The Spark

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

The revolt against poverty and repression spreads

Jun 25, 2001

A wave of almost daily demonstrations, which started about two months ago in the Kabylia region of Algeria, has spread to other parts of the country. Starting on June 10, demonstrations broke out in many cities and towns across the country. As in Kabylia before, angry demonstrators, mostly young people, ransacked government buildings and clashed with the police.

On June 14, hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, to join hundreds of thousands of ethnic Berbers, turning the event into the biggest demonstration since independence in 1962. The Berbers had come to Algiers from Kabylia to protest poverty, unemployment and police brutality. When the police prevented the protesters from marching to the presidential palace, clashes broke out between stone-hurling demonstrators and the police. The police used tear gas, pressurized water and bullets. Four people died and nearly a thousand were wounded.

In the wake of the Algiers rally, the government announced a ban on demonstrations. But this apparently made little difference –on June 18, the day after the ban was imposed, new protests and street battles ensued, resulting in seven deaths.

The protests had begun in the northeastern region of Kabylia in the middle of April, after a teenager was killed by the police while in custody. The police's response to those protests was to fire live ammunition at demonstrators causing new deaths, which in turn led to new protests. The protesters, almost all of whom were in their teens or twenties, countered the tear gas and bullets of the police with stones. In the two main cities of the Kabylia region, Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia, 80 protesters died and hundreds more were wounded in these street battles. Hospital workers reported that many of the victims had been shot in the back. In the face of this brutal response by the authorities, other layers of the population in Kabylia were drawn into the protest movement –women, government workers, journalists, doctors, lawyers all held their own demonstrations against government repression.

The Kabylia region, where the majority of the people are ethnic Berbers, has a long-standing tradition of opposition to the Algiers regime. One reason for the Berbers' resentment against the regime is that, for decades, the Arab-dominated government has tried to suppress their language and culture. But the motives of the young people in this latest uprising reach clearly far beyond cultural recognition. From the very beginning, the slogans of the movement have been for jobs, housing, a decent education –in short, improvement of the conditions for the workers and poor. As the huge Algiers demonstration and the spreading of the demonstrations to other cities show, these demands and the struggle of the Kabylia youth have found an echo in other parts of the country.

That's certainly not surprising. According to government figures, which normally tend to under-represent such statistics, unemployment is over 30%, and about 25% of the population lives below the official poverty line. Unemployment among young people is much higher, easily reaching figures as high as 70 to 80%. Just recently, the government announced a five-year "stabilization" plan which is aimed at making sure that Algeria can make the payments on its 30-billion-dollar debt (which amounts to two-thirds of the country's GDP) to foreign banks. The planned measures, which include cuts in social services and privatization and closure of state-run enterprises, will only increase unemployment and poverty and further push down the living standard of those workers who still hold jobs.

If Algeria is in such a bad shape economically, it's not because the country doesn't have resources: Algeria has large oil reserves, and supplies 40% of the natural gas used in Europe. But this kind of economic collapse is the fate of formerly colonized, underdeveloped countries in today's capitalist world, no matter how much their resources contribute to the globe's economy. Four decades ago, Algeria won its war of independence against its colonizer, France, but political independence didn't automatically translate into economic independence, let alone an improvement of the life of the workers and poor. Algeria quickly became a country whose resources continued to be exploited by corporations based in the former colonial powers, while its ruling regime suppressed the demands of the workers and poor through military repression.

This has led to a deep mistrust and resentment in the population against the regime and its backbone, the military. When the latest revolt broke out in Kabylia, the people in towns and villages not only attacked government buildings and businesses owned by generals, but also demanded that the police and the army leave the region. But the young people in Kabylia have also distanced themselves from the existing opposition parties –the religious parties, some of whom have been engaged in a decade-old, bloody civil war against the military and the two secular parties which have traditionally championed Berber cultural rights. Instead, the protesters formed town and village committees to coordinate their demonstrations. The massive Algiers rally, for example, was organized by these committees.

It remains to be seen how this mass movement will further develop. The solution to the problems of the workers and poor, in Algeria or elsewhere, can only come from their own independent organization aimed at defending their own interests.