ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria's leaders risk losing control of a tide of strikes and protests that has been gaining momentum and outpacing the government's attempts at reform.
Unlike the nationwide uprisings which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, Algeria's protests are localised and have yet to turn into a national political movement.
But the protests, some of them leading to small-scale clashes with police, have become a daily occurrence in the capital and the government has so far failed to seize back the initiative from the people in the streets.
"It will take the smallest thing to turn these local fires into a national blaze," said Nouredine Boukrouh, who used to serve as a minister under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
"If things stay as they are, the strikes, sit-ins, riots ... local uprisings, regional tensions, tribal conflicts, clashes inside neighbourhoods and lawless zones with which we are familiar will build to a crescendo," he wrote in Le Soir d'Algerie newspaper.
A senior government official said Bouteflika, who is 74 and has not spoken in public for three months, is expected to use an appearance scheduled for this weekend to outline how he will address the problems.
"We need change," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. "The economy is stuck. We cannot keep going like this."
Algiers, with its whitewashed apartment buildings crammed onto steep hillsides sloping down to the Mediterranean Sea, has the atmosphere of a city in tumult.
On one afternoon this week, a few thousand students marched through a central street in the capital to protest against a change in their diplomas.
Young men picked up metal police barriers and waved them over their heads, and woman protesters scrawled slogans on police vans using lipstick.
Earlier that day, a crowd of nuclear researchers protested outside their office over working conditions. Nearby, employees at a state-run hotel staged a sit-in, and managers used loudspeakers to appeal to them to go back to work.
A few hours later, tens of police vans and water cannon trucks lined a street near the defence ministry to prevent a protest by wounded army veterans, some of them in wheelchairs and others on crutches, who had threatened to block a road.
Scenes like these have been repeated almost every day in the capital for the past two months. Even some in the riot police -- who have had all leave cancelled and been placed on 24-hour alert -- are feeling the pressure.
"We deserve an award as we have been managing riots for months with zero injuries," said one veteran officer involved in policing the disturbances. "But I must acknowledge that people are fed up with the politicians, and I do think there should be a change of government," he said.
Some 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.
But others doubt the protests will turn into an Egyptian-style uprising against the government: only a tiny minority have voiced any political demands.
The main reason is that many Algerians fear a return to the conflict between the state and Islamists in the 1990s that killed an estimated 200,000 people.
The memories of that conflict are "for me the number one reason why Algeria has not gone down the road of more radical protests", said a Western diplomat.
"I think they are still inclined to think: 'Well, it's not perfect but it could be worse'," he said.
The Algerian government's strategy for dealing with the wave of strikes and demonstrations has been, in many cases, to give the protesters what they want.
Officials have dug into the cash reserves built up from energy exports and given pay rises to striking workers, issued handouts to the unemployed and reduced the prices of cooking oil, sugar and dried vegetables.
They are also quietly relaxing unpopular regulations in the hope of pacifying the population.
Motorists are supposed to pay car tax each year no later than March 31 and police stop cars not displaying a tax disc, but this year they have been turning a blind eye.
In Constantine, Algeria's third city, the local governor told illegal street traders the police would not bother them any more, an official in the local government told Reuters.
When legitimate shopkeepers protested that this would hurt their business, the governor told them they could stop paying taxes. "It's a circus," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are doing everything to avoid angering the people."
But some commentators say that by appeasing protesters, the government has given an incentive to other people to take their demands to the street. "We are seeing an attempt to buy citizens' silence by spending billions of dollars," said political analyst and writer Khoudir Bougaila.
What has been absent so far is a clear sense that Bouteflika is taking control.
The president has made regular public appearances but he has not made a speech or been shown speaking in public for at least three months. That has fuelled rumours -- denied by his officials -- that he is in poor health.
Bouteflika has made some concessions. He lifted a 19-year-old state of emergency and opened up the tightly-controlled state television and radio to opposition voices, both key demands of his opponents.
He said last month that those were the first steps on the path to further political reform, but since then there has been no indication of what shape that reform will take.
Bouteflika is scheduled to make a public appearance in the western Algerian city of Tlemcen on April 16, and many people expect him to give details there of his reforms.
The senior government official said he expected Bouteflika to announce a change in the constitution to limit future presidents to two consecutive terms in office. He said the president may also announce the dissolution of parliament.
"I am almost sure about the change of the constitution, but not sure about the dissolving of the national assembly," the official told Reuters.
Dissolving parliament would trigger a new legislative election, an opportunity for the government to open up the political field to opposition groups which have been excluded from votes in the past.
But even if the ruling party lost its majority in the election, parliament does not have the power to challenge the president seriously.
There has been intense pressure on Bouteflika from leading figures inside the ruling establishment to reshuffle his government and fire Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who is unpopular with many Algerians.
There have been signs that the military, which has traditionally had substantial political influence in Algeria, is also in favour of a change.
Earlier this year there were persistent media reports that a reshuffle was imminent, but since then nothing has happened.
In the meantime the pressure keeps building for deep changes in a political system that has changed little since Algeria won independence from France in 1962.
"The era of the Algerian national war generation is over," said David Ottaway, a senior scholar and Algeria specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, a think tank. "Algeria needs political rejuvenation."
(Editing by David Stamp)
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