SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 227 April 2019

Algeria in revolt

Algeria’s brutal regime has been stunned by a huge protest movement that erupted on 22 February. After a spokesman for president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to stand for a fifth term, the pent up anger at years of economic and social stagnation and harsh repression poured onto the streets of every town and city.

The ongoing protests have hit a peak each Friday since and, on 10 March, a five-day general strike began with energy workers, public-sector employees, teachers and students ramping up the pressure. Given that oil and gas make up 95% of Algeria’s export earnings and 30% of its GDP, the potential for that section of workers to play a leading role in the struggle is massive.

The protests have seen participation from a wide cross section of society, with young people as the driving force, social media an effective mobilising tool. Over two-thirds of the population are under the age of 30, and at least 25% of them are officially unemployed. They are marginalised by an utterly corrupt and ruthless regime, known as ‘le pouvoir’ (the power). Power is in the hands of a cabal around 82-year-old Bouteflika, including military chiefs, the heads of powerful state-owned sectors and big business, and incorporating the tops of the central union bureaucracy.

They have siphoned off Algeria’s oil and gas wealth, while presiding over crumbling health and education services, and an appalling lack of housing. As a result, recent years have seen a rise of desperate Algerian youth, robbed of a future, risking everything on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in rubber dinghies.

It is all reminiscent of the uprisings that brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010/11, and reverberated around North Africa and the Middle East. At the time, there was also a wave of protest in Algeria. The regime was able to quell the unrest, however, through its customary brutality mixed with $20 billion of subsidies and some public-sector pay rises funded by energy export earnings.

But oil prices fell by nearly 50% in 2014-15, leading to cut-backs – a quarter of households have fallen below the poverty line. In 2018, the regime increased the price of fuel by nearly 20%, with severe knock-on effects throughout the economy, while wages stagnated. This year, increases of 20-30% in the price of sugar, oil and flour have also hit hard. While these measures triggered localised action, Bouteflika’s bid to stay in power brought the underlying discontent onto the surface in one united movement.

Bouteflika’s failing health is seen as a metaphor for the broken system he heads. First ‘elected’ in 1999, his last public address was in 2014 – after a debilitating stroke the previous year. Even his intention to take a fifth term was registered by his campaign manager – the president was in hospital in Switzerland.

The regime has been caught off guard and pushed back by the scale of the movement. In a letter released to the media on 3 March, Bouteflika promised political reforms if he were re-elected. Yet, when he flew back on 10 March, he was greeted by the start of the general strike and a new round of mass protest.

The strike marks a critical new phase in the struggle. Sonatrach, the state oil and gas conglomerate, employs 120,000 workers, and there were reports of walkouts at a number of oilfields and at the major gas complex at Oued Ezzine. Energy workers protested in Béjaïa. (Guardian, 10 March) The economy runs on oil and gas – Algeria has the tenth-largest oil reserves in the world and is a major exporter of liquefied natural gas to Europe. It is the main source of wealth for the rich elite, and its only real fund for social stability – showing just how pivotal this group of workers could be.

On 11 March, 1,000 judges declared that they would not oversee the elections if Bouteflika stood. On the same day, it was announced that he wouldn’t. The elections set for 18 April were cancelled – they would have been thoroughly rigged of course. Instead, there would be a ‘national conference’ to draft reforms which would be put to a referendum, followed by elections sometime. This meant, however, that Bouteflika would stay in place, in effect, indefinitely. It only poured fuel on the fire – #Leave_means_leave trended on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the unpopular prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, was replaced by the unpopular former interior minister, Noureddine Bedoui. Bedoui had banned demonstrations in the capital Algiers – overturned by the current strength of the movement. He is already meeting resistance. Al Jazeera reported on 19 March – the anniversary of the end of the war of independence against French colonial rule – that "13 independent unions have refused to back the newly appointed prime minister’s efforts to form a government", and medical students and doctors are on the streets protesting.

Leaders of the veterans of the independence war have expressed support for the protests. Moreover, on 14 March, Hocine Kheldoun, a former spokesman for the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), went on late-night television to urge the party to take the unprecedented step of backing the protesters. He said Bouteflika was "history now". (Al-Monitor, 15 March) These are important signs of splits appearing in the regime, but also of the cynical manoeuvring taking place at the top.

At first sight, it seems incredible that such a seemingly strong regime can suddenly look so weak and hesitant. But its social reserves have been eroded. Bouteflika, an independence war veteran, came to power in 1999, towards the end of an extremely brutal decade-long civil war between right-wing Islamist forces and the authoritarian regime. Two hundred thousand people were slaughtered. He tightened his grip on power while posing as a figure of national reconciliation – and consolidated the position of his corrupt clique.

For a new generation, however, the civil war seems distant. A participant on the 15 March protest in Algiers said: "So the fear of having a radical Islamic power isn’t real and the vast majority of people demonstrating are driven by ambitions of liberty, democracy and social justice. The majority of these people are educated, studying law, medicine or engineering. They are the future of the country". (Al-Monitor, 15 March)

This reflects the optimism of the movement and its scale, uniting Arabs and Amazigh (Berbers), workers, students, women and men, people of all ages. Its overwhelmingly peaceful nature fuels this feeling, epitomised on 15 March – the fourth consecutive Friday protest and the largest for 28 years – as demonstrators took selfies with police officers. Whole families have come onto the streets in a carnival atmosphere.

Protesters have expressed pride in the broad and spontaneous nature of the movement. Indeed, it is impressive. It is also true that the notoriously violent security forces have been relatively restrained, while the military, a stalwart of the regime, has remained in barracks so far. Nonetheless, 200 protesters were injured by riot police in Algiers on 15 March and similar numbers were arrested, according to reports.

That situation cannot last. At some point, something will have to give. The regime has made mainly verbal concessions, significant indications of how much it fears this movement. But nothing fundamental has been won and it is inconceivable that the regime will simply step aside, giving up its immense power and wealth. It is ruthless.

A key moment has been reached. Groups have emerged, particularly among the youth. Women have been prominent in the mobilisations. Important sections of the working class have taken strike action. Linking the collective organisation and potential economic power of the workers with the general uprising would create the force needed to overthrow Algeria’s rotten regime.

And a democratic socialist programme to plan the country’s rich resources would lay the basis to eradicate poverty, build homes and a decent future for all. It would also be a beacon to peoples throughout the region, showing how it would be possible to finish what began in the revolutions of 2010/11.

Manny Thain

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