Anger as Algeria pores over new alcohol measures

06.05.2015

Alcohol has resurfaced as a controversial 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 per cent 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 per cent of output is consumed locally.

Algeria, with a population of 40 million, 99 per cent of whom are Sunni Muslims, imported €73 million worth of alcoholic drinks in 2014, a rise of more than 40 per cent over two years.    (AFP)

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