FOOTBALL terraces in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Algeria are a privileged space for free speech expressed by the part of the population that his regime fears most: angry young men. Thousands of police are bussed in to keep an eye on them at matches, but the fans have safety in numbers. The authorities anyway think football fanaticism a safety valve, preferable to protests on the streets.
However, in the Algerian cup final, which saw the Algiers team, CRB, lose to the north-eastern city of Sétif on May 1st, one slogan that rang through the stadium before the start of play was “Ouyahia out!”, a rude reference to Mr Bouteflika’s hapless prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, who has borne the brunt of anger over a lack of jobs that has left more than one in five young people out of work. Other chants called for a boycott of the recent general election, on May 10th. A recent slogan was, “One! Two! Three! Screw those who vote!”, along with another old favourite (which rhymes in Arabic): “The firms are all closed down, the generals are all thieves!” The cheekiest of the jingles are speedily posted on YouTube.
Not all the chants are political. The atmosphere is often good-humoured, with tambours and castanets accompanying club anthems. Mr Bouteflika has craftily proclaimed himself as the nation’s football-fan-in-chief. Last year a huge poster showing him with a football was draped down one side of the capital’s main soccer stadium. When the Algerian team played Egypt in a World Cup qualifying match in Cairo (and lost 2-0) in 2009, he provided cheap flights for many Algerian fans.
But worries about football violence are rising. A policeman was killed at a big match in March. Players, police and fans have been wounded and seats burnt at more recent games. At one in Algiers on April 2nd two cameras belonging to a state television channel were smashed; a cameraman narrowly escaped harm.
The regime still uses a more traditional conduit for spreading its message among the restless young: the Friday mosque sermon. A recent homily, preached across the land, was devoted to persuading worshippers that the practice of self-immolation was not the best response to the difficulties of daily life.
In the election on May 10th, which was duly won by the independence-era National Liberation Front (FLN), the turnout was put officially at 43%, though many Algerians think it was probably a lot smaller. Young men were notable by their absence. A senior FLN man admitted, “Perhaps we are out of step with the younger generation.”
YouTube impertinence carries risks. Tarek Mameri, a young man from Algiers, began posting his unedited thoughts on the state of the country, urging a boycott of the election. Footage shot at dusk shows him and a couple of men throwing election billboards to the ground, to a soundtrack of frenetic Algerian rap. He was promptly picked up at home by police in plain clothes. He was later freed, but faces the magistrates at the end of the month.