4:34pm

Wed June 1, 2011
Africa

In Rich Algeria, Youth Face Meager Future

The North African country of Algeria borders both Tunisia and Libya, but after being scarred by a civil war during the 1990s, Algerians have not rebelled like their neighbors.

But that could change. And observers warn that there could be an explosion if the government's promise of change doesn't come fast enough. Seventy percent of the Algerian population is under the age of 30, and its discontent is growing.

In the capital, Algiers, a part-time street vendor named Omar sells kitchen utensils and children's clothes — anything he can get his hands on — from a blanket on the sidewalk at the sprawling market below the casbah. But work is irregular because the police crack down constantly on black market vendors, he says. And with no steady income, he can't afford an apartment — or even a life.

"I live at home with my mother and sisters. We have one room and a kitchen. I made a little space for myself out on the balcony. I can't marry or have children because I have no future," he says. "There's nothing here."

Omar says only those lucky enough to have connections can hope for a decent job or an apartment. The government promised him a bright future when he did his military service. But they lied, he says.

A Rich Country, With Poor People

Omar is not alone. Economists say the majority of young Algerians are trapped in impoverished lives that are going nowhere.

Officially, youth unemployment is around 20 percent. Many say that in reality it's pushing 50 percent. Terrorism used to be the government's most pressing problem; now it's lack of opportunities for young people, says Nacer Mehal, Algeria's minister of communications.

"It's not easy to build a good democracy and to open and to develop the country," Mehel says. "We try."

Mehal says the government is trying to help young people by creating jobs and offering microcredits targeted at young entrepreneurs. It's also building housing units across the country.

The Algerian state can afford to do all this because it is enormously wealthy from the country's gas and oil reserves. But many Algerians say it's hard to justify such a rich country having so many poor people.

'A Frustration Among Young People'

In Bab el-Oued, a poor suburb of Algiers, kids play soccer on a concrete lot while young men hang out, showing off and arguing. The decrepit, colonial-era apartment blocks of Bab el-Oued desperately need fixing up — or, some say, tearing down.

Mustapha Bouabdullah walks up the five flights of crumbling marble stairs to his apartment. He says Algeria's political class, which he calls a gerontocracy, lives on petrodollars and has no solutions whatsoever for the country's youth.

"There is a frustration among young people in the Arab world when faced with the cultural, social and technological progress of the West. The powers that be are overwhelmed, and young people refuse all dialogue with them because they are obsolete," he says.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised a wide range of reforms and did lift a 19-year-old emergency law earlier this year. But it's not Bouteflika people seem to hate — it's the corrupt system behind him, and a political party that has been in power since Algeria won independence from France in 1962.

Freely Lived Lives?

There are small street corner protests every day in the Algerian capital, but they are quickly squelched by Algeria's well-equipped riot police. Tariq, 25, and his friends say they want real democracy and more freedom now.

Tariq says it's not just about jobs; they want to be able to have leisure time, to enjoy culture, to be able to travel freely — to live regular lives.

Abdelouhub Farsaoui works with Rassemblement pour les Jeunes, a group that is trying to empower young people. He says mass migration and suicide have both increased as young people have lost hope. Government ministers have always glorified Algerian youth in speeches, says Farsaoui, but they do nothing to build a future for young people.

"Instead of preparing them to take the reins of power and oversee the destiny of this country, the system does everything to shut young people out and make sure they play no role in the democratic development of this country," Farsaoui says.

And so, he continues, there is no cadre of young politicians ready to replace the aging ruling class.

Meanwhile, Omar has walked out to the Algiers beach, just across from the casbah. He looks out across the Mediterranean Sea. The lucky ones have gone to France and Spain and even America, he says — we'd all be migrants if we could.

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