Algiers’ fading beauty awaits better days

Most camera-clicking tourists in the Mediterranean this summer will go home, as usual, without one of the world’s most arresting images — Algiers and its bay.Despite increased wealth and improved security, Algiers’ faded grandeur is virtually unknown overseas thanks to powerful deterrents —  a history of political violence, a post-war mood of despondency and lingering official indifference to tourism.

While tourist-friendly Tunisia and Morocco each welcome 6 million foreigners a year, bigger, richer Algeria hosts just 1.4 million, mostly Algerians from France visiting families.

Algeria’s alluring capital is a slice of Paris grafted onto north Africa by colonial architects who evoked metropolitan France with an exuberance that remains breathtaking even today.

“It’s so beautiful, this city of snow under dazzling light,” French writer Guy de Maupassant wrote in 1881. It’s a common first impression of the now-crumbling mass of white buildings that tumble down hills overlooking an immense curving coast.

Algerians say the city’s thwarted potential is emblematic of the country’s plight — bursting with possibilities but cursed by a political and bureaucratic elite inept at exploiting them.

Instead of preparing to welcome the world’s travellers, many of the city’s stressed, war-weary denizens say they want to quit Algeria due to a lack of jobs and homes and political tensions.

 

Itching to leave

 

Computer specialist Hassan sips a coffee on a pavement cafe on Didouche Mourad, a shabbily elegant street of monumental apartment houses adorned with buttresses and balustrades.

“I’m physically in Algiers, but in here” — Hassan, 33, taps his head — “I’m in Spain.” Hassan’s monthly pay of 18,000 dinars ($253) is 15 times smaller than his monthly income in 2006 when he ran a kebab shop in Majorca. He returned home for family reasons but itches to rejoin the hundreds of thousands of Algerians working in Europe.

“This is one of the two or three largest, richest and most powerful countries in the Mediterranean,” veteran Algerian-born French commentator Jean Daniel wrote.

“Yet it is from this country that people want to leave.” Politics doesn’t help. Forty-five years after guerrillas ejected colonial France in a brutal war and installed a variant of socialism, conflict still helps ensure Algiers’ isolation.

Foreign business arrivals dipped when Al Qaeda bombed Algiers government offices in April, killing 33 people and stirring fears of a possible resumption of the 1990s war between Islamist rebels and the army that traumatised many Algerians.

The city’s nerves have since steadied and bombs are unlikely to deter the adventurous few thousand foreigners who tour Algeria’s Saharan wilderness and the smaller number who visit Algiers’ Turkish-era Casbah old city every year.

But few have faith that Algiers and outlying towns can generate decent jobs quickly enough for the tens of thousands of urban youths who spend their days standing around doing nothing.

Public figures on the outflow do not exist but former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour says: “We’re a net exporter of brains.” Redha Hamiani of the pro-enterprise Business Leaders Forum says many ills stem from the failure of the state to modernise a Soviet-style bureaucracy which buries projects in red tape.

Failure to exploit Algiers’ many museums, parks and beaches shows a faltering grasp of globalisation, residents say.

Laid Maghmoul, head of the National Tourism Office, bemoans a “blatant weakness” in past efforts at publicising Algiers.

The prickly mood persists despite undeniable improvements. Top of the list is security. Rebels number about 400, down from 40,000 at the height of the war. In the 1990s rebels would place severed heads beside main roads at dawn to terrorise Algiers commuters. Now, police control is usually tight.

Second is wealth. Booming oil and gas receipts have fuelled consumer spending. Shops and apartment blocks have sprung up around the city. Food, furniture, household appliances and medicines are available in a variety unthinkable five years ago.

Killing time

Foreign investors have started arriving and Gulf Arab firms plan to pump billions into hotels. The Algiers metro, a project mulled since the 1970s, is due to start in September 2008.

Decades later, the mixed blessing of Western fast food has finally arrived and Algerians can now buy cars on credit.

Residents appear unimpressed: They see youth delinquency, falling school standards, inefficient banks, and the spread of hard drugs. Some 75 per cent of adults under 30 have no work.

Protests for more housing sometimes degenerate into riots.

“I’m heading to France,” said Mohammed, 23, killing time at a cafe on Didouche Mourad, his bottle of water attracting the gaze of a beggar settling down for the evening a few paces away.

“Algerians can be happy — all we want is a decent well-paid job. But they don’t want that for us,” said the security guard who struggles to get by on 15,000 dinars a month.

“They” is the authorities: Algerians tend to blame many ills on an aloof and secretive political elite critics say appears intent on plunder — a sense bolstered by a spate of violent landgrabs and a surge in smuggling during the 1990s war.

Mohammed points to a man driving a “Hummer” four-wheel drive vehicle. “Look at that. Can you imagine he got the money for that car in a clean way?”

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