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Algeria evicts street vendors

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  • Algeria evicts street vendors

    October 22, 2010 -- After years of vowing to get unregulated traders under control, the Algerian government finally followed through on its threat. In late September, unofficial street markets ceased to exist. Unofficial car parks are next. When General Abdelghani Hamel was named last spring to succeed assassinated national security (DGSN) chief Ali Tounsi, he made it a priority to "clean up" urban areas. Informal street vendors thought the plan was just another campaign to beautify neighbourhoods in Algiers. That was before police began kicking them out and implementing a raft of stringent security measures. The newly uprooted informal sector was in chaos.

    Following the "liberation" of streets and alleys once occupied by the traders from dawn till dusk, working-class districts Bab El Oued, Belouizdad, El Harrach and Bachdjerrah look very different. Young people and police officers initially engaged in confrontations. The situation has since quieted down. Still, the newly uprooted informal sector workers wonder how they will manage. Traders whose open-air stalls in the side streets were shut down have the option of relocating to covered markets, but there are limited spaces. They are also expensive: 40,000 dinars (400 euros). "They should at least give us some work. We're forbidden to sell things, but what are we going to do? Steal? Beg?" complains Hamza. "It's the only work I've been able to find."

    Thousands of women used to spend their days wandering around the stalls at the informal markets. The neighbourhoods are now clean but the local shopping bargains are gone. "It is always the poor who pay," Baya complains to Magharebia."It was the poor people's market. Where are we going to find cheap goods now?' she asks. Omar, a young man, cannot believe his eyes: "My God! They've turned the district into a desert! That's the first time I've ever seen that in my life." The vendors uprooted by the police clean-up lack prospects and alternatives, notes sociologist Fatiha Larbi. "Young people who have grown up in the informal sector and have never known had a job or job interview are now completely helpless," she says.

    According to Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia, it is up to mayors and walis to find solutions for the young people who used to be part of Algeria's informal economy. Some towns have already set up new premises or blocked off areas in existing local markets for the exclusive use of these young vendors, but this is not enough to meet the high demand. They remember the famous programme launched in 2007 by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that called for the creation of a hundred sites in each commune across the country. Most of the 150,000 promised sites have been built, but many are in remote locations and thus remain unoccupied.

    The General Union of Algerian Traders and Artisans (UGCAA) has its own plan to put an end to the chaos in the sector. The UGCAA wants local mayors to create 1,000 neighbourhood markets by next Ramadan. "Town hall officials have forgotten the tasks that were assigned to them," said UGCAA spokesman El Hadj Tahar Boulenouar. "As a result, 1,500 play areas, bus stops and other public spaces belonging to town halls have been transformed into markets." One local councillor defended the practice, however, arguing that there's little more that town government can do about the lack of options. "In my electoral district, there aren't many plots of land that could be used as markets," said the official on condition of anonymity. "We've received 2,000 requests for the 300 tables that are available. Whatever we do, there will always be people who are unhappy." Besides, he argues, town halls cannot solve the problem of unemployment. "If the economy performs well, the number of jobs available will rise, but otherwise it's a case of odd jobs," he tells Magharebia.

    For his part, Abdelhamid Chouchaoui, deputy mayor of Badjarrah, claims to be doing the best he can to help those who are struggling to make a living in the makeshift economy. "We've offered 500 tables for young people at the new neighbourhood market," Chouchaoui says. The market, located in a former school, has clearly not helped all young people, as demonstrated by the large number of protesters. Yacine, a young man who is unemployed, cursed in front of a local councillor: "The best places have been taken by billionaires so that they can build shopping centres, whereas we, the poor people, are sent to this rotten place." Dialogue between local officials and unemployed young people is proving difficult.

    The government clean-up initiative does not end with the street markets. The time has come, according to the interior minister, "to manage the problem of urban traffic and end the anarchy that characterises parking in cities and which has become a tradition". With too few organised lots and garages in the capital city, motorists have to park on side streets and alleyways. They prefer to pay self-appointed attendants rather than see their cars, radios or tyres stolen. Young men have been eager to profit from the practice. "We're going to create a mechanism to regulate unofficial car parks," Daho Ould Kablia declared on October 4th. "We're going to identify the areas where these car parks exist. Badges will be given out to attendants. The latter will be selected by the police." This decision has not yet been enforced, but motorists are delighted at no longer having to suffer from what they see as a racket.

    It is a different story for the black market workers, known as trabendistes. "Are they going to get rid of the people who have been in prison in the past?" asks Samir, a former juvenile delinquent who runs an ad-hoc parking lot in an alleyway opposite the Court of Algiers. For now, however, most people welcome the new government measures, sociologist Fatiha Larbi tells Magharebia, "as they will bring an end to the chaos". "But in the medium and long term, the problem is a ticking time-bomb, because no alternative is being offered to these people," she says.

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