Alcohol has resurfaced as a hot-button issue in Algerian politics, with ultra-conservative Muslims angered by plans to liberalise sales in a country torn between respect for Islam and freedom of choice.
With deeply-conservative Salafists threatening to take to the streets, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal in mid-April blocked a circular issued by Commerce Minister Amara Benyounes liberalising the wholesale trade of alcohol.
“The prime minister, to keep the peace and harmony, has decided to freeze the circular,” Benyounes said on the radio, complaining he had been the “victim of a media lynching” orchestrated by private television channels.
A popular firebrand television preacher, known as Chemseddine, had accused the minister on Nahar TV of “waging war on God”.
“We want laws which conform to sharia (Islamic law) and not to the World Trade Organisation,” he fumed, mockingly predicting that the sale of pork, which is banned in Islam, and prostitution would be next in line for liberalisation.
On the web, activists have launched a “together for an Algeria without wine” Facebook page that has attracted more than 10,000 supporters.
The daily El-Watan newspaper suggested that by freezing the circular, Sellal had exposed “the weakness of the current leadership in the face of the Islamist tendency”.
The newspaper said political-religious pressures have been forcing government and local authorities to pass “incoherent and contradictory laws”.
The circular issued by Benyounes, a minister from a secular party, aimed to scrap a ruling by an Islamist predecessor enforcing a system of permits for wholesale trade in alcoholic drinks.
According to the minister, 70 percent of imported alcohol is sold on the “informal” market in Algeria, which itself only produces wine and beer.
Annual beer production is running at 1.6 million hectolitres (42 million gallons) and wine at 700,000 hectolitres, said Ali Hamani, head of the Algerian Beverage Manufacturers Association, adding that 85 percent of output is consumed locally.
– 40% rise in imports –
Algeria, with a population of 40 million, 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims, in 2014 imported $82 million (73 million euros) worth of alcoholic drinks, a rise of more than 40 percent over two years.
And yet the authorities have closed hundreds of bars for a whole host of infractions.
“Many of them are waiting desperately for authorisation to reopen after having met all the requirements in terms of hygiene, security and respect for the environment,” a bar owner in downtown Algiers said, on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a political decision. The authorities are scared of the Islamists,” he said.
The series of closures has forced alcohol drinkers indoors, with most opting to drink either in smokey bistros, at home, or in remote outdoor sites away from the public eye.
One customer lamented the decline in local drinking holes.
“We used to have 15 bars around here, now we only have one,” he said, expressing envy for those allowed to take non-alcoholic refreshments in outdoor cafes in the Spring sunshine.