In Brief... Algeria's Woes

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In Brief... Algeria's Woes

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In the capital alone, more than 500 bodies were pulled from the mass of mud, collapsed buildings and mangled motor cars left by the storm. Officials said it was a freak of nature that sent a wall of water rolling down the steep, narrow streets of the slum district of Bab al-Oued. The torrential rainfall was indeed the heaviest recorded in 20 years after two years of drought.

Yet the residents of Algiers have reason to complain. The police failed to stop cars approaching danger zones despite signs of rising water. Hundreds of stranded motorists and bus passengers were flushed into chutes that carried some for miles, all the way to the sea. Storm drains in the valleys of the capital were known to have been intentionally blocked up in 1997 to prevent Islamic extremists (then engaged in a gory bombing campaign) from using them as hideouts. Residents also complained that the government's rescue efforts were so scarce that they had to dig out victims bare-handed.

Not surprisingly, scattered riots broke out two days after the flooding, with angry crowds marching on the center of the city. But the anger goes beyond those directly affected by the floods, because many are very bitter against the government over past actions. In 1992 the army stopped an election which would have brought about a moderate Islamic government. An estimated 150,000 have been killed, most of them civilians.

The past year, however, has seen embarrassingly credible revelations of army involvement in past massacres. It has also seen a surge in popular unrest. Around 100 people have been killed in spontaneous rioting across the country, often in protests against police brutality.

Ironically, this disintegration of central control comes at a time when the country's economic prospects are at last improving. Private investment, particularly in oil and gas but also in telecoms, transport and, soon, in power distribution, is beginning to reshape the economy.