Protests by teachers, health workers spread in Algeria

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Members of five teaching unions in Algeria went on strike this week over better pay and conditions, joining hundreds of colleagues who already walked out months ago amid public spending cuts caused by falling energy prices.

Teachers in the provinces of Bejaia, Blida and Tizi Ouzou abandoned their schools over three months ago, and earlier this month the walkouts hit the capital, Algiers, where several schools have shut their doors. On Tuesday, five more unions in the education sector launched a two-day strike.

Strikes and protests over social and economic grievances occur almost daily in Algeria, but are generally localised and do not touch on national politics. Independent trade unions are a key channel for expressing dissent.

The protests come at a time of continuing political uncertainty -- President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has not spoken to the public since suffering a stroke in 2013, adding to doubts over OPEC member Algeria's future course.

"We want our wages to increase to cope with high inflation," said a young teacher who works at Said Hamdine school in Algiers and is taking part in the strike.

Workers in the public health sector have also held protests over pay and conditions. At a demonstration by doctors at the Algiers University Hospital in January, around 20 protesters were injured in clashes with police and several arrested, local media reported at the time.

The ongoing teachers' strike is taking a toll on students. "No lessons for almost a month now," said Akram, a 14-year-old student at Said Hamdine. "If you want to study you must pay private courses, otherwise you may miss the year."

These protests are much smaller than the unrest Algeria saw during the "Arab spring" of 2011. As Tunisia and Egypt's leaders were toppled, Algerian security forces contained those demonstrations. The government was able to further calm tensions by increasing spending as oil and gas revenues, the country's lifeline, flowed freely from crude sold at $100 a barrel.

Since independence, Algeria's ruling elite has tried to buy loyalty through public spending, which has risen sharply since Bouteflika came to power in 1999. But the system is now under strain.

Annual energy revenues have halved since 2014, forcing authorities to cut back on spending and secure new sources of funding to cover the budget deficit.

The government also restricted the import of hundreds of goods, pushing up prices. The cost of lentils and coffee, for example, has risen by as much as 15 percent.


Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia warned protesters last week to stop what he described as "anarchy", apparently playing to fears of instability in a country where as many as 200,000 people died in a civil conflict with Islamists in the 1990s.

"It's time for the train of anarchy to stop," Ouyahia told members of his party at a rally in the eastern city of Biskra. "Barakat (that's enough!). This situation can not last ... because the train of anarchy can lead to the irreparable."

That drew a quick riposte from strikers in Algiers, who chanted: "We are not afraid, Mr Ouyahia."

With less money to offer, the government has deployed Imam Ali Aya, a well known religious figure, who has sought to mediate between the ministry of education and the unions. But his efforts have so far produced no deal.

"We will carry on the strike," said Yasmine Lahoubi, a 28-year-old resident doctor in Algiers. "We can see that the government and the ministry don't want to hear our voices and keep ignoring our demands, but we hope that we will find an agreement."

But some still see the 80-year-old Bouteflika as a better bet than the government for fixing their problems.

"Definitely we want Bouteflika, not the government, to find a solution," said 27-year-old doctor Wafa, on strike at Algiers biggest hospital, Mustapha Bacha. "Only Bouteflika can end the conflict."

(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Raissa Kasolowsky)