James M. Dorsey
Hürriyet Daily News
Algerian football league matches will be canceled in May in an attempt to prevent fans to get involved in anti-government protests in stadiums when the nation will vote in the parliamentary elections
Fears that anti-government protests in Algerian football stadiums and provincial towns could again spill into the streets of the capital Algiers have prompted the government to ban matches in early May, when Algerians will go to the polls.
The ban follows failed efforts by the government to persuade football officials to speed up this season’s premier league so that it would end no later than May 10, the day of the parliamentary election, rather than May 22, the scheduled end of the football season. Efforts to rush teams through the season’s schedule in a bid to end this year’s league early were, in part, thwarted by the cancellation of several matches as a result of the unusually heavy snowfall this year.
“We’re doing our best to accommodate the obligations of league and clubs. We believe that it is impossible to end the season before May 10, the date set for holding the election. We’ve agreed with the public authorities not to schedule any activities during the week of election, provided that the league and clubs are allowed to resume their activities after the election,” Professional Football League (LFP) President Mahfoud Kerbadj told the Maghrebia news web site.Regular protests
The suspension of matches during election week - a period in which rallies and assemblies are banned by law - is designed to free security forces from having to police stadiums, where football fans have regularly protested President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the military since anti-government protests fizzled out in early 2011.
The suspension reinforces a fragile, tacit understanding between football fans and security forces that allows the fans to raise their grievances as long as it is contained to the stadiums. The government fears that militant football fan groups or ultras associated with a host of teams, including MC Algiers, Mouloudia Club D’Oran and Jeunnesse Kabyle - while less organized than their Egyptian counterparts - could emerge as a force if the protests again spill into the streets of Algerian cities.
The understanding between the security forces and the fans was made possible, at least partly, by the fact that Algeria has been among the most advanced in the Middle East and North Africa in encouraging the emergence of football as a professional sport rather than as a policy tool for the government.
“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,” wrote Mahfoud Amar in a recently published book, “Sport, Politics and Society in the Arab World.”Discontentment mounts
With discontent over the lack of water, housing, electricity and salaries pervading the country and erupting almost daily in protests inside and outside of stadiums, the suspension of football matches has become a fixture of Algerian life. The government early last year suspended the league for weeks after protests erupted in Algiers and other cities in the wake of the toppling of Tunisian President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali.
A quarter of the Algerian population lives under the poverty line and unemployment is rampant. Recent protests in Laghouat and other oil and gas cities are symbolic of simmering discontent and have gone viral in social media. The government again suspended football matches last year after riots erupted in the Algiers neighborhood of Bab el-Oued.
“Bouteflika is in love with his throne, he wants another term,” is a popular anti-government chant in stadiums, referring to allegations that 74-year old Mr. Bouteflika is behind a spate of recent bombings in a bid to enhance his position in advance of a presidential election in 2014 by raising the specter of a threat by al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
With discontent nonetheless continuously manifesting itself, the government and the military are walking a tightrope. The seeming return to the very policies that brought protesters on to the streets of Algerian cities early last year could, at any moment, again tip the balance.
Hardliners might take a stance against ultras
Algerian President Abdelaziz 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. His efforts at political and economic reform, designed to attract foreign investment and diversify the economy, have been thwarted by the military’s desire to retain its privileges by reinforcing the state’s role in the economy.
The military has further signaled in advance of the May election that it will adopt a hard line towards domestic unrest as well as AQIM. It recently recalled from retirement Gen. Bachir Tartag to head the Directorate for Internal Security (DSI). Gen. Tartag 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.
Algeria has recently adopted a number of laws that emphasize security rather than reform, imposing restrictions on the media, associations and political parties, which - according to Amnesty International - violate international conventions signed by Algeria.
While signaling that it will take a hard line against protesters, the government and the military are banking on the assumption that allowing protests in stadiums as a release valve coupled with last year’s lifting of the state of emergency, increased subsidies of basic goods and public sector wages - as well as memories of the massive bloodletting in a decades-long war between the military and Islamist forces - will stymie activists’ desire to confront the regime head on. That assumption is reinforced by the fact that the experience of popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Yemen has so far produced mixed results, and the specter of protests descending into chaos as they have in Syria.