By James M. Dorsey
Mass anti-government protests have for now fizzled out on the streets of Algerians towns and cities but are alive and kicking in the country’s soccer stadiums where football fans regularly take on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the military and the Islamists.
"Being in a crowd makes us forget our fears. We know that the police can’t do anything, while if we said just half of these things in the street, we would be arrested right away. Stadiums are the only place where we can express our fury," France 24 quoted Amine T., a supporter of popular Algiers club Union Sportive de la Medina d'Alger (USMA), as saying.
Nicknamed Msam’iyas’, women who sing at weddings because of their 23-year old tradition of turning popular melodies into protest songs, the USMA fans chant: “Bouteflika is in love with his throne, he wants another term."
The chant refers to allegations that President Abdulaziz Bouteflika is behind a spate of recent bombings in a bid to enhance his chances of re-elections in polls scheduled for next year by raising the specter of a threat by Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"Our songs focus on current events, on politics and the economy. We sing about politicians, about security, about terrorist attacks. We criticise the current government as well as the extremists of the (outlawed) Islamic Salvation Front. We also criticise the high cost of living in Algeria and the privileges enjoyed by the country’s elite, who send their children abroad to study while so many young Algerians are unemployed and live in poverty," Amine T. said.
In a region dominated by autocratic rulers, Algeria is among the most advanced in encouraging the emergence of soccer as a professional sport. As a result of the regime's reduced involvement in the sport, soccer fans have a tacit understanding with authorities under which they can say what they like as long as they keep their protests confined to the stadium.
"It’s not so much our slogans that worry the authorities, it’s how many of us there are. For example, when riots erupted in the Algiers neighbourhood of Bab el-Oued earlier this year, the Algerian Football Federation temporarily suspended matches. They did this because they were worried that if the police couldn’t control a few dozen youths in the street, they certainly wouldn’t be able to control 60,000 football fans leaving a stadium. I think that the authorities don't actually have a problem with our chants: if we get our anger out inside the stadium, then that’s it, we don’t cause any trouble outside," Amine T. said.
The question is how long the protests will remain within the confines of the stadium. The chanting comes as the focus in the wake of the downfall of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi shifts to whether Algeria military-dominated government could be the next to succumb to the mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Discontent with the government pervades the country with small protests inside and outside the stadium occurring on a daily scale over the lack of water, housing, electricity or calling for higher wages. A quarter of the population lives under the poverty line and unemployment is rampant.
Many Algerians however are wary of open confrontation. They recall the early 1990s when the military stepped in to cancel elections and squash burgeoning political freedoms because Islamists were emerging as a major force. Mass protests in 1988 in which some 500 people were killed had forced the military to legalise political parties and allow for free and fair elections. But when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) emerged victorious from the first round of polling in 199, the generals stepped in sparking a decade-long civil war in which some 200,000 people were killed that has left the country deeply divided.
Memories of the bloodletting coupled with increased subsidies and public sector wages and a lifting of the long-standing state of emergency have so far enabled the government to avert the sustained mass protests that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, sparked a NATO-backed victory in Libya and threaten to force the embattled presidents of Syria and Yemen out of office.
Reinforcing the government's understanding with the soccer fans and the success of its efforts to buy off discontent is the fact that the Arab revolt has so far produced mixed results. The fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has resulted in political turmoil rather than economic progress while Libya, Syria and Yemen are racked by violence.
The military's reassertion of behind-the-scenes control despite 74-year old President Bouteflika's promises of political reforms ahead of next year's parliamentary elections coud however well turn the tables. Mr. Bouteflika, whose health is failing, has lost several of his closest associates over the past year as a result of a military-inspired corruption investigation.
The military's inclination to reinforce the state's role in the economy is thwarting Mr. Bouteflika's efforts to attract foreign investment and diversify the economy. A return to the very policies that brought protesters on to the streets of Algerian cities early this year could well again tip the balance.
"The country is on the edge of an explosion, the regime has only held on by spending billions, but for how long? This is just a postponement," said Sherif Arbi, a pro-democracy activist, on the day the protest didn't happen.
"The chanting of the fans in stadia has continued to replicate the political siituation," adds Loughborough University professor Mahfoud Amara, writing in the July edition of The Journal of North African Studies. "Football is becoming one of the few (allowed) spaces for people to express their frustrations overt the socio-economic and political conditions.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.