Look at the faces of the rioters currently spreading unrest among the cities and towns of Algeria and you might be struck by one very obvious fact – just how youthful they are.
The median age in the north African country is 27, with more than 75% of the population under 30. Little surprise, then, that the majority of those protesting against soaring food prices and mass unemployment are barely more than teenagers.
Many will have little personal recollection of the bitter civil war, which divided the country for over a decade up until the early 2000s, let alone the colonial struggle against France, which ended with independence in 1962.
Yet there is no doubt that these two violent struggles are the biggest influences on the consciousness of Algeria’s young rioters. When rule from Paris ended, successive Algerian governments did their utmost to forge a national identity free from western influence. After 132 years of bowing to a foreign power, complete independence became the rallying cry. Forced Arabisation saw foreign companies and investment rejected as everything was done to forge a free nation.
English, the international language of business, was ignored in schools and colleges, as were “foreign”, modern subjects such as commerce and marketing.
Suspicion of overseas capitalism became even more intense during the civil war as Islamic rebels battled with an elected government, and every side strived to assert their nationalist credentials so as to win popular support. The result was entire generations growing up surrounded by violence, and not being equipped with the economic know-how to escape it. In turn, administrations did little to create a sound social infrastructure within which democracy could flourish.
“Algeria is one of the most youthful countries in the world, yet young Algerians like me are completely unqualified to compete in the modern world,” said Lahcène Bouziane, 24.
“People of my generation were brought up to be proud Algerians and Arabs, but not to contemplate succeeding in the global economy.
“When our own, insular economic system begins to fail, as it is at the moment, we have no chance to escape. This boils into frustration and anger.”
Bouziane spoke to me on Saturday from the capital city, Algiers, where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika held crisis talks about the price of staple foods such as flour, cooking oil and sugar doubling in the past month.
The situation intensified on Friday when Azzedine Lebza, 18, became thefirst fatality of the riots when he was hit by a police bullet in Ain Lahdjel, around 250 miles south-east of Algiers. Another demonstrator, 32-year-old Akriche Abdel-Fattah, was later killed in Bou Smail, some 30 miles from the capital. Five fatalities have now been reported and a thousand protesters have been arrested.
Rather than acknowledge the underlying causes of the resentment, Bouteflika concentrated on slashing taxes and import duties, seeking a short-term fix to a growing crisis. Lack of jobs, government services, affordable houses and soaring inflation have all combined with a failing education system to create a bleak future.
Despite Algeria’s abundance of natural gas and oil – the country has grossed more than $600bn during Bouteflika’s 12 years in power – swathes of the country live in poverty, many in slums on the outskirts of cities like Algiers.
It is for this reason that thousands of young people attempt to leave every year, most boarding small fishing boats to try to reach countries like France, Italy and Spain, where they hope they will better their situation and alleviate their family’s poverty back home by sending regular amounts of cash.
This has given rise to the term “harragas” – which literally means “those who burn” borders. Upon arrival in Europe they also “burn” their documents and try to start their lives again.
“There is nothing for them in Algeria,” a university professor told me. “Parents regularly see their young ones disappear – into the black economy in other parts of the world or, worse than that, many are drowned at sea.
“Those that remain are now fighting the authorities. Algeria has completely let them down – all they have really learned is that violence is everywhere.”