Opposition to fracking in Algeria sparks mass protest
The protests against shale gas, described by the Algeria Solidarity Campaign's Rachida Lamri as "unprecedented", appear to have taken the authorities by surprise.
Much of Algeria's export income is derived from oil and gas exports, and as supplies begin to run low, the Algerian government is likely to see shale gas as a plentiful substitute.
Shale gas is extracted through a controversial technique called fracking. Although fracking has been used to extract oil and gas reserves locked in subterranean shale rock formations in many countries, the environmental risks are as yet poorly understood, and it has been linked to the contamination of groundwater and even minor earthquakes.
According to the US Energy Information Agency, Algeria is currently the largest producer of natural gas in Africa and is believed to have the third-largest reserves of shale gas in the world.
The array of parties united under the National Coordination Committee for Change and Democracy (CNCD), an umbrella group of opposition parties, recently decided to organise protests across the country against the decision to start the exploratory drilling.
The bloc, which contains both political parties and individual MPs, formed a central committee and joint local committees to organise protests, empowering each to run decentralised protests.
|Algeria is currently the largest producer of natural gas in Africa and is believed to have the third-largest reserves of shale gas in the world.|
The opposition bloc, which called for the protests to coincide with celebrations over the anniversary of Algeria's nationalisation of foreign oil and gas holdings on 24 February 1971, is avoiding any partisan slogans, banners or campaigning during the protests.
Instead, they will use the same slogans as all other protestors, which demand the end of shale oil to avoid an environmental catastrophe in the south.
Abderrazak Makri, leader of the Movement of Society for Peace, one of Algeria's largest Islamist parties, called for support for residents of the south.
"Showing solidarity with the demands of the people of Ain Saleh and the south sends a message that the issue of shale gas does not concern the southerners alone. It is a national issue that concerns the Algerian people as a whole," he said.
"People of the north benefit from the south, and people of the south benefit from the north. We are all one country. That is why we have invited all Algerian citizens to stand together on 24 February."
RCD leader Mohcine Belabbas also called for a display of unity. "The opposition aims to organise protests even with the minimum number of participants in each governorate," he said.
The number of protesters does not matter, as long as a message can be sent, he said. "It is not about popular mobilisation as much as it is about declaring a clear political stance and sending a message to the people of the south to let them know they are not alone."
A senior figure from the Algerian Islamic Renaissance movement, Mohammad Hodeibi, also told al-Araby that "opposition powers insist on carrying out these protests whatever the authorities' position is".
"The authorities will try to mobilise security forces to stop and arrest the protesters," Hodeibi added. "I think the authorities are obsessed with a security doctrine, based on which they reject any opposing opinion or position. That is why we expect they will ban these sit-ins or harass the protesters."
Algerian Transport Minister Ammar Ghoul, meanwhile, said on Saturday that anti-fracking groups were calling for the country to be broken up, as if showing solidarity with residents of the south were akin to showing support for a neighbouring country.
|I think the authorities are obsessed with a security doctrine, based on which they reject any opposing opinion or position.
- Mohammad Hodeibi
Ghoul, a former member of the MSP (Algeria's Muslim Brotherhood), warned against "the consequences of trying to tamper with the country's stability by using the issue of shale oil for short-term political purposes".
"Algeria is united, and it currently needs to continue the final phase of its healing from the national tragedy, and it does not need anyone taking advantage of some legitimate demands to lead the streets into exploding," he concluded.
Many analysts agree that the opposition is exploiting the issue of shale gas to mobilise popular support and take the pulse of the Algerian people - to know whether they are willing to take to the streets to fight for political, civil and social rights.
However, strong condemnation by loyalist regime parties, which have accused the opposition of serving foreign interests and tampering with the country's stability, are a difficult test for the opposition.
This is an especially sensitive time for Algeria because of the tensions and strife in its two eastern neighbours, Libya and Tunisia, which has discouraged Algerians from protesting and endangering the peace they have been enjoying after the violence and bloodshed of the 1990s.
However, the opposition has not limited its calls to Algeria - they have taken their movement abroad, calling on Algerian expatriates to organise similar protests in front of Algeria's diplomatic missions. This has been widely criticised as internationalising a domestic affair.
Political analyst Hassan Mowali criticised the opposition for organising protests in front of Algerian consulates and embassies abroad, describing the step as "futile".
"This would support claims by the authorities and their loyalist parties that the opposition follows a foreign agenda," he added.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.