Bowing to weeks of mass protests and a deluge of workers’ strikes, Algeria’s senile and octogenarian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, resigned on Tuesday 2 April. This news has been received with huge enthusiasm and scenes of celebration on Algerian streets. It marks a turning point in the burgeoning revolutionary struggle which exploded in February.
This thunder did not come out of a clear blue sky. Warning signs of an explosion had been visible for quite some time. Throughout the country, innumerable local and sectoral struggles had marked the previous period, in all regions of the country. In 2010 already, the CWI spoke of Algeria as a “social cauldron ready to explode at any time.” A report by the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights estimated in 2015 that 80% of the national wealth was held by 10% of the population, and that some 14 million people lived in total poverty. Thousands of young Algerians without a future have perished in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to escape this situation.
For years, large oil and gas revenues had allowed the regime to throw water on the embers of protest through targeted social subsidies, while structural inequalities kept widening. But the collapse of energy prices after 2014 reduced the regime’s room for manoeuvre to activate these handouts. Since then, a majority of Algerian households have seen their living standards collapse.
Massive political disaffection, growing at each election, revealed the alienation of ever larger sections of the population. The announcement, in February, that Bouteflika would run for a fifth presidential term was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The widespread popular anger that had accumulated for many years poured out onto the streets; the initial student protests on February 22 quickly spread to all segments of society.
On February 10, the American newspaper, The New York Times, still commented: “analysts say that many Algerians would most likely vote for him [Bouteflika] again, for fear of the instability that his departure could unleash.” Contrast this with the situation today! Such contrast bears witness to the speed of events since, but also to the unwavering myopia of the ruling class.
The new generation of Algerians, who now constitute the great majority of the population, feels nothing but anger at the corrupt elite in power. The median age in the country is 28 years, the period that separates us from the electoral victory of the FIS (‘Islamic Front of Salvation’) in December 1991, which was followed by a military coup and a decade of bloodshed. Among the youth, the trauma of this “dirty war”, exploited for a long time by the ruling elite, is an argument that has run out of steam. When the regime brandished the Syrian scarecrow to get people off the streets, saying that the protests in Syria had led to a decade of war too, protesters simply responded with the slogan: “Algeria is not Syria.”
A struggle of historic proportions
The current movement represents an unprecedented groundswell of political action in Algeria for more than half a century. There has not been as many young people in the streets since 1962, after the proclamation of independence from the French colonial power. In many of the marches, slogans and placards refer to the Algerian revolution against French colonialism. This is significant in demonstrations against a regime that has always argued of its so-called “historical legitimacy” to assert its authority, by using its connection to the national liberation struggle of 1954-1962.
Even figures close to the regime have acknowledged that several millions of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks, and so far every Friday seems to be breaking new records. Demonstrations have involved a very large spectrum of the Algerian population, from football fans to veterans of the 1990s civil war. It is also noteworthy that women have taken a prominent place from the beginning of the struggle, reoccupying public space in a way that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Such an eruption of the masses onto the political field will not disappear with a simple snap of the finger.
This is particularly so as the struggle in Algeria does not evolve in a vacuum. In January, 750,000 workers were on strike in the public sector in Tunisia. Morocco is hit by a wave of strikes, particularly in public schools and hospitals. Sudan has been in a semi-insurrectionary situation for several months. On April 26, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets in nearly every major city, in a show of strength against the Saudi-led war, which has entered its fifth year. In such a context, Bouteflika’s ousting could rekindle the flames of revolution throughout the region. Already, Tunisian President, Beji Caid Essebsi, has announced, on Friday 5 April, that he would not run for a second term in the presidential elections expected this year. This is clearly a by-product of what is happening in the neighbouring country.
The mobilisation of Algerians in the diaspora in Geneva, London, Montreal, New York, and especially in the French cities, has also been massive. Given the four to five million inhabitants of Algerian origin living in France and the strategic interests of French imperialism in Algeria, French President Emmanuel Macron has good reasons to follow the situation very closely. Most importantly, the large-scale reawakening of the revolutionary traditions of the Algerian working class, one of the mightiest in the region, will give sources of serious concern to the capitalist classes globally.
Workers taking action
A first wave of strikes developed in the beginning of March, hitting ports, car manufacturing plants, public transport, state administration, hospitals, banks, agrobusiness, schools and universities, shops, even fruit and vegetable markets. This also hit strategic sectors of the economy such as oil and gas, and the industrial zone of Rouiba in the east of Algiers, a historical stronghold of the Algerian labour movement. There is no doubt that it is the multiplication of these strikes that precipitated the first series of concessions from the regime. This included Bouteflika renouncing his fifth candidacy for President, the resignation of the prime minister, and the postponement of the elections. However, this attempt by the ruling classes to regain control of the situation only boosted the movement’s confidence in its own forces.
These strikes developed independently of the control of the leaders of the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), the official trade union federation – who have always worked hand in hand with the regime to domesticate the working class, suppress militant trade unionists, and carry through the regime’s policies of social wreckage. No wonder the removal of Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, the pro-regime general secretary of the UGTA, has been a popular demand in the movement, and the objective behind several gatherings of workers in front of local union headquarters.
Social media played a useful role in circumventing the methods of sabotage employed by this entrenched trade union bureaucracy, and to spread calls for strike action among workers. From Sunday 10 March, many UGTA locals defied their leaders and joined a developing general strike, for which calls had initially appeared from activists on the internet, and were then relayed by some autonomous unions. Faced with an increasingly moribund UGTA (although still with strong fighting hubs, like in the Kabylian cities such as Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia), these autonomous unions have gained in importance in recent years, particularly in the public sector: health, education, state administrations… But their roots remain weak. The reclaiming, extension and unification of the trade union movement by the grassroots will be of decisive importance for the future of the current struggle.
A second wave of strikes unfurled from March 25, particularly among public sector workers and in state-owned companies, triggering a new wave of panic within the ruling class – as well as within the UGTA officialdom. This pushed the head of the armed forces to declare Bouteflika “unfit to rule” and to call on him to be removed, by the application of article 102 of the constitution – a call opportunistically welcomed by the head of the UGTA. But again, far from appeasing the movement, this announcement only fed it with revolutionary vigour and renewed determination.
As the uprising was swelling, so were the defections in the regime’s camp, with a number of FLN ministers, top officials and bureaucrats, prominent businessmen etc, calling one after another for Bouteflika’s resignation. A consensus surfaced in the corridors of power that he had to be removed from office to protect the rest of the regime from a bigger threat. Desperate to stop the revolutionary torrent from flooding, the Presidency first announced the formation of a new government on March 31. This new manoeuvre did not satisfy the masses, unsurprisingly. Two days later, the army eventually forced Bouteflika to resign. This, however, has only brought the movement back on the streets to demand more.
The whole regime has to go!
The struggle in Algeria does not start from a blank page: the masses have learned from the victories and defeats in the sequences of revolutions and counter-revolutions that have unfolded across the region since 2010-2011, starting with Tunisia and Egypt. Like in those countries however, the lack of authoritative parties rooted in the working class is likely to mean the revolutionary process will take a protracted character.
Calls for the overthrow of the regime have immediately emerged in Algeria. Big sections of the movement are very conscious that merely removing Bouteflika from office would not address any of the problems faced by the majority of the population, and would allow the core of the same system to reassert itself at the expense of the masses. The idea that the “whole system” has to go (“Système dégage”), and not just the President, has been everywhere.
“No to Gaid Salah, nor to Bensalah” and “Get them all out” were among the main slogans shouted by protestors on April 5, during the seventh Friday of mass mobilization, the first since Bouteflika has been out of the picture. General Gaid Salah is the national army’s chief of staff, and Abdelkader Bensalah is the outgoing president of the Council of the Nation, who has been appointed as interim president after Bouteflika stepped down. Up until recently, both were part of Bouteflika’s inner and trusted circle, and the masses are not ready to accommodate themselves with such a cosmetic change.
Bouteflika was a fragile point of balance to mediate the struggles between the different clans competing for their share of the political and economic pie. All these clans are now manoeuvring to prepare a “transition” to their advantage. While quarrelling among themselves, all these people fundamentally share the same objective: blocking the revolution in its tracks, by making sure the political power stays firmly in their hands and the economy continues to work for the profits of a few. To avoid this, the revolutionary masses need to develop a solution of their own, away from all these intrigues. No support can be given to any government, even if branded as “transitional”, “technical” or otherwise, that would operate on the basis of capitalism – nor to any political stitch-up imposed from the top by the very people who have been at the heart of the regime against which millions of Algerians have risen up.
No trust in the army!
This starts by not giving an ounce of trust to the army chief of staff. The military has been the backbone of the regime for decades, and the generals and other top military officials have also acquired important business interests that they will want to jealously safeguard. For weeks, the army has stationed troops near strategic areas, and promised to guarantee the security of the country “in all circumstances”. For now, the mobilization seems too strong for a major crackdown to do anything more than radicalise the masses even more, or even create reactions of solidarity with the movement from among part of the troops. Already, videos of some police officers and soldiers fraternising with the movement have done the rounds on social media.
However, the movement must be prepared for the situation to change. In Egypt, both in 2011 and in 2013, when faced with tremendous revolutionary pressure from below, the army tops also pretended to “take the side of the people”. What ensued next was ferocious state violence against anything that stood in the way of the army and the capitalist class’s power. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s 2013 military coup, in particular, oversaw mass scale repression which the revolution has not yet recovered from.
At the first sign the movement in Algeria is ebbing, the State machine will try to rein it in. The tear gas and water cannons fired at the student protesters who gathered in central Algiers today, Tuesday April 9, should be seen as a warning. The revolutionary people must seriously organize the stewarding and defence of all actions, demonstrations and strikes. Class appeals should also be made to the rank-and-file of the police and military, urging them not to carry out any repression ordered by their superiors, and encouraging them to build their own democratic committees. In this way, a struggle can be waged from within against all the reactionary military generals and police apparatchiks who have collaborated with and benefited from Bouteflika’s corrupt regime.
Algeria is witnessing the birth of a process of self-organization, although still in its infancy. This process is of vital importance to build the struggle over time, and must be consolidated. Strike and revolutionary committees in the workplaces, schools and university faculties, in the neighbourhoods and the villages, supported by regular assemblies, are necessary. These must organize the struggle from the ground up, plan the actions collectively, and structure the living forces of the revolutionary movement independently from the current power, its appendages and its ‘satellite’ parties. If federated locally, regionally and nationally, these committees could form the basis for a new power, a revolutionary government composed of elected and accountable representatives of workers and poor. Such a government is the only one which would not be a mere attempt to divert the revolutionary movement in order to protect the ruling class’s power and defend the interests of capitalism.
Similarly, no trust can be given to the remnants of the regime to organise any new elections. This is the same cabal which has been mired in one corruption scandal after another, rigged elections and stolen billions in public money. Popular committees organized at the level of each locality and wilaya [province] could instead oversee the elections to a revolutionary Constituent Assembly, where genuine representatives of the workers and the revolutionary people would be in charge of drafting a new constitution. A new constitution would have to scrap the infamous “family code” and its medieval laws against women, ensure equality for all Algerians, extend democratic freedoms, the rights of expression and assembly, guarantee trade union rights in every workplace, and the non-interference of religion in the matters of the state. It would enshrine the defence of the linguistic, cultural and religious rights of each community, including the right of the Amazigh people to freely determine its own future, and extend a hand of solidarity to all workers and peoples in struggle against capitalism and imperialism in the region and internationally.
But crucially, the movement must also discuss a clear alternative to the economic policies of the regime, and those advocated by the neo-liberal opposition behind which is hiding a handful of capitalist oligarchs. They seek to exploit the ongoing movement for the purpose of accelerating the dismantling of the public sector and the further impoverishment of the people to the benefit of the bourgeoisie most closely associated with Western imperialism.
Recently, striking workers in some state administrations and private companies have begun taking action to demand the departure of all the “little Bouteflika’s”. The opening of the books should be demanded, and workers’ committees be set up to take these workplaces under the workforce’s management. The assets and property of regime officials and businessmen proved to be corrupt should be seized and nationalised immediately. The movement must call for an immediate raise in wages, the shortening of the working week, a halt to all privatizations, the renationalization of privatized utilities, and the placing of the strategic sectors of the economy under democratic control and planning by the workers and the people themselves, starting with the hydrocarbons. This would help to fund a vast investment plan in social sectors, housing and infrastructure renewal, provide jobs for the millions of unemployed, and start transforming the living and working conditions of the majority by reorganising society on a socialist basis.
By Serge Jordan