Opposition to shale gas sparks Algeria mass protests

Opposition to shale gas sparks Algeria mass protests
Analysis: The spontaneous wave of protests against the government's decision to drill for shale gas has galvanised Algeria and poses a serious challenge to the country's political elite.
5 min read
09 March, 2015
Protests are focused on the southern city of Ain Salah [Farouk Batichi/AFP]

In the city of Ain Salah, southern Algeria, there is nothing that rises above the voice of the protestors at the "Resistance Square," where the longest civilian sit-in against fracking for shale gas has been taking place.

The participants have staged a sit-in for almost three months In the heart of the city, inside a small, shabby tent set up in Resistance Square, which is now seen as a square of struggle similar al-Tahrir Square in Egypt and Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.

The small, forgotten and remote desert city, known for its political and social marginalisation, has turned into a destination for political pilgrimage. Its news has drowned out all other political, social, economic and cultural developments in the country. The authorities had thought what was happening there was nothing but a peaceful protest and a small gathering of a number of environment and civil society activists voicing opposition to the drilling for shale gas. The sit-in, however, continued week after week, and is now about to enter its third month.

The protesters have clung to their demand that the authorities cancel their decision to extract shale gas.

The authorities used all the tricks and tactics available to deter the protesters. It did so through dialogue, sending a parliamentary delegation, which was followed by the visits of Energy Minister Youcef Yousfi and the Public Security director. Even Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and later Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika intervened toward this end. The protesters, nevertheless, clung to one option, namely, that the authorities must cancel their decision to extract shale gas. The region contains the largest water reservoir in Algeria, and the process of extracting shale gas, known as "fracking", has been linked to the pollution of groundwater supplies.

The authorities also tried force against the protestors last week. This raised concerns the situation might slide into an escalation of violence in the city and the region requiring the intervention of local army leaders to calm the situation.

A Mecca for politicians

Politicians, opposition leaders and MPs continue to flock to the region, in official delegations or on missions to learn about people's opinions or measure the pulse of the street. Local and international TV channels operating in Algeria also go there. Some pro-regime media attempt to spread rumours and reports accusing the activists of having foreign links and claiming that the political opposition in Algeria is trying to take advantage of the sit-in to put more pressure on the authorities.

The protestors in Ain Salah and the activists who organised the peaceful sit-in are keen to stay away from any manifestations of political partisanship and prevent the political leaders who visit the city and meet the protestors from making any attempt to exploit the sit-in and the people's demands in favour of particular political or civil parties and stances.

Tareq Zeqzaq, an activist, said that "the sit-in square is open to political leaders as individuals, not in their capacity as party members."

He added: "We refuse that any side whatsoever exploit our stance, sit-in, and demands. On the other hand, we do not prevent anyone from expressing support for us, for this lies at the heart of our effort to create social and political awareness, and a national consensus against the exploitation of shale gas."

The authorities have used diverse methods to deal with the developments in Ain Salah to convince the protestors - through the carrot-and-stick policy - to stop the sit-in in return for a four-year truce based on Bouteflika's pledge not to exploit the shale gas until all technical studies have been completed, 2022 at the latest. The protestors, likewise, were successful in using various methods of peaceful struggle to achieve their sole demand, namely, stopping the exploration or exploitation of the shale gas. The activities, which involved marches that headed toward the centre of the city, were highly organised at the entrances of the sit-in square. The biggest success of the protestors was their ability to move the protest to outside the region and turn the demand against the exploitation of the shale gas into a national, popular demand that involved all other regions and governorates of the country.

Unprecedented changes

The situation raises the question of how deep social and civil change is in Ain Saleh and in the southern Algerian cities in general.

The situation raises the question of how deep the social and civil change is in the city of Ain Saleh and in the southern Algerian cities in general. In the "belief" of the authorities, these areas were a centre of calm and were always ready to accept any decision or policy adopted by the authorities. Except for the security file related to combating terrorism in the southern region and at the frontiers with the coastal countries the south, as seen by the regime, was nothing but a reservoir of oil and gas. This reservoir generated billions for the state treasury in oil and gas revenues on a yearly basis, without these funds leaving an impact on the ground, especially in the southern cities, whose infrastructure has not witnessed any tangible development.

Observers believe that there are two factors why these regions have become a centre of civil activity, besides having proved a high level of political and civil awareness. The first factor is related to the media boom Algeria recently witnessed with the presence of independent TV channels, which made it possible to break the siege imposed on popular demands and activities that state-run channels blacked out. Add to this social networking sites, which created for the residents of the south bridges of communication to relay their political, cultural, and popular demands. This is especially true as these regions were given little attention in the media; they used to receive newspapers two days after they came out and according to the schedule of the airlines that transported them.

The second factor, according to observers, is related to the number of university students in the south, which led to a relative increase in the level of civil and social awareness in the cities and towns of the south. The developments in Ain Salah - having taken the authorities unawares and made headlines in Algeria - remain open to all possibilities in the coming period.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.