Feature article from the summer 2019 issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine. Download a pdf or order a print copy here
A mass movement on an extraordinary scale seems set on a collision course with the military core of Algeria’s authoritarian regime. Gianni Del Panta, Lemnaouar Hamamouche, Kamel Aissat and Selma Oumari discuss the roots and development of the popular uprising.
Months of massive demonstrations have forced president Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of power, while several of his cronies have landed in jail. Street protests and strikes have consistently rejected attempts to defuse popular anger by shuffling appointments at the top of the state, or holding presidential elections. Meanwhile, army chief Ahmed Gaïd Salah has sent riot police into the streets to beat and tear gas protesters. He has also turned to tactics of divide-and-rule, attacking protesters for carrying the Amazigh banner alongside the Algerian national flag, harking back to a long history of state-sponsored repression of Amazigh language and culture.
Gianni del Panta
Without doubt, the current turmoil represents the most powerful mass-based protest movement Algeria has seen since the 1988 popular uprising. Since the end of the cruel and long-lasting civil war fought by the military against Islamist groups in the 1990s, Western commentators and liberal pundits have presented an image of Algeria as a stable state, committed to eradicating terrorism. Such an interpretation was strengthened by the ability of the Algerian autocracy, in contrast to what happened to other North African regimes, to weather the 2010-11 storm. For many, the combination of the legacy of the atrocities of the civil war and extensive social spending made feasible by hydrocarbon resources was enough to immunise Algeria from the spirit of the Arab uprisings.
Unsurprisingly, the outbreak of protests has stunned journalists and scholars. In their frenzy to find palatable explanations for something that they had never expected to witness, the framework used by commentators has been drawn from pro-market and liberal interpretation of the 2010-11 Arab uprisings. According to this perspective, what is happening today is an example of a clash between the people – represented as a unique and organic body – and a corrupted, mafia-style, and patronage-based regime.
Exactly because the latter is represented as authoritarian, prevalently in favour of a state-led economy in which only crony and well-connected capitalists can gain access to the spoil of the system, protests have to be pro-democratic, in the liberal meaning of the term, and supportive of the free market. The quintessential element of such a picture is president Bouteflika. In a country in which almost 70 percent of the population is aged below 30, an ageing and ill man, forced to use a wheelchair after a stroke in 2013 and almost completely invisible to the public for the last 6 years, requesting a new mandate in elections.
Yet, although Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term represents the triggering mechanism, the storm that is hitting Algeria now has been long in the making. The cycle of protests has speeded up markedly since 2013. This has mainly been the outcome of action by three groups. Firstly, public sector workers employed in the education and health sectors, organised through independent trade unions. Secondly, the lower classes of the south of the country, the area in which gas and oil resources are most concentrated, but constantly marginalised in economic, social and political terms by the elites of the coast. Thirdly and finally, blue-collar workers in the heavy industrialised area of Rouïba, not far away from the capital Algiers. Mobilisations by these groups have created a culture of protest, producing several important breaks in the regime’s authoritarian domination. This, in turn, opened up space for today’s protest movement, as the political opposition has capitalised on the momentum created by social protests.
The popular movement’s roots lie in the rejection of Bouteflika’s fifth term as president, after he proposed standing again in the presidential elections. However, once the movement spread across the country, it raised other demands. People began to call for the regime itself to fall, using the slogans « Système dégage » and «yetnahaw ga3 », meaning all of those responsible for the system must go. Since 22 February the people in the streets have included workers, students, the unemployed, shopkeepers and large sections of the general population who have occupied the streets in almost all of Algeria’s 48 provinces every Friday.
This is an extraordinarily large movement, which brings in workers who are protesting and demanding the resignation of the trade union bureaucracy. In Algeria we have the UGTA, the General Union of Algerian Workers, which counts millions of workers as members. It represents the trade union movement at a national level and is led essentially by bureaucrats who not only have their own privileged interests, but they also work for the interests of the bosses. The UGTA is part of a tripartite structure which brings in the union federation as representative of the workers, alongside the government and the bosses organisation the FCE (Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises). Over the years, the UGTA bureaucracy has always voted for reforms which are not in the interests of the workers, such as the harsh labour code. This explains why, during the current pre-revolutionary moment, there are workers raising demands against the bureaucracy and who are organising themselves to take back control of the UGTA. There are 5 regional union federations which have repeatedly called for strikes to demand an end to the regime. It is these who really represent the workers, not Sidi Saïd and his clique at the head of the UGTA.
In mid-March there was a call for a general strike by workers, shopkeepers and the mass of the population who were capable of social disobedience. That is to say, it was not a passive strike, but it was not followed by other organisations, for example unions in factories or by the universities. This example shows how the movement has not yet created its own forms of organisation. We can see attempts within the movement to build independent organisations – there are the women’s collectives, the autonomous committees created during the rise of the movement, and the popular committees – but these are still embryonic.
The movement which has erupted in Algeria is actually on a larger scale, from the point of view of popular participation, than the movements in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. Algeria is a country of 2.3 million square km, with 42 million inhabitants, and the Friday demonstrations bring together more than 10 million people across the whole country, from the far south to the north and from the east to the west. We see a huge mixture of people on the marches. Women play an important role in the demonstrations, and there are women’s collectives which have sprung up in some areas to make demands for equality in the movement.
The movement is also characterised by its popular character. It is a movement of the majority – of the poor, the unemployed and the excluded. Workers are acting more as working-class citizens rather than as the working class in an organised sense, because the Bouteflika regime co-opted all forms of organisation. There was a significant democratic retreat over the past twenty years, which particularly affected social organisations in Algeria, and which corrupted an important section of the trade union movement. This is why the trade unions are cautious in their approach and tend to call for support for the popular movement, rather than seeing themselves as actors in the movement.
We could say the same thing about the UGTA which at the top level was essentially taken over by the regime, and became an ‘in-house union’, even if there are some sections of resistance today which want to get rid of the trade union bureaucracy. The issue here is not the trade union leaders as such, but we need to see the workers themselves taking over their union from the bottom up, with a programme of democratic and social demands, based on a fight for raising wages and purchasing power and in defence of national policies.
The movement is mostly organised around the Friday demonstrations, the student protests every Tuesday, and local strikes. The political landscape has always been shaped by strikes from different sectors, but the one that plays a key role is the oil and gas sector as it paralyzes most of the economy. The movement’s dynamic has helped rank and file trade unionists to challenge the UGTA bureaucracy, which has been collaborating with Bouteflika’s regime. I believe it is important not only to support the independent trade unions, but to win independence for the UGTA. Football supporters are also very active in friday’s demonstrations: they lead chants and make huge banners called tifo. However, there is a need for more local structures. The movement is not organised enough to take over the street on a daily basis.
Women are marginalised in public spaces, and only 18 percent are able to get a job. They are second class citizens as they don’t have the same rights as men. That is why they are very concerned and active in the process of social change. They are visible in the movement and are shaping the political debate around their own issues. Feminist blocs are very lively on the Friday demonstrations, raising debates within the movement about women’s rights. They are pushing for the abolition of the Family Code, which enshrines women’s legal status as inferior to men. As organisers, they are active in the student movement, and in the trade unions. Women played a major role in Algerian revolutionary history, for example in the war of liberation against French colonialism. Djamila Bouhired, a national icon from that period, is participating in the movement against the current system.
Amazigh identity, which used to be vilified and excluded, is now embraced by all Algerians. It has always challenged the ideology of the state, which denies the ancient history of the Amazigh people in the name of Arab nationalism, a vision associated with authoritarianism and dictatorship. Both the Algerian and Amazigh flags are legitimate and are used widely on the demonstrations. It is interesting to see how the Amazigh flag triggers rage among Algeria’s rulers, with army chief Gaïd Salah trying to forbid its use on the protests.
There are some attempts to open a dialogue with the regime. For example, various associations, independent trade unions and human rights groups have declared a “civil society road map” for a transition period. These groups don’t want to represent the popular movement, nor do they wish to organise it, but they do want to benefit from the movement in order to open a dialogue with the regime from above. This goes against what ordinary people want, which is a clear break from the regime. Instead the civil society groups are looking for a consensual figure to lead the transition. Their proposals include demands such as the liberation of political prisoners, but they don’t mention women’s rights.
Until now, the regime has been able to contain political opposition by meeting their demands while maintaining the overall system intact. That is why people don’t want political representatives who make agreements from above. The civil society roadmap is caught, therefore, because the radicalisation of the popular movement and the tightening grip of Gaïd Salah’s military regime.
The only way to break out of this is for the movement to develop its own legitimacy, which has to emerge from below – from the occupied streets, schools and factories. That is what is missing today and is the only way to force the military to leave power, as the Sudanese example is showing us.
Gianni Del Panta is a researcher based in Italy. Lemnaouar Hamamouche is an Algerian student activst and, along with Kamel Aissat, is a leading member of the Algerian socialist party, the PST. Selma Oumari is an Algerian activist living in France and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party. Interviews translated and transcribed by Anne Alexander and Sheila Amrouche.