ALGIERS (Reuters) - When thousands of young Algerians rioted earlier this year over price rises and living conditions, the government asked state-employed Muslim clerics to preach sermons in the mosques appealing for calm.
Now, two months later, the clerics themselves are protesting.
“We are very angry, and our daily living conditions are bad,” said Hajaj El Hadj, an imam at a mosque near the capital for over 20 years. “We demand a significant pay rise.”
Algeria’s 100,000 imams have joined municipal police, students, doctors, legal clerks, chauffeurs and oil workers who are demanding better pay and conditions and are threatening strikes or protests if they do not get what they want.
This phenomenon has come about, in part, because many Algerians realise there has never been a better time to have their grievances resolved.
The government, anxious to stop a wave of popular revolts in the Arab world spreading to Algeria, has been paying out huge sums in subsidies, wage increases and interest-free loans to placate discontent.
But it is not without risks. The protests and strikes -- which have so far been small, orderly and localised -- could develop into something more unpredictable.
“There is a risk different sectors demanding a pay rise may unify their position and behave as one sector. If that happens it will add more pressure on the government,” said Mohamed Lagab, teacher of political sciences at Algiers university.
Many analysts have predicted Algeria could be the next North African country, after Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, to witness a revolt. If it does, it could have far-reaching consequences because Algeria supplies a large share of Europe’s natural gas.
So far, most protests have not voiced any political demands, and those that did quickly ran out of steam. But the uprising that toppled Tunisia’s ruler also began as a small local protest about living conditions.
As one of four imams at a mosque in the town of Staoueli, 50 km (30 miles) west of Algiers, it is El Hadj’s duty to lead prayers five times a day, give a sermon at the mosque every Friday and carry out pastoral care in the community.
He, like all Algeria’s officially-registered imams, is employed by the state. He and his colleagues decided to act after seeing the pay rises other public employees were receiving.
“The police got a 50 percent pay rise but the government forgot to include us in the list,” El Hadj said. “After 20 years serving as imam, my salary is 23,500 Algerian dinars per month ($317). This is unacceptable.”
He recalled the riots in January, when the government asked Muslim clerics to help restore calm. “We did the maximum to convince the young people to stop the riots, but the government has done nothing to reward us. This is not fair,” El Hadj said.
The demands for better pay and conditions appear to be spreading like wildfire from one sector to another, fuelled by a government which in many cases has bowed to protesters demands.
Last week, 2,000 officers with the municipal guards, a sort of auxiliary police force which helped fight an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, staged a protest in front of parliament to demand better pensions.
“They have used us to combat terrorism, and now that it has been defeated they have decided to abandon us,” one of the protesters said.
A day later, about 50 blind people protested outside the capital’s main post office seeking improved welfare payments.
In the same week, the head of the state energy company, Sonatrach, flew down to a gas field in the Sahara desert to address workers’ demands for more pay.
Newspapers reported that legal clerks were given a 120 percent pay rise after going on strike. Even chauffeurs from the presidential car pool are on strike, according to a government official.
Political scientist Lagab said that, faced with these kind of demands, the authorities have little room for manoeuvre. “The government has no choice but to say yes. If it says no, the citizens may make politically-oriented demands,” he said.
Algeria’s authorities can afford the payouts. The state has about $150 billion (93 billion pounds) in foreign currency reserves - one of the largest reserves in the world and roughly equivalent to the country’s gross domestic product.
Still, some economists worry about the long term impact of loosening fiscal policy.
“This is a dangerous strategy for the mid- and long-term. We all know that Algeria produces no wealth and relies on oil revenues,” Abdelwahab Boukrouh, a senior economic journalist, told Reuters.
“I understand that politicians are under pressure and will do everything to prevent an Egypt scenario from happening here, but raising salaries without raising production is a nonsense,” said Boukrouh, who works for the Echorouk newspaper.
With violence in Libya pushing oil prices over $100 per barrel, Algeria’s revenues from energy exports are rising, giving the government even more scope to spend its way out of trouble.
Yet even some of the citizens who stand to benefit see that as short-sighted. “Oil money is available now, but for how long?” asked Farid Ferrahi, an Algiers resident.
Editing by Ralph Boulton