Is Algeria on the road to a new republic?

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Ten months since the mass movement erupted, hundreds of thousands still surge into the streets. Samir Larabi asks if the people or the old regime will emerge the winners from this contest?

From Middle East Solidarity magazine, issue 12. Order a print copy or download as a pdf here 

Since 22 February 2019, Algeria has been living to the rhythm of an immense popular movement, the like of which we have not seen since the independence of the country in 1962, a movement which can be described as a revolutionary process. Certainly, everything started with the rejection of a 5th term in office for deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but the reasons for popular anger run much deeper than that.

They are essentially connected to the structural contradictions of an anti-popular, authoritarian regime. This popular movement has accentuated the crisis of the regime and is fundamentally challenging its authority over society.

The dynamic of popular mobilisation, with all its limits and contradictions, is part of the process of destroying the regime and replacing it with a democratic and social republic.

Since 22 February the regime has found it difficult to impose its solution, which it calls “a road map for resolving the crisis”, through organising a presidential election.

The movement is insisting on the departure of all the symbols of the regime

The regime is not even able to mobilise political support: its social base has fractured, it lacks legitimacy and it can only rely on its own institutions to maintain itself.

Although everything began with the challenge to the 5th term for the former president, the people’s demands radicalised over time towards rejecting the role of the regime in organising a political transition or elections on the grounds that this means the reproduction of the regime.

The mass movement in the streets has been able to force the cancellation of two presidential elections and it is preparing for a massive boycott of those planned for 12 December 2019.

The movement is insisting on the departure of all the symbols of the regime and on a revision of the constitution before engaging in any electoral process. The key issue at stake is the question of popular sovereignty and the rejection of any foreign interference.

In the face of repression and dozens of arrests, the mass movement continues to challenge the regime. Despite threats by Gaïd Salah (Chief of the Army General Staff) and the repression in Algiers every Friday, including checkpoints blocking the routes into the capital, the violent and arbitrary arrest of demonstrators, the banning of the Amazigh banner and the Palestinian flag and the detention of protesters and political activists, the popular movement has maintained intact its demand to change the regime through a democratic transition where the army’s role is restricted to its basic functions.

Most workers are participating in the mass movement as citizens, rather on the basis of their class identity or their professional role. Nevertheless, the popular mobilisation has boosted the independent trade unions, in particular the Confederation of Independent Unions (Confédération des syndicats autonomes – CSA) which has been involved in this dynamic of protest.

From the first weeks of the movement, the CSA has shown its support for the popular movement by refusing to recognise the existing government and demanding the return to popular sovereignty.

The CSA, which solely organises in the civil service, is not raising socio-economic or sectional demands, but rather echoes the demands of the street in calling for the departure of the regime and the installation of a second republic. The confederation has organised two strikes and two marches with the same political demands in the capital on 10 April and 1 May, despite the efforts of the regime to repress them.

Since the two marches in April and May, however, the leadership of the unions have fallen silent and no further major strikes or protests have taken place. For the moment the union leaders prefer to get involved in a kind of coalition with certain parties and with civil society organisations which have regrouped around the demands for a return of the elections with minimum guarantees over the transparency of the process.

In effect this is not far from the regime’s proposal for a political solution within the framework of the existing constitution. However, popular pressure and the regime’s repression may force the development of these positions in future.

With the launch of the revolutionary process a new tendency or coordination in the heart of the major trade union federation the UGTA has come into being. This coordination brings together four of the UGTA’s provincial federations, which have declared their support for the movement “to create a new republic,” as well as demanding the departure of UGTA General Secretary Sidi Saïd and all the UGTA’s leaders who colluded with the regime.

They have been joined by several members of the UGTA’s National Executive Committee, which is the federation’s governing body between congresses, and by the National Federation of Workers in the Metallurgical, Mechanical, Electrical and Electronic Industries.

Through gatherings organised on 17 April and 1 May in front of the House of the People, the headquarters of the UGTA, this coordination which is called the “National Committee for the Restoration of the UGTA to the Workers”, attracted the support of a large number of trade unionists, workers and left-wing militants.

The idea of a general strike has been gaining ground

The Committee launched a national petition for the organisation of an extraordinary congress of the UGTA before the end of the year composed solely of delegates properly elected by the membership.

However, the movement for taking back the UGTA has not been able to win the support of the majority of workers and trade union officials, nor prevent the organisation of a federation congress. This attempt to recover the UGTA has not lasted the course, as it was led by trade union bureaucrats who ended up being reabsorbed into the UGTA apparatus.

The idea of a general strike have been gaining ground recently, particularly with the relative success of the general strike in Bejaia province on 25 September, which was called by a number of local unions and left parties. However, the success of the general strike at a national level requires more organisation and the involvement of the trade unions. This is also the case in relation to civil disobedience.

We have witnessed several struggles by workers over the last few months where the demands have been connected to the question of pay and working conditions. For example in the petroleum sector workers have been able to secure pay rises of around 20 percent.

This is also the case in the textile sector, where a cycle of strikes has shut down the TOYAL (Algéro-Turque) factory demanding permanent contracts. As purchasing power falls, the coming weeks will witness more protest movements in different sectors, particularly in the civil service.

Samir Larabi is a sociologist and an  activist with the PST party in Algeria.

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