The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Algeria:
A Broad and Determined Popular Mobilization Against the System

Jul 15, 2019

The following article is excerpted and translated from two articles in recent issues of Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group active in France.

On February 10, for lack of an agreement between the various clans in power on a consensus candidate, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, after twenty years in power, unable to speak and an invalid since 2013, announced that he was running for a fifth term. But on Tuesday April 2, he resigned. That was the result of the huge pressure imposed by the Algerian people for six weeks. Perceived as the one humiliation too many, the fifth term triggered a powerful popular movement of unprecedented depth in Algeria.

The masses are still mobilized around democratic aspirations. The political system they oppose today rests on a military dictatorship hardly hidden behind civilian governments; this has been the case practically since the independence of Algeria. In 1962, the Algerian bourgeoisie took over management of the country from the colonial authorities although it had hardly any social base. Thus, it put itself under the protection of the armies sitting on the borders that the National Liberation Front (NLF) had prepared for that purpose. Since then this military apparatus has been in charge of the continuity of the state apparatus and of the power of the bourgeoisie. Part of this bourgeoisie lives in symbiosis with the top of the state apparatus and particularly with the top of the military which have the power to distribute positions and also markets. Corruption has become a way of life for a large part of the ruling class.

Week after week, responding to all the maneuvers of the authorities, the movement has turned into a protest against the whole political system, and also, in many respects, of the social system.

On March 11, Bouteflika decided not to run for a fifth term and announced that the elections were postponed. The demonstrators, ever more numerous, refused outright this prolonging of the fourth term. Ouyahia, the hated Prime Minister, was replaced by Bedoui, the former Interior Minister, who was rejected too as a man of the “system,” in the demonstrators’ words.

Faced with the protest, the parties in power began to crack and fall out one after another, with leaders of the NLF and the Democratic National Rally, the ruling party, abandoning Bouteflika. On March 26, to find a solution to the political crisis, Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff, in turn withdrew support from Bouteflika. He proposed to use Constitution Article 102, making possible the removal of the President in case of unfitness. That came down to declaring Bouteflika an invalid – six years after a stroke left him unable to speak. The maneuver was massively denounced by millions of Algerians in the demonstrations on March 29.

The “3 B” were rejected too – the three men chosen to organize the transition under the supervision of Gaid Salah: Bensalah, the interim president, at the head of the Senate for twenty-two years, Bedoui, Prime Minister, and BelaVz, president of the Constitutional Council. They are all former loyal servants of the system. After “System, out!” (“Système dégage !”), the most repeated slogan became “Let them all go!”

A Massive Popular Mobilization

For over a year, part of the youth from popular neighborhoods gathered in stadiums, organized in supporters’ clubs, had denounced the contempt of the authorities and the lack of a future for themselves. As one of them said: “They tried to push us away from politics by shutting us up in the stadiums, and that’s where we became politicized.” Their chant, “La Casa del Mouradia,” has become one of the revolt’s anthems. Challenging the ban on demonstrations in Algiers, that youth has been on the front lines of the protest since Friday, February 22. With their peaceful demonstrations, their determination and enthusiasm, they have been able to earn the respect of the elders and draw them in, while many were hesitant, heeding the authorities’ threats of civil war.

The Friday marches have become key times, when increasingly experienced and organized demonstrators prepare placards and banners whose slogans follow the current events and respond to the authorities’ maneuvers. If irony and humor are present, protesters are mostly concerned about preserving the unity and strength of their movement by ensuring mutual respect. Above all, they want to be heard. Thus, when vuvuzelas (horns used during soccer games) began to spread in the demonstrations, covering the protesters’ slogans, in the following week comments on social networks called on the demonstrators to leave them at home and, on March 29 in Algiers, they had virtually disappeared.

The presence of women in the marches constitutes an invaluable support for the movement. They, who endure harassment on a daily basis, are discovering in the marches a sense of fraternity between men and women which would have been unthinkable till then. In spite of the overcrowding, cases of groping and inappropriate words have remained marginal. Women assert themselves, even though neither conservatism, nor those who would lock and shut them up, have disappeared.

Women are also confronted with those who tell them: “We are against the system, we’ll deal with women’s issues later.” But if women, like men, want to fight this system, they rightly refuse to remain silent in the name of unity for future Algeria. Many of them say it: they do not want to have the same fate as their elders, who fought against French colonialism during the war of independence, and who, subsequently, in 1962, ended up relegated to their kitchens. Not to mention the pressure of Islamist tendencies which targeted them during the ‘Black decade.’

A Demand for Freedom Which Encompasses All Social Classes

Bouteflika’s fifth term was unanimously decried, bringing together all the country’s regions, generations, men and women, the youth in schools and universities. All social categories have spoken out for a “free, democratic Algeria.” Each has their own reasons to rise against the system.

Thus, magistrates and lawyers consider that they are not living under the rule of law. They would like to be able to deliver justice with more breathing space, without any pressures from officers or high dignitaries who make the law on a mere phone call. This was illustrated by the scandal that broke out in early March in Tipaza. An investigating judge exposed and denounced the pressures he had endured from a gendarmerie general and his wife, president of the Tipaza court of appeal, so he would grant a temporary release to a corrupt importer of electric parts. Similarly, many journalists would like to be able to do their jobs without enduring censorship or threats of arrest. Those working for public television and radio have risen against their management, which broadcast no information and no image about the movement while millions of people were in the streets!

Businessmen, bosses big and small, want more freedom in their dealings, with some deeming that they have been frustrated to the advantage of those who were on good terms with the regime, such as Ali Haddad, former leader of the FCE, the bosses’ federation, whom Gaid Salah eventually sacrificed to popular resentment by having him arrested at the Tunisian border while he was trying to run away from Algeria. The billionaire Issad Rebrab is the epitome of that liberal opposition. A former teacher in accounting in Tizi-Ouzou, he has made a fortune thanks to the monopoly on import and export of sugar and oil achieved in the Bouteflika years. He later expanded his activities to industry, building, the media, and household appliances. After taking advantage of the regime’s favors, he now claims he has been given short shrift, and accuses it of stalling his projects, boasting that he is being prevented from creating 100,000 jobs in Bejaia. For nearly two years, every day, the daily papers El Watan and Liberté have featured the number of days Rebrab’s projects have been stalled on their front pages. The liberal opposition he embodies has also been able to lure a number of workers, who believe he is sincere in his will to develop the country and create jobs.

Someone like Rebrab opposes the system merely because he would like to have a better access to the State purse and decisions. He advocates liberty for his own dealings, but in his factories, workers have no rights. He has been inflexible with those who went on strike and tried to create a trade union. On March 10, in the name of civil disobedience against the fifth term, he allowed his employees to stop work, but as soon as Bouteflika announced his resignation, he threatened those who wanted to carry on the movement. The vicious exploitation of his workers and, actually, the already ongoing plunder of public funds, are what allowed this self-styled democrat billionaire to accumulate a fortune worth $3.7 billions.

The free, democratic Algeria demanded by the workers and popular classes is not the same as the one Rebrab calls for. The popular classes denounce a system which dooms them to precariousness, “bad life” and which hardly offers any prospects to a youth which are skilled and educated. They cry out, among other slogans, “Free Algeria!” and deny any historical legitimacy to the FLN leaders, whom they regard as a gang of thieves who have sold out the country’s wealth to wheeler-dealers and multinationals.

Since February 22, the streets have reverberated with the slogan “you have plundered the country,” accusing this “gang of thieves” of taking over everything and continuing to do so. Indeed, people belonging to the ruling classes take over the best land at the small peasants’ expense. They take over the fruits of the work of millions of workers who are paid next to nothing. They take over the country’s natural resources, water, gas, oil at the expense of the population. They take advantages of special privileges granted by politicians whom they have bribed.

In Hammamet, in Tebessa region, the population is faced daily with the difficulty of getting drinkable water although the village has a reputation for its natural springs. The inhabitants reproach the local authorities for granting the bosses of the Youkous plant an authorization to exploit new springs. After a demonstration of protest in front of the town hall, they marched toward the plant. One of the bosses did not hesitate to shoot at them, injuring thirteen. Those plunderers of precious water also think that they are allowed everything.

Another example is that of Tinerkouk, a city in the South, where a third of the youth are unemployed, although the region has plenty of gas exploited by international companies. The youth no longer accept to be marginalized while the companies which operate in the region give the jobs to more skilled workers coming from the north of the country or from abroad. These companies do nothing to help the youth get skilled; neither does the state. The youth demand a hiring priority for non-skilled jobs. Fed up after a dozen sterile meetings, they blocked the road to the industrial zone, letting through only workers and supply. On May 15, they had blocked for a month when the police assaulted the young people and put them under arrest. The mayors’ contempt and the refusal to free the young unemployed literally inflamed the situation as the Daira, the local administrative center, was set on fire. The local population spontaneously expressed their anger, supported the youth, asking the local authorities for an accounting and demanding that they be removed.

While the privileged have their bank accounts stuffed with cash in France or Switzerland, the popular classes no longer accept to be poor in a rich country. They no longer accept their popular languages, the ones they speak, like Kabyle, dialectal Arab, Darija, being looked down upon. They no longer accept the divisions stoked by the regime between Arab- and Berber-speaking populations, as evidenced by the mingling of flags – national and Amazigh – that can be observed in the demonstrations in Kabylie and Algiers.

Since February 22, the millions of Algerians who have taken part in the Friday marches have conquered the right to speak out in the public space, the right to discuss, to confront and exchange on all issues. All the angers are resurfacing and being expressed. It is the anger of the disabled, of the architects who find themselves jobless due to the discontinuation of major building projects, or even that of animal rights advocates who denounce the treatment of stray dogs and cats. It is also that of researchers, city employees, students, teachers, army pensioners ill treated by the regime, lawyers, bailiffs, farmers and farm laborers, families of the victims of the civil war who want to have the executioners tried. As in any great popular movement, all that was suppressed is resurfacing.

The Workers in the Mobilization

How has the working class as such taken part in the movement? For instance, to what extent has it responded to calls for strikes on social networks? It is very difficult to get a general sense of it, as media outlets ignore and censor that information. In any case, it is undeniable that workers have massively taken part in the demonstrations. For them, this means voicing their opposition to a system that has denied them a decent life for years, that has implemented austerity programs and imposed casualization while offering generous handouts to private sector bosses. As for the public sector, the system is also embodied by those directors who get their positions through their links with some wali (local authority) or the protection of high-ranking officials.

However, demands against social injustice, poverty, and “bad life,” have remained in the background of the movement so far. Many workers accept the idea that changing the political system is a prerequisite, and that social grievances will have to be addressed later. But at the same time, in a number of companies, the atmosphere of protest and the success of the Friday demonstrations boost the workers’ morale and encourage them to put their demands to the fore in terms of wages, employment and work conditions, at the local level. In any case, those demands are at the heart of the discussions in many workers’ demonstrations.

Thus, in Oran the workers of the private Algerian-Turkish steel company Tosyali, which employs 3,500 workers, including 800 Turks, have struck for their “permanization,” in other words to have permanent work. They may have been encouraged by the victory of the 1,100 city workers who, after a month-long strike, have been promised permanent work.

Work conditions are very different in the public and the private sectors. The public sector comprises the civil servants in the various administrations, teachers, rail workers (SNTF), city transports, national oil and gas companies, public works, where independent unions exist and have spread the calls for strikes. To various extent, teachers, postal workers, gas employees, port workers, employees in the various administrations have responded to those at one point or another, sometimes demonstrating massively, as was the case on Thursday, April 11 in Bejaia, where thousands of public sector workers marched against Bensalah.

There are still many public production companies in the textile, automobile, household appliances and ceramics industries, despite the privatizations. Wages are rather low, but workers with seniority have permanent work, while the more recent workers have temporary jobs. Only the UGTA union is present there, and its representatives are more busy managing social services than organizing the struggle. Thus, when a call for a three-day strike in the public sector was circulated on social networks, the women workers of a textile company in the Bejaia area all walked out without the UGTA representatives calling for it. The next day, the director called on all the workers to go back to work, with threats of sanctions. A majority of them did go back, and only when the workers wielded pressure were they allowed to go on strike for two separate days.

By striking in the course of the movement, the workers in the ports of Algiers and Bejaia have also got a 26% raise. Naftal, the only fuel supplier, also had to concede pay raises to its employees. In another textile company, the women workers who demanded a bonus were treated obnoxiously by their director. Their response was: “You won’t give us a bonus, fine. Now, what we want is your head! Director, out!” They won – the director was effectively driven out.

In Sonatro, a public works company situated in Reghaia, near Algiers, the workers were under a director’s tyranny who had posted his picture everywhere in the plant. For having spoken up in front of him, several workers were laid off. The wages are very low while the top executives get millions as bonuses. On April 8, the death of a former union militant of the plant, who was a fighter well appreciated by the workers, brought them to vent their anger. Fodil Mansouri had been expelled from his union responsibilities and replaced by a team of representatives who were working for the boss, with the power of sanctioning or firing workers as they pleased. During a meeting, two union bureaucrats provoked this militant. He had a heart-attack and was left on the ground; the union representatives were careful not to call for help or to use the plant ambulance to try and save him. The union militant was dead when the firemen, who had been called by the workers, arrived. The workers, who are revolted and disgusted, hold management responsible for the death of their comrade. They now demand that the director be removed and that elections be organized to change the union and choose their delegates.

As for the Algerian-Turkish steel complex Tosyali, situated at Bettouia east of Oran, the strike of 4,000 workers on the site which began against precariousness, won them a 15% raise in their wages. As he refused to yield to the demand of the workers, the Turkish boss quit. The workers held on faced by intimidation and threats of management to close the site. Thus they succeeded in obtaining the right to build a union, which they had not had up to then.

In the private sector, in the absence of struggle traditions, reactions have been less numerous. But for instance, in the Rouiba industrial area, near Algiers, the workers in many food companies such as Ramy, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola or LU have responded to the general strike, in spite of the bosses’ pressures. In those private companies, national or international, job insecurity is the rule and workers have no rights. In the name of national development, the UGTA, in order not to disturb the bosses, has never wanted to create unions. A number of those private companies, by the way, are former public companies, bought out by cronies of the regime, FLN top-brass, and officers, or companies dependent on multinationals, but managed by such people. That is the case of Ali Haddad, the former FCE leader who has recently fallen out of favor, retailer of Astra vehicles, and of Tahkout, whose Tiaret factories assemble Hyundai vehicles. Having built rapid fortunes in the shadow of the regime, they are hated and booed in the demonstrations. Gaid Salah, in an effort to appeal to the workers, did not hesitate to sacrifice them, notably by preventing Haddad from leaving the country. However, he wasn’t prosecuted for embezzlement or suspicious enrichment, but because he carried a British passport and €5,000!

The workers at SNVI, a public company which makes construction machines and trucks on behalf of the Sonacom company, blame the regime for letting the industrial public sector go downhill, for the benefit of multinationals and rich Algerian businessmen like Haddad or Tahkout. They reproach the UGTA leader Sidi Said and local union bigwigs for being complicit in that sell-out.

SNVI is a key company, to which all workers in the large Rouiba industrial area look intently, even though it has been heavily downsized. The government has tried and tried to get rid of it, but the workers have resisted and struck repeatedly. They have been the most mobilized in the popular protest and they want to oust Sidi Said.

That wish is shared today by workers in many companies. Sidi Said has shamelessly announced that he was supporting the popular movement. To appease the protest that targets him, he has now announced that he would not run again for the presidency of the UGTA at the next congress.

The System, Defender of the Bourgeois Social Order

To what extent can the aspiration expressed in the slogan “System, out!” be fulfilled? That slogan confusedly sums up the desire to live freely, to enjoy real democratic rights, and the social discontent remains in the background. For the huge majority of workers, it seems as if getting rid of the system is a prerequisite; then, they say, “we’ll take care of living conditions and wages.” They tend to blame exclusively a gang of politicians for the squandering and ‘bad life’.

Faced with that mobilization, the regime keeps working out a series of maneuvers. In order to strengthen his position, Gaid Salah, the army chief of staff, started, with the arrest of Ali Haddad, the former leader of the bosses’ federation, a vast operation of “clean hands”, putting in jail senior officials, big bosses, ministers and officers. If this satisfied part of the people, it was not enough to have the movement fall backward.

One of the last maneuvers was to call for a presidential election on July 4. But the depth of the demonstrations on Friday, April 12 has again testified to the wholesale rejection of Bensalah, Gaid Salah and the democratic whitewashing attempted by the faithful in the Bouteflika clan. The presidential election had to be cancelled.

When will it take place? If the mobilization goes on, will the army try a power grab to silence the protest? That has not been their choice so far, in the face of such a deep movement. But that cannot be ruled out.

Since Bensalah was appointed as interim president, Prime Minister Bedoui has forbidden weekday demonstrations, has carried out arrests and had water cannons and tear gas used against the students on Tuesday 9 and Friday, April 12, only in Algiers.

These last weeks, more than thirty demonstrators have been arrested only because they had a flag of the Berbers with them. They are prosecuted for striking a blow to national unity. Now the demonstrators demand “a civilian state, not a military one, not a police one” and they want “All the prisoners to be freed”.

A series of maneuvers are taking place to have the population accept a so-called independent body to organize the presidential election.

Finally the Bouteflika clique might eventually be replaced by new, younger figures, not yet worn by power. But that substitute team will obviously seek to consolidate the economic system which allows the Algerian bourgeoisie, and beyond, imperialist capital, to exploit workers by means of low wages and the deprivation of basic rights, such as that of creating and choosing their own unions in public or private companies.

Those political solutions, whether from the liberal, democratic, or Islamist, oppositions, or possibly the army, can be solutions only for the bourgeoisie. What is at stake is the preservation of an unfair social order which gives a sweet deal to French multinationals, such as Total and Lafarge, or American ones, which have their eyes set on the exploitation of some of the world’s largest shale gas deposits. It can be asserted that, if they do emerge, those political solutions will in no way respond to the democratic aspirations of the popular classes.

Only the Workers Can Offer a Perspective

The population accuses the regime cronies, the men of the system, especially the FLN, of stealing the hard-earned 1962 independence. They accuse them of selling out the country to imperialist powers, France and the US. That national sentiment is strongly felt in the popular mobilization: the feeling that the aspirations to live in a free country without oppression, which were those of the Algerian people in 1962, have been betrayed.

However, to effectively fulfill these aspirations would imply workers and popular classes in general tackling the very roots of that power they oppose, the domination of the ruling classes, and holding them accountable. Where has all the country’s wealth gone? Where have the $1 trillion generated by the exploitation of oil and gas these last few years gone? Where have the 200 billions worth of the State’s exchange reserve gone? How could bosses like Haddad, Rebrab, Tahkout and others get so rich in hardly a generation, while in the country everyone struggles to provide for their families?

So, in the face of all the predictable political maneuvers, to what extent will the working class be able to organize and become aware of its capacities as a class, and to put forward its own solutions? Faced with the capitalist crisis, the working class in Algeria needs to become aware of its political objectives. It is a young, numerous, educated class, and in the context of such a mass movement, political evolutions can happen very fast.

The regime so far has tried to gain time, probably hoping that the movement would come to a halt. It has not, and it probably won’t be stopping so soon. A situation where all social classes are mobilized can leave the working-class time to make a leap forward from the point of view of its class consciousness and organization. That would be decisive for it to be able to move forward, face the new impending trials with unity, and to be able to offer a perspective for all the popular classes.

The ruling classes have at their disposal a multitude of men and parties to uphold their interests in the best possible way. They have at their service the State apparatus, with its institutions, its security forces and its army. The working class needs organizations which represent its interests. And the trials it will face make it necessary that there should emerge in Algeria a party which proposes the workers’ objectives at each stage of the mobilization, which provides a response to each new attack from the regime, a revolutionary communist party. That party does not exist, but in the context of such a popular mobilization, militants can come forth to build it.

What is happening simultaneously in Sudan, where a popular mobilization has forced the dictator Omar al-Bashir, and the officer who would take his place, to resign, shows that the revolt which erupted in 2011 in the Arab world is far from being put out. The revolt of the Algerian masses can give new hope to many among the workers in other countries, especially those in Maghreb and the Arab world, with whom they share the same language and culture, and the past struggles against colonialism. The workers in Algeria can find natural allies in all those countries, but also in Europe, and particularly in France, where a large part of the working class comes from Maghreb. For the issue facing everyone today is to find the way to be done with a global capitalist system whose crisis can only provoke new series of social upheavals.