The call for national mobilisation to oppose shale-gas exploitation in Algeria has been a success. But despite uninterrupted, growing protests and recent clashes, the Algerian government is pressing ahead with its shale-gas development plans.
In openDemocracy by Rachida Lamri
Early on Tuesday 24 February 2015, almost all of Ain Salah took to ‘Resistance Square’ to call for an immediate moratorium on the drilling currently taking place in Ain Salah and planned for other areas of Algeria. They were joined by movements in Tamenrrasset, Timimoune, Metlili, Adrar, Touggourt, Ghardaia, Ouargla, Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Algiers, despite a ban on assembly in the capital.
When the Algerian government announced the go-ahead for the first shale-gas drilling site in the town of Ain Salah, protests broke out in the town square. Protesters managed to occupy the drilling site and put a stop to drilling activities before police forces intervened.
Since 31 Dec 2014, the people of Ain Salah have ceased most commercial and administrative activities, their lives becoming a permanent sit-in. The movement broke out and spread to many other regions of the south, west and north of Algeria, but despite uninterrupted, growing protests, the Algerian government is pressing ahead with its shale-gas development plans.
The morning of Tuesday 24 February 2015 is a symbolic date for Algeria, marking the 44th anniversary of the nationalisation of hydrocarbons. This was the first successful nationalisation of oil to be carried out in the Arab/Islamic world in 1971, the culmination of nationalisation policies initiated by the Boumediene regime to recover the resources of the country in order to achieve economic independence.
Since 31 December 2015, Algeria witnessed several anti-fracking rallies, emanating from Ain Salah and spreading quickly all over Algeria. The public is opposed to the undemocratic decision by the Algerian government to go ahead with shale development in an environment of total opacity, and to multinationals such as Total, BP, Shell, ENI and Halliburton exploiting their lands and natural resources, polluting their environment, and endangering their livelihoods and fragile ecosystem.
A moratorium plea signed by anti-fracking collective ‘Non aux Gaz de Schiste’ activists and experts—Bouhafs, Zegzeg, Malti, Benarab-Attou and many others—was submitted to the presidency on 19 February 2015. There has been no reply.
The plea was a more of a dossier than an open citizen letter, containing precise and informed data, overwhelming evidence in photographs proving existing pollution affecting the health of the indigenous population and local environment, and major failures in post-drilling protocols through blatant and total disregard of health and environmental regulations.
With Shems association at their forefront, Ain Salah civil society also produced a number of videos showing evidence of the disastrous effects of hydrocarbon exploitation in the region. The activists revisited abandoned hydrocarbon wells exploited by Sonatrach and other multinationals, where water recovery pits were left uncovered and un-cemented, contrary to the environmental and “solid control and waste management” protocol.
This is causing a palpable hazard to the local flora and fauna and to migratory birds as shown in the video. However, the government continues to assert that shale development is done with regard for the environment and its protection and with the highest technologies in place.
The Algerian people aren’t buying it. The protests in Ain Salah and Ouargla were particularly impressive considering their continuous mobilisation for the last eight weeks. This has galvanised a sense of national unity amongst the people, with strong participation from the Kabyle population belying any separatist agenda. National figures and experts joined the crowds, supplying valuable and precise information on the ecological ramifications of the hydraulic fracking technologies and post-fracking risks.
In the early morning of 24 February before the protests broke out In Algiers, with the ban on public assembly in place since 2001, hundreds of police officers and police vans occupied the rally site of La Grande Poste, as well as several other suspected assembly sites.
The CLTD initiative (Coordination pour les Libertés et la Transition Démocratique), who were behind the mobilisation in Algiers, reported that police forces completely outnumbered a few dozen activists who braved the demonstration, before forcefully dispersing them and arresting around 50.
The government tried to further trivialise these actions by sponsoring folkloric troupes presumably for the festivities of the national day celebrating the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, and loud music and police sirens attempted to drown out the protesters chants calling for a free and democratic Algeria.
This call however further confirms that this movement is not limited to its ecological dimension, however important that may be, but it is above all a question of democracy, dignity and sovereignty for the Algerian people.
Several opposition political figures were stopped in their tracks and their vehicles encircled by police forces, preventing them from reaching the rally sites, and some were brutally pushed to the ground.
The response by the Algerian government has been to issue threats of dire consequences to all opposition parties, as pronounced on national TV by the FLN (the ruling political party and a regime apparatus) spokesperson A. Saadani. Prime Minister Sellal also issued grave accusations against the civil society of Ain Salah, implying that they are trying to destabilise the country and are manipulated, although it remains unclear by whom.
The movement leaders of Ain Salah remain unyielding in their stance and demand a direct response from President Bouteflika. “Our government has to cease this contemptible treatment and turning a deaf ear to us,” says a figure of the Ain Salah ecological association Shems, one of seven associations for the local population of just 45,000.
Hacina Zegzeg, another leading activist in Ain Salah said, “After 58 days of continuous protests, our leading figure Mr. Abdelkader Bouhafs and all members of the collective deserve acknowledgment. The government has not responded to our call to a moratorium and the prime minister is threatening the opposition”.
On this occasion of 24 February, the absent president’s advisor, M. Boughazi, read a 22-minute declaration letter on national TV saying, “Shale gas is a gift from God and it is our duty to exploit it.” He also announced an acceleration of political reforms, referring to further revisions to the constitution—which the president seems to have taken up as a hobby.
Prime Minister Sellal reinforced this with similar declarations, reiterating that shale development carries no risks whatsoever to man or land, and that all opposition is a mere attempt to destabilise the country and jeopardise its sovereignty and should be dealt with as such.
Violence erupts in the peaceful Sahara
On 28 February, the first violent clashes between protesters and police forces broke out after a number of activists approached the base of the American company Halliburton in Ain Salah, following news of the delivery of fracking chemicals.
Police forces quickly responded by provoking the peaceful protesters with racist words, burning the activists’ rally tents around the town, and making a number of arrests, pushing the protesters to demonstrate in front of the Gendarmerie base.
The situation quickly degenerated with police forces launching striking amounts of teargas at the whole population and firing rubber bullets at the protesters, injuring many and going so far as to destroy the rally site, ‘Resistance Square’.
Come evening, with hundreds of arrests and many injured, the police sealed offthe town. Protesters responded by throwing stones at the police, who continued firing and advancing, besieging the town.
One of the activists who was hit by a rubber bullet to the head, reports that an atmosphere of fear and total uncertainty is felt in the town. He prefers not to be named and said any injured citizen taken to hospital for treatment would have their name automatically taken down for authority use.
Tensions were still running high until late on Sunday 1 March, after the National Army intervened and police forces allegedly received orders to retreat. Peace seems to have returned but a very tense atmosphere remains, according to one of the activists.
Ain Salah civil society has responded to the president’s televised declaration by demanding that a technical committee comprised of experts and engineers from Ain Salah follow the ‘conclusion’ phase of shale drilling without hydraulic fracking. Bouhafs, one of the leaders of the movement, said, “if this condition is accepted, we would consider our claim met.”
The situation remains unstable with a head to head confrontation between the marginalised people of the south and this authoritarian regime, as evidenced by the heavy handed oppressive police force in Algiers, the threatening words of government officials, and the violent repression lived by the people of Ain Salah.
All of this further confirms the undemocratic lengths the Algerian government is prepared to go to in order to fulfil its agreements with multinationals, with total disregard for the people’s concerns, pleas or lives.
What we have seen in Ain Salah over the last week is a clear attempt by the authorities to provoke the peaceful people of Ain Salah and to draw them into violent clashes with the authorities, to put an end to this national citizen’s movement, which represents a serious threat to the regime’s interests and those of their imperialist allies.
By trying to turn the movement violent, the authorities mainly want to scare civil society into submission and obedience, but also to fuel accusations of unpatriotic and allegedly manipulated acts against the national interest.
They want to provoke the Algerian people to turn against this movement by instilling the fear of further civil unrest, after the decade-long atrocities of civil war between Algerian governmental forces and armed Islamist rebels in the 90s, in which more than 150,000 people died. This fear of unrest has been cited as one of the main reasons the Arab Spring never managed to take root in Algeria, and it is still exploited today.
Although the regime is betting that the movement will lose its steam with time, the reality on the ground is saying otherwise. The worst may be yet to come, when a likely escalation triggers a further cruel backlash.