” El Hadj said.
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