ALGIERS, Algeria – The angry and determined men marched on Algeria's Parliament, tossing aside metal police barriers in a bold display of defiance. But these were not disenfranchised youths or opposition leaders.
They were Communal Guards, state-armed militia on the front line of the country's long battle with Islamist extremists, and their protest served as an eloquent example of the breadth of social unrest in this gas-rich North African nation.
Algeria's leadership, riddled by corruption and at the mercy of the army, is sitting in a circle of fire, with a restive populace at home and pro-democracy uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Libya that are shaking the Arab world to the core.
Two months of strikes, sit-ins and attempted protest marches are raising questions about whether Algeria, which waged a brutal battle against insurgents for nearly two decades, can satisfy myriad and mounting demands for jobs, housing, higher salaries, proper medical benefits — and, trickier still, answer calls to end the army's dominance and build a real democracy.
Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks a decade ago, Algeria has become a critical U.S. partner and Muslim ally in the global war on terrorism. Should Algeria unravel — as some say it well may if fundamental changes are not made — it would be one more strategic blow to the West.
Those in charge here are worried. They have lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency as opposition leaders and citizens have long demanded, cut prices of some staples, and pledged $286 billion to development of a country whose resource wealth hasn't reached most citizens.
"Algeria is a mafia with a flag," is the common street response to the question, "How goes it?" Such disdain is long standing. It is the growing indignation that is new.
A leading figure in what once was Algeria's longtime single party, the National Liberation Front, recently denounced the exclusion and secrecy that defines the nation's leadership, shared by the president with army generals in the shadows.
Abdelhamid Mehri compared the Algerian regime to those in Tunisia and Egypt, where the presidents were ousted in popular uprisings, and warned of a potential social "explosion" at home without a peaceful transition to democracy.
"The voices demanding regime change ... are numerous," he wrote in an open letter to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in office since 1999. "They have multiplied in recent months in such a way that it is impossible to ignore them or postpone the response."
Gas and oil money, the memory of nightmarish past instability, and the veneer of democracy accorded in part by a noisy but tethered press are cushioning Algeria from the full-throttle anger that tipped countries like Tunisia or Egypt to push their leaders out.
Judicial and medical workers and university students are among those holding intermittent strikes, each with a set of demands. They join the jobless, the homeless and the hungry who rioted in early January around Algeria when the price of cooking oil and other staples increased. The violence left five people dead.
Five others have died by self-immolation, among numerous attempts, which mimic a Tunisian man who set himself aflame in an act that triggered the revolution there in mid-January — and sparked the Arab world unrest.
To defuse tensions, Bouteflika lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency on Feb. 24, while keeping bans on demonstrations in place in the capital. The president's office has also announced a raft of economic measures aimed at placating the despair and, most recently, exempted men over 30 from required army duty if they have not yet served.
Despite the generous economic promises, these are fixes, not solutions.
"You can buy silence and peace, but it can't last for long," said Mostefa Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer who has led a now-fractured coalition of forces that drew thousands to two pro-democracy protest marches in Algiers in February — put down each time by battalions of riot police. "It can calm spirits for months, but it doesn't solve the problems of Algeria."
The voice of outrage is supplanting a pervasive sense of fear that long ensured the silence of the average citizen, and even the Communal Guards — the eyes and ears of security forces — are standing up.
The Guards, comprised of civilians, don't want a confrontation with the state they have served at their peril. But they feel humiliated by lowly government job offers put forward now that the service is gradually being disbanded, and emboldened by the protesters from all quarters of society.
"We took up arms in 1994 and with terrorism declining they want to get rid of us," said Ali Abdellaoui, 44, a detachment chief from Dar El-Beida, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the capital, who has spent 16 years with the force.
"Suddenly, we have no income, no rights ... There are injured among us, those who lost a hand, a foot. They get a pathetic little pension," he said as police hustled the protesters to the side of the boulevard.
Deputy chief Yahia Salim said the Guards want improved medical benefits, housing and a pay increase retroactive to 2008, to match increases accorded to police.
"Someone who fought terrorism now finds himself working as a housekeeper," said Salim. "It's unjust."
By the standards of unrest in neighboring countries, protests in usually feisty Algeria, which wrestled independence from French colonizers in 1962, are timid, so far. No one wants to revisit the chaos and violence of the "national tragedy," the battle between security forces and Islamist extremists that all but decimated the nation, killing an estimated 200,000, costing tens of billions of dollars and nearly bringing Algeria to its knees.
Algerians proudly say that they are ahead of other Arab countries, having opened the door to a multiparty system in 1988. But the door was quickly slammed it shut when a now-banned Muslim fundamentalist party was poised to sweep legislative elections. The army decision to end the experiment triggered the insurgency.
Since then, the ever opaque world of Algerian politics has grown murkier.
An array of political parties fills the seats of parliament, run by a three-party presidential coalition that puts its stamp on policies decided in the higher spheres — by the army and the president. Deciphering who holds more weight on what issues is a national game.
Once, it was far simpler.
The country was ruled by the army for nearly three decades, until 1988. Generals were the presidents. With the exception of a short interlude, Bouteflika is the only civilian president Algeria has known since independence from France 49 years ago.
Today, "Algeria is a military dictatorship that uses a civilian to run the state," said Lahouari Addi, an Algerian sociologist at France's prestigious institute Sciences Po.
Be they ordinary citizens or professional observers, the consensus is the same: any hope for democracy in Algeria means dismantling the military pedestal on which the regime sits — not removing a president.
"I think we're at the limit. There is an illusion of change but a demand for profound change," said Nasser Djabi, a University of Algiers sociologist. "We must change the (military-dominant) system. We don't need to change names. The president and parliament must be responsible before the people."
Neither Bouteflika, 74 and ailing though said to be sharp even in long meetings, nor the coterie of generals behind the scenes have yet to take the courageous steps experts say are needed to open the political process to Algerian citizens.
Calls for change are coming from surprising quarters.
"Mr. President, you are supposed to be the father of the nation," writes the head of the Algiers Parents of Students Union in a letter to Bouteflika.
Salah Amer-yahia explains the birth of the organization at the height of violence in the mid-1990s and its belief in Bouteflika's plan to develop a "culture of peace" in Algeria.
Violence has diminished, he said, but "a decade later, the adolescents of yesterday see their horizons blocked."
Now, the letter goes on, they are risking their lives sneaking to Europe in small boats on the high seas, or setting themselves afire. It ends with a plea to end the army's shadow rule: "We need change to install a state of law."