/ 29 March 2011

Algeria teachers take demands to president’s doorstep

For nearly two weeks Algerian schoolteacher Hamou Benhamou has spent his days protesting outside the presidential administration and his nights sleeping on a strip of cardboard on the pavement.

The sit-in that Benhamou is holding with about 200 other teachers is one of dozens of protests around the Algerian capital which have unsettled a government wary that unrest elsewhere in the Arab world will spread to Algiers.

The government’s tactic so far has been to promise political reform, but also to give handouts to groups who strike or protest, usually over pay and conditions. This has encouraged more demonstrations.

“Everybody’s had a pay rise. Why not us? We are teachers,” asked Benhamou (31) who travelled to the protest by bus from his home in Bordj Badji Mokhtar, a town in the Sahara desert about 2 000km from Algiers.

“We are educating the young so we deserve a minimum of attention.”

Benhamou is part of a broader wave of protests and strikes that has become a daily phenomenon across all sectors of the economy and all strata of society — though to date they have not challenged the government’s grip on power.

Legal clerks, blind people, oil workers, Muslim clerics, students, doctors, military veterans, municipal police officers and government drivers have all staged protests.

During the day, Benhamou and the other protesters stand on the pavement diagonally opposite from the president’s El Mouradia chanting slogans including “Dignity equals a decent salary!” and “We are teachers, respect us!”

The protesters are usually surrounded by about 300 police in riot gear, while there are a dozen police vans parked nearby.

At around 1pm each day, Benhamou and his fellow protesters — who include several women — try to push past the police cordon and block the road between them and the president’s offices.

On Monday, when they tried to block the road, the police used force to stop them, protesters said. The following day, one person had a leg in plaster, another had a bruise on his face.

When darkness falls, they lay out their cardboard mats, spread out their blankets, and sleep on the pavement.

They eat bread and cheese bought in nearby shops and local residents sometimes give them food. The owner of a garage lets them use the toilets and gives them access to water for washing.

The protesters are some of Algeria’s 20 000 substitute teachers who work on temporary contracts, many of them for years. They want their status changed so they can have the same salary and benefits as full-time teachers.

Another protester, Mohamed Messaoudi (34) travelled from Adrar region, 1 200 km from the capital. He said local officials told him they could not help with his demands, and the only way to be heard was to travel to Algiers.

“The problems are always solved at the central level. Locally nobody cares about us. This is why we are here at the Presidency,” said Messaoudi who teaches Arabic in the village of Talmine, 70km from the town of Adrar.

“I have been working as a part-time teacher for seven years now with a salary of 19 000 Algerian dinars [$264] “, he said. He said he hoped that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would notice them from his office window. “We do not trust anybody but the president. This is why we are here,” Messaoudi said.

However, if Bouteflika (74) has heard them, he has not responded. He has not made a speech or been shown speaking in public for three months, prompting calls from some of his political allies for him to break his silence. — Reuters