Algeria on fire

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Overthrowing a dictator has given Algerians a sense of their own power

In getting rid of their dictator of 20 years, Algerians showed the power they have. Chinedu Chukwudinma looks at the history of workers’ struggles and assesses the possibilities for the future.

Revolution has again struck North Africa as the mass protests in Algeria forced dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign on 2 April. Despite this victory, Algerians have continued to demonstrate and are now demanding the removal of the entire regime.

The Bloomberg news platform expressed its pessimism about these developments when one commentator argued that “leaderless revolutions” either lead to civil war or their hijacking by the military. Conversely, an analyst for Al-Jazeera ascribed Bouteflika’s removal to the “non-violent character” of the protests. These perplexed interpretations and attempts to label the events indicate that the mainstream media has failed to locate where power lies in Algeria.
Instead, I argue that the proliferation of strikes before and after Bouteflika’s downfall suggests that only the working class has the power to lead Algerian society to liberation.

The present revolution constitutes another chapter in the Algerian people’s struggle against dictatorship – following from the October insurrection of 1988, the Berber spring of 2001 and the general strike of 2003. It expresses the growing confidence of workers and their resentment towards the neoliberal policies of the ruling class. On 10 March the working class answered calls for a general strike and used its social weight to strengthen the popular mobilisations that had already taken to the streets. The event merged the political struggles against the regime with those partial economic ones for better living standards. Currently, both forms of struggle continue to influence one another through the omnipresence of protests and strikes. This opens the prospect for more profound social change.

The masses enter history

On Friday 22 February 2019 nationwide protest erupted after the regime’s decision to extend Bouteflika’s presidency for a fifth term. The demonstrations grew stronger the following week, with three million people occupying the streets across Algeria’s 48 provinces. The uprising marked a turning point for Algerians who had endured 20 years of dictatorship and financial hardship.

When oil prices collapsed in 2014 it meant a decline in the main source of income for the regime; its response was to impose further cuts in social services and wage freezes. People were no longer willing to tolerate it. The mostly young protesters also held the dictatorship responsible for high youth unemployment standing at 30 percent. “There’s nothing for the young generation,” said one. “No jobs and no houses. That’s why we want the Old Man to go.”

The deteriorating living standards and lack of democratic rights endured by ordinary people contrast with the corruption of the wealthy elite and their visible factional struggles. In 2018 Bouteflika fired prominent military and secret service officials linked to a drug scandal and replaced the president of the national assembly. The act appeared to be another attempt to shift the balance of power to the presidential circle – Bouteflika’s family, industry magnates, and a faction of the army led by General Gaid Saleh, the head of the armed forces. It was a sign of ruling class weakness that they saw the infirm old Bouteflika (unseen in public since 2013) as the only consensual figure capable of ruling Algeria. The elite’s decision to prolong his mandate to maintain their networks of power backfired as the people rose up.

The uprising has proved that Algerians have overcome their fear of state repression and reclaimed the right to protest in Algiers, a city where demonstrations have been banned since 2001. Oppressed sections of Algerian society protested and rallied in their workplaces. Journalists and staff staged walkouts against censorship and forced the state media to cover the protests. Students and teachers followed them by organising marches from their high schools and universities. Judges and lawyers joined the wave of demonstrations for the first time in Algerian history. The people grew in confidence as their slogans evolved from “No fifth mandate” to “Bouteflika get out” to “Down with regime”.

Strikes and Rosa Luxemburg

The mass demonstration certainly divided and terrified the ruling class, causing some of Bouteflika’s supporters and General Gaid Saleh to voice their support for the people’s demands. But it was the general strike on 10 March that forced Bouteflika to announce two days later that he wouldn’t seek another term in office. The mass strikes that spread across Algeria closed factories and entire industrial districts, most notably in the Kabylie region and Algiers. Workers organised a sit-in in front of the headquarters of the public hydrocarbon firm Sonatrach – which employs 120,000 people – calling for better working conditions, an end to job cuts and for the regime’s departure. They cried, “No more redundancies, no more regime!” The strikes paralysed the most vibrant ports and the public transport system in most cities and spread to various state departments.

Just as Rosa Luxemburg described over a century ago, the economic fight and the political movement against the dictator fed into and strengthened each other, giving new momentum to the struggle.

On 15 March the last day of strike action fused with Algeria’s largest ever political mobilisation of over 14 million people on the streets. The protesters now focused on Bouteflika’s removal. The strikes and demonstrations aggravated division within the ruling class and General Saleh overthrew Bouteflika on 2 April. A young woman protester gives insight into the combative mood of the people as this first victory sank in: “We were asleep but now we have woken up! Now we the people have the confidence to change the whole system.”

Army versus the working class

In his classic text, The State and Revolution, the Russian revolutionary Lenin refers to Karl Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx wrote that where the working class is a minority, a “real people’s revolution” could only come about if the workers are able to unite the oppressed behind them and smash the old state machine. While this is not yet the case in Algeria, the small proletariat has demonstrated through strikes that it is the most powerful class in society. However, the military that has remained the principal locus of power since Algeria won independence from France in 1962 presents an obstacle to workers’ power.

The origin of this problem lies in General Houari Boumedienne’s ascension to power, which marked the transformation of the National Liberation Front (FLN) from a coalition of guerrilla forces leading the independence struggle into a military state dictatorship in 1965. It is quite common to see Boumedienne’s face adorning the placards of protesters today, because he represents the attempt to drive economic development in Algeria through state-led investment and industrialisation – in stark contrast to the austerity and neoliberalism of recent decades.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Boumedienne nationalised the major foreign hydrocarbon companies and redirected oil and gas exports to build local industries such as car, steel and electricity plants. The state could offer workers stable employment, free education and healthcare and other welfare benefits that Algerians still value today.

But the general’s regime was no friend of the workers who occupied their workplaces in 1964-66. In response to the strikes and sit-ins the state incorporated Algeria’s only trade union l’Union General des Travailleurs Algérien (UGTA) after purging its national secretary and disbanding local branches. Workers’ disputes were thereafter subject to negotiations between the compliant UGTA’s leaders and state ministers.

The global recession of the late 1970s led to the decline of Algerian export-revenues and hampered Boumedienne’s state led-development. Boumedienne died in 1978 and his successor Chadli Bendjedid reduced public spending and opened Algeria to free trade and privatisation to obtain loans from the IMF and the World Bank.

While Bendjedid’s neoliberalism produced mass unemployment, job insecurity and dismantled the welfare system, it also provoked Algeria’s first major working class revolt, known as the October insurrection of 1988. The economic crisis following the crash in the oil price in the mid-1980s triggered strikes in Algiers that grew into a bloody rebellion pitting young people against the police and the army. The revolt was crushed by the state, but it forced Bendjedid to adopt a multi-party constitution and recognised the right of political association.

The outcome was that most workers supported Islamist parties. Marxist Chris Harman argued that Boumedienne and Bendjedid had promoted moderate Islamism to counteract the influence of the left, and that this opened the door to the flourishing of Islamist organisations. For instance, ministers often helped Islamists obtain funds from businessmen for building mosques.

In the absence of a strong, organised left, impoverished workers and peasants found solace in mosques where the anti-western and anti-corruption rhetoric of Islamist forces galvanised their anger towards the FLN regime. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won major municipalities in the country’s first free municipal election in 1990 and won the first round of the general election in 1992. The army deposed Benjedid and initiated a decade of civil war against Islamist militias. The army managed to destroy the Islamist rebellion and secured its dominance over Algerian politics. The elections of 1998 confirmed this. Abdelaziz Bouteflika was sworn into the presidency as all other frontrunners accused the military of electoral fraud and withdrew their candidacies in protest.

Meanwhile, the state continued the IMF structural adjustment programmes and sold off public companies to Algerian and foreign oligarchs.

Today, the army’s decision to oust Bouteflika should be seen as an attempt to demobilise the masses – not an attempt to support them. The military has an interest in ending the revolution because the extension of mass protests could intensify existing rivalries between military commanders and more significantly split the rank-and-file soldiers from their leaders.

However, Algerians continue to protest against the interim government and condemn General Gaid Saleh’s interference. “The people don’t want change within the framework of the existing constitution, we want to change society on our terms, that’s why we reject the government announcements for elections in July,” explained a student. On 26 April demonstrations the masses shouted, “There can be only one Gaid, the people!”

Workers’ organisation

The Algerian working class has the potential to build and strengthen its own organisations to counterbalance the power of the armed forces. President Bendjedid’s recognition of the right of association encouraged the formation of new independent trade unions such as Confederation des Syndicats Autonome (CSA) in the early 1990s. These new unions were more militant than the UGTA and organised strikes among new sectors of the working class in education, health and public transport.

The new unions played an important role during the Berber Spring of 2001, when riots erupted in response to the murder of a teenager by the police. The background to the revolt in the northern Kabylie region was one of mass unemployment, lack of political representation throughout the civil war, as well as the police brutality that led to the teenager’s death.

These issues amplified movements fighting for the region’s autonomy and official recognition of the Berber language. In May 2001 the workers followed calls for a general strike in the cities of Bejaïa and Tizi-Ouzou, giving new life to the rebellion. A month later the workers, peasants and small businesses created their own power structures through the development of local and inter-district committees across the region. From May to September these committees organised marches in Algiers and a demonstration of half a million in Tizi-Ouzou as workers deserted their workplaces to join the procession.

The workers in alliance with the oppressed stood against the state and marked the rebellion with their own demands such as the “supremacy of elected bodies over appointed bodies and security forces”. The revolt failed to spread across the country, partly because the independent trade unions were not rooted elsewhere. Hence they were too weak to challenge the French and state media’s framing of the event as a Berber identity issue.

While similar committees haven’t yet resurfaced in Algeria, the independent unions have been active in the 2019 revolution. However, the CSA calls for a general strike on 12 April generated little response outside of Algiers and Kabylie. This confirmed that independent unions still don’t have enough influence to lead substantial sections of the working class. Instead, many workers prefer to fight for control of the UGTA, which claims a membership of over 4 million.

On 16 March 50 union members staged a sit-in outside the UGTA headquarters demanding the general secretary Sidi Said’s resignation. Their offensive failed after scabs attacked them. However, the proliferation of picket lines and strike meetings throughout March and April gave workers the opportunity to launch a battle to reclaim the union from the regime. Postal workers on a picket line told one journalist, “Shame on our union leadership for siding with company management. They don’t understand that only strike action can deliver what we want.” On 17 April thousands of workers again rallied outside the UGTA headquarters demanding the resignation of the general secretary.

Many trade unionists remember UGTA’s powerful two-day general strike that paralysed Algeria in February 2003. Ports, airports, railways, public transport, gas pumps, banks, schools, hospitals – most public sector companies were shut down. The strike happened after the rank and file members pressured the UGTA leadership take action against the Bouteflika regime’s privatisation of state industries. These mass protests forced Bouteflika and his circle to retreat on neoliberalism. Public companies that had been privatised, such as the steel complex Sider El Hadjar, returned to the state. The favourable oil revenues enabled the Algerian state to subsidise food prices, maintain free health and schools.

However, workers told the press the UGTA has not done anything for them since 2003. Under Sidi Said’s leadership the union had become an electoral machine aimed convincing workers to vote for Bouteflika. The resignation of Said would be a serious step forward for the working class. It opens the possibility for the UGTA’s independence from the state and this would enable the membership to initiate more industrial action against their bosses and dictators.

Belated Arab Spring?

The French yellow vest movement and the uprising in Sudan seem to have had a greater influence on Algerians than Arab Spring of 2011. Algerian revolutionaries have of late created the “Gilets Orange” to protect protesters from police. They have expressed their support for the yellow vests and their animosity to French imperialism: “Macron make sure you collect firewood because this year you won’t have any of our gas.”

Although thousands of Algerians protested following the outbreak of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions in 2010-11, their numbers were much smaller than elsewhere in the region. Some commentators argued that revolt failed because Bouteflika made economic concessions such as lowering food prices. Others attribute the failure to the trauma caused by the Algerian civil war or to the chaos in Libya and Syria and the Egyptian counter-revolution.

Algeria’s neighbour, Tunisia, presents an example for the achievement of a bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Moreover, the last decade of the Bouteflika dictatorship saw a rising movement talking about issues such as youth unemployment and sexual harassment. The protests of 2011 can be considered part of this return of street activism by the young that paved the way for the 2019 revolution. The protests that occurred throughout Bouteflika’s rule remained irregular and disconnected from each other. One struggle would erupt as soon as the last one had vanished after facing repression.

In today’s revolution there is a greater reciprocal influence between the political and economic struggle. From late March workers in a Turkish-Algerian multinational company organised sit-ins at work for higher wages that developed into a strike against the regime. Their revolutionary consciousness appears much greater than in 2011. As one striker claimed, “We can change everything, we don’t want our movements to be co-opted like in 2011, and you can’t achieve democracy with those at the top.”

The Algerian revolution of 2019 continues to engage all strata of society, but the working class faces important challenges for deepening the revolution. It must reject the influence of the military and formulate its own demands. It must create its independent unions and institutions for taking power. The historical legacies of protests in Algeria, alongside the enduring strikes and protests today, leaves open the prospect of turning this democratic revolution into a social one.