Rug festival turns violent in crisis-stricken southern Algeria

Clashes between policemen and protesters on Tuesday, March 26 in Ghardaïa. Photo published on Facebook by Khodir Sekouti
 
Every year, the residents of Ghardaïa, in southern Algeria, hold a rug celebration to promote their local craftwork. This year, however, it’s become very controversial. On Tuesday, human rights activists and unemployed individuals picketed the celebration’s opening parade, judging it to be too expensive given the city’s dire economic situation. The police violently dispersed the protest.
 
Accounts of the conflict vary. While some claim that the unemployed and the activists who met up on Emir-Abdelkader Avenue to picket the protest were the first to turn violent, our Observer, who took part in the protest, says that the police attacked first, only a few minutes into the protest. To date, the local authorities have not made any statements regarding the incident.
 
Video of the police charge on protesters. Published on Facebook by Fekhar Kameleddine.
 
Several protesters were arrested. According to the independent newspaper “Liberté”, these arrests provoked the anger of several youths, who went to confront the police. According to the newspaper, they also vandalized banks, uprooted trees, and destroyed phone booths.
 
Ghardaïa province was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1982 for the quality of its craftwork, including its unique sheep-wool rugs. Ghardaïa’s rug celebration, which this year marked its 46th anniversary and ends on March 30, brings together the country’s most talented rug weavers
 
Clashes between police and protesters on Tuesday, March 27, in Ghardaïa. Photo published on Facebook by Khodir Sekouti.
 
Contributors

“The rug celebration is a waste because it is funded by the taxes of a suffering population”

Khodir Sekouti lives in Ghardaïa. He is an entrepreneur and a member of the local human rights league. He took part in the protest.
 
We are against holding the celebration this year. Certainly, it raises revenue for the rug merchants, but it is very costly to everyone else: its budget is 190 million dinars (about 1.9 million euros). I believe this is a waste of money at a time when the province has major problems to tackle.
 
First of all, Ghardaïa suffers from massive unemployment [there is no unemployment data for the region. According to the Algerian government and the IMF, 21.5% of Algerians under 35 are unemployed, relative to 10% for the total population]. Jobs in the big petroleum or mining firms that operate in Algeria’s south are very rarely given to even the most qualified of our region’s young people; they typically are given to people from outside the region because in Algeria, nepotism and favoritism are widespread.
 
Moreover, Ghardaïa fell victim of major floods in September 2008. The authorities promised to compensate residents. Some were supposed to get new plots of land and up to 1 million dinars (roughly 10,000 euros). But they’re still waiting for the money. Two thousand housing units were built for those who lost their homes, but in the end, many new arrivals to the region ended up getting these units, and we can’t help but think that there was some nepotism at work [in 2011, only a fraction of the units had been allocated].
 
The rug celebration seems to us to be particularly wasteful in that it is financed by the city, in other words by the taxes of those who suffer from all these injustices. For this reason, we organised a peaceful sit-in on Tuesday on the path of the celebration’s opening parade. There were about 20 or so activists from my human rights league and about 60 unemployed people joined us. We arrived around 9 a.m.. Barely ten minutes into the start of our protest, the police charged us and it really got out of hand: they used tear gas, fired rubber bullets, and I even later found the casing of a real bullet — which luckily did not hit anyone. We used the chairs set up for the opening ceremony to defend ourselves.
 
There were injuries among the protesters, with serious bruises to the eyes and foreheads. We treated the injured ourselves because if they had gone to the hospital, the police would most certainly have arrested them.
 
Rubber bullet casings, as well as a live bullet casing. Photo published on Facebook by Khodir Sekouti
 
Some of the protesters were arrested, and we haven’t heard from them since. A commission will meet and decide their fate. If they are not freed, we will protest anew.
 

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