By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS, Feb 2 (Reuters) – Pro-government members of Algeriaâ€™s parliament have proposed lifting a 19-year-old state of emergency, a sign the authorities may consider scrapping a measure opponents say is used to stifle political freedom.
Opposition groups inspired by protests in Tunisia and Egypt have made the repeal of the state of emergency one of their main demands and some commentators say the government may make concessions to its opponents to avert unrest.
The government has said it needs the emergency powers to fight Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda. The violence has abated in the past few years, sparking public debate about whether the powers are still justified.
Trade unionists, opposition parties and civil society groups are planning a march in the capital on Feb. 12 to seek an end to emergency rule and greater democracy. Officials say the protest is illegal.
Algeriaâ€™s official news agency APS said 21 members of parliament had proposed a motion to scrap the state of emergency. If 20 or more lawmakers support a motion, the assembly must debate it and the government is required to respond.
Supporters of the motion argued that the improvement in security â€œremoves any argument for maintaining this state of affairsâ€, the news agency reported.
It said that among the 21 MPs were an undisclosed number from the FLN party, which has dominated Algerian political life for half a century, and the MSP party, a member of the ruling coalition with the FLN.
It was the first time that parliament, where the FLN and other supporters of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika have a big majority, has proposed a debate on the state of emergency.
A popular uprising in neighbouring Tunisia toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last month and protests in Egypt have loosened President Hosni Mubarakâ€™s grip on power.
The events have resonated through other Arab states, including Algeria, where some people want to see long-serving rulers replaced by a new generation.
â€œWe need more freedom, we need change, we need hope to be restored,â€ Mohamed Lagab, a political analyst and teacher at Algiers university told Reuters. â€œTunisia has shown the way.â€
It was not a foregone conclusion that the emergency would be lifted. Abdelhamid Si Afif, a prominent member of the FLN, told Reuters he was not aware of a plan by members of his party to have it scrapped.
â€œI do not believe that the state of emergency is a hurdle to free political activity in Algeria,â€ he said.
However, there were signs the authorities, unsettled by events in Tunisia and elsewhere, were prepared to make limited concessions to consolidate their hold on power.
Early in January, before the wave of protests in other Arab countries, several Algerian cities were shaken by rioting over food prices in which two people were killed and hundreds injured.
Since then, the government intervened to cut prices on staple foodstuffs and issued instructions to speed up imports of wheat to try to ensure there was no disruption to bread supplies which could rekindle riots. (Editing by Andrew Dobbie)