ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Protests by the unemployed in southern Algeria are raising the specter of rising unrest in the country's sensitive oil regions, and are increasingly attracting the attention of al-Qaida.
Algeria's vast, sparsely populated Sahara only holds 10 percent of the country's population but it is home to this North African country's enormous oil and gas reserves — the basis of the entire economy and the source of the government's power. Those who live there claim they aren't benefiting from that wealth, and can't get jobs with the oil companies.
Now al-Qaida has praised the protesters, raising the possibility that it is seeking support among the disaffected groups. The government is rushing to address the protesters' demands, but hasn't yet convinced them that it's serious.
Some 10,000 people — an enormous number for the lightly populated region —demonstrated on March 14 in Algeria's southern oil city of Ouargla, and thousands more later protested in another southern oil town, Laghouat.
"We want access to jobs in the oil companies, and not just the low-value ones like drivers and security guards; we want to be in the administration," Tahar Belabes, the head of the National Committee for Defense of the Rights of the Unemployed, which organized the demonstration, said by telephone from Ouargla.
"We just want the same employment possibilities. It's not normal that we live in the region where the oil and gas is located but don't benefit from it."
While youth unemployment is widespread in Algeria, and the rest of North Africa, the southerners say they are particularly discriminated against. There is also a widespread distrust of government officials, who are believed corrupt and skimming off the country's vast oil receipts.
Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal acknowledged on March 16 that the demonstrators' demands are legitimate and the government hurriedly announced a string of measures to address the perceived geographical bias in oil jobs. Oil companies will be obliged to give priority to job candidates from the south and recruitment must occur through registered employment agencies. The government announced that job-training centers would be set up to ready candidates for jobs with oil companies and hotels.
The demonstrations, however, have not stopped, and on Monday hundreds protested in the desert towns of Ghardaia, which the next day degenerated into widespread clashes with police that destroyed several government buildings and resulted in the arrest of seven young men for "vandalism and destruction of public property," the state news agency reported Saturday.
"The demonstrations are continuing because the young unemployed don't believe in official promises and they don't trust the local government representatives or their parliamentarians — they want to negotiate directly with the government," said Kamal Zaidi, a member of an unemployed group in Laghouat and a human rights activist.
Most worrying for the government is that, on Friday, Al-Qaida's North African branch expressed solidarity with the demonstrations, slamming what they say is the corrupt use of the country's resources.