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Algeria promises more freedoms to avert protests

Algeria promised to end a 19-year-old state of emergency and provide more political freedoms Thursday, concessions designed halt a wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
Image: (FILES) A picture taken on January 7, 20
Algerian riot police patrol the streets of central Oran, some 270 miles west of Algiers, on Jan. 7, during clashes. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said on Thursday that the country's 19-year state of emergency would be lifted "in the very near future".STR / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Algeria promised to end a 19-year-old state of emergency and provide more political freedoms on Thursday, concessions designed to keep out a wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

The announcement by the energy exporting nation followed pressure from government opponents, some inspired by unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, who demanded the emergency powers be scrapped and are planning a protest in the capital on February 12.

The government had argued it needed the extra powers under the state of emergency to fight Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda but the insurgency has abated, sparking public debate about whether those powers are still justified.

The lifting of the state of emergency will happen "in the very near future," Algeria's official APS news agency quoted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as telling a meeting of senior ministers.

"This is clearly a response to the events in Tunisia and Egypt and an attempt by the Algerian authorities to get ahead of the curve and head off popular protests," said Benjamin Stora, a leading French historian on Algeria.

"They would not have dreamed of lifting the state of emergency otherwise."

Nod to joblessness
Bouteflika said the government should adopt new measures to promote job creation, a nod to the problem of unemployment which is particularly acute among young Algerians and helped trigger the uprising in Tunisia.

The Algerian president also instructed that national television and radio stations -- which are controlled by the state and broadcast almost no voices of dissent -- give airtime to all political parties.

"It is a step in the right direction," Algerian political analyst Mohamed Lagab said of the proposed changes. "(It) shows that Bouteflika has understood how fragile the situation is."

However, Bouteflika make clear there would be a limit to the new political freedoms. Restrictions on marches in the capital will stay in force even after the lifting of the state of emergency, he said.

Bouteflika, who is 73 and serving his third term as president, issued a warning to opposition groups.

"Freedom should not end in a situation where you have things sliding out of control or anarchy, which have already cost Algeria dear," he said.

Two decades of conflict
The state of emergency was introduced in 1992, soon after the authorities annulled a parliamentary election which a radical Islamist party was poised to win.

That led to nearly two decades of armed conflict between Islamist insurgents and security forces which killed an estimated 200,000 people and from which the country, a major oil and gas producer, is still emerging.

Image: (FILES) Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bo
(FILES) Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika arrives to attend the 25th Africa-France summit on May 31, 2010 in Nice, southeastern France. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said on February 3, 2011 that the country's 19-year state of emergency would be lifted \"in the very near future\". AFP PHOTO / POOL / ERIC GAILLARD (Photo credit should read ERIC GAILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)ERIC GAILLARD / AFP

There was no indication that the end of the state of emergency would mean that Islamist parties banned two decades ago would now be able to resume their activities.

The Algerian authorities have already made some concessions in the past few weeks to keep a lid on unrest.

Early in January, before the wave of protests in other Arab countries, several Algerian cities were shaken by rioting over food prices which killed two people and injured hundreds.

Since then, the government intervened to cut prices on staple foodstuffs and issued instructions to speed up imports of wheat, in an effort to ensure there was no disruption to bread supplies which could rekindle riots.

Some analysts say that Algeria is different from Egypt and Tunisia because its huge revenues from energy exports allow it to satisfy many of its citizens' economic grievances, especially at a time when oil prices are around $100 a barrel.