By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria is cracking down on illegal street vendors despite the risk of popular unrest, signaling confidence that it can remain unscathed by uprisings that have toppled Arab rulers elsewhere.
The first revolt was ignited in neighboring Tunisia where Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed vegetable seller, burnt himself to death in December 2010 after police harassed him.
Also a vegetable seller, Yacine Saharaoui plied his trade from a market stall in Baraki, east of Algiers, until police evicted him as the anti-crime campaign gathered pace this month.
"They forced me to abandon my business, but didn't offer me an alternative," the bearded 35-year-old in a blue robe told Reuters. "What should I do now? Become a thief? A terrorist? Who will take care of my wife and four children?"
Algiers police chief Serir Mohamed says it is the government's job to tackle unemployment, officially at 10 percent but thought to be much higher among the young in a country of 37 million where 70 percent are aged under 30.
His own focus is to clean up the capital's streets - a task he acknowledged had been put off last year while Algeria watched fearfully as popular anger against entrenched leaders spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
"Yes, we were afraid in 2011 because of the regional context," Mohamed told Reuters in a rare interview. "We closed our eyes because we did not want an explosion, but now things have dramatically changed and all is under control."
Algeria, a top energy supplier to Europe and a strong U.S. ally in combating al Qaeda, need no longer fear unrest, he said.
"The 'Arab Spring' context is over and we must move forward to secure our citizens and to re-implement laws in the lawless zones in the capital," Mohamed said in his office.
"Life in Algiers is hell because of the thousands of illegal vendors who occupy the streets transforming the capital into a big bazaar," he declared, saying crime was rising as "dealers and thieves" operated in such markets. "This is unacceptable."
Much of Algeria's informal economy is thought to be controlled by Islamists. So the police campaign is another sign the authorities feel strong in a nation still scarred by a "black decade" of conflict with Islamist militants in the 1990s.
"It is well known that the underground economy is under control of the Islamists, particularly the Salafis," said Mohamed Mouloudi, an author on Islamists, referring to ultra-conservative adherents of an austere version of Islam.
"This police operation is the first move of its kind against this current in more than two decades, which shows that the state has recovered its strength and confidence," he said.
More than 200,000 people were killed in the 1990s struggle, whose legacy is cited as one reason why Algerians have largely stood aside from the ferment transforming the Arab world.
"Memories of blood are still fresh in Algerian minds," political analyst Farid Ferahi told Reuters.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's authoritarian system has powerful security forces at its disposal, as well as oil and gas wealth reflected in Algeria's $186 billion of foreign reserves.
Last year the government responded swiftly to riots over living conditions by raising wages for many Algerians, providing interest-free loans to young people and deferring tax payments.
But the state, reliant on an energy sector that employs relatively few people, cannot generate enough jobs for a growing population. The private sector is still in its infancy.
Denied other opportunities, many youngsters scrape a living however they can. According to official figures, more than 300,000 sell cheap goods, mostly made in China, in crowded Algiers quarters such as Bab el Oued, Bachdjarah and Belcourt.
"If need be, we will use force to clear the illegal markets, and citizens support us because they are fed up with high levels of insecurity in the capital," said Mohamed, the police chief.
In similar vein, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, appointed by Bouteflika on September 3, four months after a legislative vote, promised in his first public remarks to "clean the country".
As a technocrat, he is expected to implement reforms to promote foreign investment as part of a job creation drive.
Arslan Chikhaoui, an economist who runs a consultancy firm, advocates more radical reform to integrate the pavement vendors and others working informally into the visible economy.
"Sixty per cent of our economy is underground. This is reality and you can't change it overnight," he said, arguing for economic reforms to reduce red tape and corruption.
Sahraoui, the evicted street vendor, still has to feed his family in the meantime. "One way or another, I will sell vegetables on the pavements of Algiers. They can't stop me."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)