Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, faced with mounting social discontent and massive protests among the country's Berber minority, has replaced his finance minister in a government reshuffle aimed at reviving the economy.
The move appeared to recognize that unemployment and poverty are behind the unrest, in which, according to official figures, more than 50 people have been killed and 1,300 injured. But Bouteflika kept his most hardline ministers in the reshuffle ― Interior Minister Nourreddine Yazid Zerhouni, in charge of the crackdown against the Berbers, and Justice Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who is pushing legislation to restrict press freedom ― while the president retained control of the sensitive defense portfolio.
The reshuffle on Thursday evening, May 31, followed a march by some 200,000 people in Algiers during the day to protest brutal repression of Berber people in Algeria's northeastern Kabylie region and denounce the state as an "assassin".
Finance Minister Abdellatif Benachenhou was replaced by the Trade Minister, Mourad Medelci, while Noureddine Boukrouh, former minister for small businesses, took over from Hammid Temmar as privatization minister. Other key posts were unchanged, including the foreign relations and energy portfolios while Prime Minister Ali Benflis kept his job.
"This measure, which comes at the start of a support program to restart the economy, is based on a desire for the best cooperation possible between different sectors and a better coherence and effectiveness in government action," a statement from the president's office said.
Bouteflika, who said on his election in April 1999 that it was vital "to put the country back on track" and "put an end to assistance", stressed that Algeria "is resolutely and definitively engaged in market economics".
"The time of protectionism is over. We've finished with an administered economy," his statement said, expressing the hope that "the awaited impact on employment and living standards ... will really be felt within a reasonable time."
The reshuffle could be seen as a first response to the unrest in Kabylie, where unemployment and emigration rates are higher still than elsewhere in Algeria. The rioters' demands for jobs and social justice have been taken up in other regions of a country, which has seen standards of living halved in 10 years.
Thursday's impressive rally ended in skirmishes between rival groups of youths and the shooting of a 19-year-old youth. It was called by the opposition Socialist Forces Front (FFS) party to back demands that paramilitary police be withdrawn from the Kabylie region.
Many of the mainly youthful demonstrators had come to the capital from the ethnic Berber region, where the FFS has strong support and where resentment is widespread against the mainly Arabic-speaking, army-backed regime.
Since April 18, when a youth was fatally shot in police custody in Kabylie and rioting broke out, 51 people have been killed and 1,300 injured. But witnesses, the press and the opposition say that between 60 and 80 people have been killed in Kabylie towns and villages and several thousand have been injured in battles between riot police using tear gas and live ammunition and stone-throwing youths.
The FFS, led by veteran politician Hocine Ait Ahmed who has been living in Switzerland for medical treatment, called Thursday's rally in the capital to demand "truth, justice and freedom".
Little violence was reported until a gang of youths broke the windows of a bank and smashed streetlights and shop signs on Martyrs' Square. In the past month, lawyers and journalists have also held protest rallies, particularly in the wake of the introduction of legislation seen as a bid to muzzle Algeria's private press. ― (AFP, Algiers)
by Marc Pondaven
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)