How demands for climate justice fuelled Algeria’s popular protest movement

By Anne Alexander

As millions take to the streets on Friday 20 September for the global Climate Strike, activists in Algeria are gearing up for another Friday mobilisation. For the 31st time since February, tens of thousands are expected to march under the slogan “Système dégage!” (Down with the regime!) to demand an end to the corrupt and repressive regime which has ruled the country for decades.

Starting with protests against a fifth term for aging president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the movement has taken up broader demands, including a call for a civil not a military state, and an end to repression and corruption. Algerians’ call for “system change”, not just cosmetic alterations in the face of the ruling elite, has more in common with the growing climate strike movement than many realise.

The regime they are fighting has funnelled the profits from the oil and gas extraction which make up the vast bulk of Algeria’s state revenues into their own pockets for years. As school teacher Henia Sadi says “Algeria is a rich country. Where there’s petrol there’s wealth. Of all this wealth, the Algerian people have nothing. They work hard for 30,000 dinars (£200) month. You can spend that in two or three days. For someone who wants to eat normally, with five or six children, in three days his pay is gone.”

European governments are happy to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and corruption in Algeria in order to make sure that this oil and gas continues to flow out of the country. The EU is a major market for Algerian fossil fuels, and the British government has also been backing BP’s investment in gas extraction in the country. As environmental justice group Platform says, this paves the way for collusion with a brutal dictatorship. “The Algerian regime is a serious human rights offender, characterised by ongoing authoritarian practices and endemic corruption at a huge scale. The collusion with such a regime for the sake of business interests or securing fossil fuel supplies is in stark contrast to Western rhetoric of promoting democracy and human rights”

It is not just the Algerian regime’s failure to share the wealth created by its fossil fuel industry with ordinary people which is fuelling demands for social and political justice. Algerians know that the oil and gas companies are prepared to do anything to maximise their profits, including creating pollution on a massive scale through promoting the adoption of fracking for shale gas in the south of the country. The US Department of Energy estimated in 2013 that Algeria had 706 trillion cubic feet of “technically recoverable” shale gas – the third largest concentration in the world after China and Argentina. Not only would the extraction of this gas accelerate global heating, but fracking also risks poisoning the water which Algerians drink, through pollution spreading across the interconnected water basins.

In 2012 and 2013 anger at the fracking plans and frustration at the continued marginalisation and impoverishment of communities in the oil-rich south of Algeria boiled over into a national wave of protests led by unemployed activists who took to the streets to demand social and environmental justice.

This movement, alongside mobilisations and strikes by public sector workers and workers in heavy industries was one of the precursors of the eruption of the hirak, the popular movement for democracy in February 2019.

Algerians need solidarity for their courageous struggle. Since February they have been organising mass protests and strikes to demand real change, and the regime is increasingly clamping down. Military strongman Gaid Salah has been playing divide-and-rule tactics by criminalising people who bring the Berber flag to demonstrations, and dozens have been arrested and jailed over the summer. The last few weeks have seen an escalating crackdown also targeting journalists, trade unionists and left-wing political activists. The stakes are higher than ever for this Friday’s protests, with Gaid Salah declaring the capital closed to demonstrators and severe repression expected.

But Algeria’s hirak is also a powerful movement of hope, and a symbol of the power of ordinary people to overcome divisions and organise for a better world. Imagine a future where Algeria’s fossil fuels were under democratic and popular control, and where we could begin talking about how to repair the damage caused by colonialism, environmental injustice and repression from a basis of international solidarity, not the continued plundering of Algeria’s resources in the interests of a tiny elite. That’s why climate rebels today should stand in solidarity with Algerian activists.

What you can do:

  • Send a letter of protest to the Algerian embassy in your country, calling for the release of all political prisoners and for an end to attacks on Algerian citizens’ rights to organise and speak out.
  • Put a resolution to your trade union branch calling for action in solidarity with Algerian political prisoners
  • Read more on how to build solidarity with political prisoners in Algeria here

 

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