By Hamid Ould Ahmed
HADJOUT, Algeria (Reuters) - This year's Muslim Eid al-Adha feast will not be the same for Mohamed Acham and his family. Soaring prices in Algeria mean he will not be able to sacrifice a sheep as tradition demands.
Like Muslims worldwide, Algerians slaughter large numbers of sheep for the joyful religious holiday to be celebrated there on Friday, but this year many are hesitating.
"For the first time in years, I cannot afford a sheep for this Eid. Prices have tripled," said Acham, leaning on a wall at a cattle market in the town of Hadjout, west of Algiers.
Fruit and vegetable prices have also climbed, making life harder for Algerian families who in the last few weeks have also had to foot the bill for school expenses, extra food costs for the holy month of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr feast afterwards.
Rising food prices pushed inflation up to 9.3 percent in the first half of 2012 from 3.8 percent in the same period last year, according to the latest official statistics.
Algeria experienced food riots early last year, but escaped a full-scale uprising like those that toppled some Arab rulers elsewhere, partly because the government raised wages for public sector employees and deferred tax payments to defuse discontent.
The north African nation of 37 million people could afford to do this, and to subsidize staple goods, because of the oil and gas which account for 97 percent of its exports. It depends heavily on food imports from European Union countries.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government subsidizes wheat, milk, sugar, electricity and water, as well as fuel.
"Maintaining subsidies has put off social unrest," said economist Abdelwahab Boukrouh, but warned that declining purchasing power would hit the unemployed and the poor hardest.
"Inflation is expected to continue its upward trend. The government made a mistake. It should have improved domestic production instead of increasing wages," he said.
IMPORT DUTIES SUSPENDED
"National production meets only 30 percent of our (food) needs," Boukrouh said. "This is why vegetable and fruit prices will keep soaring, supported by speculation and the government's inability to regulate the market."
Many Algerians cannot afford red meat, now at 1,300 dinars ($17.50) per kg, but chicken has also gone up in recent weeks.
The government has responded by suspending import duties on animal feed such as maize and soya to offset high world prices.
"Our primary goal is to mitigate these effects and protect our poultry industry which has 35,000 farmers, 100,000 direct jobs and 300,000 indirect jobs," Agriculture Minister Rachid Benaissa said.
Trade Minister Mustapha Benbada has said the government was planning to establish several wholesale food markets for consumers to try to reduce prices and bring them under control.
But some critics say the authorities are not doing enough.
"It's the duty of government to find mechanisms to protect the purchasing power of citizens and revise the tax on total income," said opposition Workers Party deputy Ismail Kouadria, a former union leader at the Algerian unit of ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker.
Popular frustration over living standards does not stop at soaring food prices before a Muslim festival. A chronic shortage of affordable housing is a frequent focus of street protests.
Aware of public grievances, the government is struggling to meet demand for state-subsidized housing, despite a construction drive involving mainly Chinese companies to fulfill a pledge to build 2.4 million units in the five years from 2010 to 2014.
"I'm sure if there is fairness in distributing homes, citizens will not be discontented," Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal told a meeting of senior provincial officials last week.
He urged them to show sensitivity towards their compatriots. "I don't want you to launch a war against Algerians. It's true that rigor is necessary, but through dialogue," Sellal said.
Algeria may have avoided a popular revolt, but people like Acham must now break the news to their families that there will be no sheep to feast on during this year's Eid al-Adha.
"I have to get ready to cope with an uprising at home," the 53-year-old father of five smiled.
(Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Alistair Lyon)