2011: no participation in the Arab Spring movement
On 17 December 2010, after the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian population rose up against hellish poverty. Protests broke out across the whole of Tunisia, including a general strike and mass demonstrations. After four weeks, the people overthrew the dictator Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on 14th January 2011 despite the combined support of France and Muammar Gaddafi.
What followed was a change of regime, a return of political freedom and a purge of Ben Ali’s mafia clan. After several months of mass mobilisation involving the whole of Tunisian society, assurances were given that there would be no going back.
Then, within a few weeks (February to March 2011), the flame of revolution passed successively to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and finally to Syria. Tyrants fell (Mubarak, Gaddafi); others clung on, but at the cost of terrible repression (Bahrain) or civil wars (Yemen, Syria).
But in Algeria, despite widespread discontent in society triggered by the high cost of food, which continued from 2011 until 2014, the social explosion amongst wide layers of society did not bring about any comparable upheaval. The regime hung on, making a few concessions, lifting emergency powers, legalising some opposition parties and offering an aid package of 20 million Euros.
Since 2011: the movement in Morocco, political developments in Tunisia
Since 2011, Tunisia has undergone intense political developments with elections, social movements, the emergence of traditional political parties and even an upsurge of Islamic politics. What is missing is a left alternative. The old bureaucracy of the skilled workers UGTT restricted its membership. This has led to a certain amount of demoralisation in the face of unemployment and poverty.
At the other end of the Maghreb, the Cherifien monarchy has had to face dissent amongst its Berber population, centred around the Rif region. Unrest remains high and there is still a degree of social agitation despite massive repression by the regime.
But throughout all of this, many superficial commentators would have credited the Algerian regime as comparatively stable and in control.
The consequences of kleptocracy
Algeria possesses massive resources. There are huge petroleum and gas reserves in the Sahara. There is vast agricultural potential and much scope for tourism (sea, mountains, beautiful scenery and archaeological sites). Unfortunately, since 1962 the country has been afflicted by a ruling clique that has appropriated power, merging the party with the state. Moreover, it is based upon kleptomania towards society and particularly the economy. From 1962 to 1988 the regime perpetrated not only repression against all political and social opposition, but also a series of measures which laid the foundations for Islamism: for instance the Family Code of 1984, which returned women back into the legal status of children.
In the 1970s, the FLN developed a policy to promote the use of Arabic at the expense of the French and Berber languages. However, those policies did not stop the cultural demands of the Kabyle people for equality in the use of all languages. This gave rise to the “Berber Spring” in 1980.
The FLN recruited Arab speaking teachers to implement their education policies based on Arabisation. These teachers came from Egypt and were mainly Islamic, and they promoted religion under the mask of Arabisation. This is one of the historical roots of the growth of Islamism until the FIS electoral victory in 1992.
Faced with an uprising of young people in October 1988 which was drowned in blood (with over 500 dead and thousands imprisoned), the regime was nevertheless forced to concede a degree of political plurality, starting with elections in 1992, which saw a notable breakthrough for the FIS Islamists. The army responded with a coup, negating the result of the polls and leading to the start of a civil war (1992-2002) which took a terrible toll: 100,000 to 200,000 dead or disappeared.
Civil peace returned after 2003. Politics continued as a game of deception in a system tightly controlled by the party (FLN) state-army, with other parties trying to gain recognition.
Until the start of the present movement, the only resistance was an innumerable succession of isolated riots, sectional disputes led by independent trades unions, and the Berber movement of Kabylie.
A mobilisation of youth which opens the way for the whole of society
From December 2018, demonstrations broke out at the news that Abdelaziz Bouteflika was running for the fifth time as presidential candidate. Once an historical figure of the FLN, following vascular cerebral problem in 2013 he had become a living mummy.
On 22nd February it is estimated that 800,000 people were out on the streets. On 1st March there were three million demonstrators across the country. On 8th March the count was five million. From 5th March the mobilisation of students led the way across the whole country, leading to the launch of a call for a general strike. A security service source put the figure for demonstrators on 15th March as 14 million.
The first significant demonstration took place on 16th February at Kherrata in the far East of Bejaia Province. At Khenchela, on 19th February, a giant poster of the President of the Republic was ripped down and trampled. Other posters followed on 21st February at Annaba.
Going beyond the sweep of the mass movement, we must understand the part played by each social layer within it. Amongst the students and the youth, unemployment is everywhere. They have never known the war of independence or the civil war (1992-2002) but they have lived since early childhood under the tutelage of Bouteflika.
The workers are playing a role, not only in the demonstrations on the streets but also and above all in coming out on strike and re-claiming their trade union UGTA, which has been ruled by a bureaucracy linked to the party–state since time immemorial. During March we witnessed the forces of law and order refusing to suppress the demonstrators, and returning to their barracks, to the applause of the jubilant crowds. There was also a movement of 1000 judges who refused to do the legal paperwork for the sham presidential election and thereby supported the demand for genuine and free elections.
The Islamists who have attempted to inveigle their way into the movement have been driven out on several occasions by demonstrators. People behaving inappropriately towards women have faced firm opposition, not only by feminists but by an overwhelming majority of the demonstrators. The feminist demand is captured by the slogan “I am not going to wash the dishes. I am going to make the revolution!”
The rulers first retreat and then manoeuvre
Early in March, the rulers faced the first defections by their own supporters. Abdelaziz Bouteflika finally announced on 11th March 2019 that he would give up the pursuit of a fifth mandate. He promised the convening of a national conference responsible for leading the way between now and the end of the year to inaugurate a new constitution, thereby prolonging his fourth term of office, which was scheduled to end on 27th April 2019.
The only effect this had was to strengthen the mobilisation for 15th March.
On 26th March General Gaid Salah called for the impeachment of Bouteflika through Article 102 of the constitution. The Constitutional Council met on the same evening. Ahmed Ouyahia called on Bouteflika to resign. The same day, the Workers Party (Lambertists) announced the resignation of its deputies from the APN. The proposal to activate Article 102 was welcomed by several friends of the regime but contested by the opposition.
On 29th March, millions of demonstrators poured out onto the streets, including a million in Algiers. On 2nd April a new demonstration of students took over the Head of State’s Department. His resignation was then announced.
On 9th April, after a week of hesitation, the National Popular Assembly and the National Council met in a joint session and elected the president of the upper chamber, Abdelkader Bensalah, interim head of state.
In this capacity, he had reduced powers and was to have organised an expected presidential election in which he himself could not stand. He had 90 days to do this, according to the interim terms of the constitution.
This announcement did not placate the demonstrators. From the start of the movement there have been police interventions with water cannon and tear gas. This has been criticised by Amnesty International. Personalities such as Meziane Abane and the human rights activist Salah Dabouz were also arrested, and then released.
On 12th April – the eighth Friday with no relaxation of the mobilisation – the repression continued. The forces of the law used massive quantities of tear gas in the tunnel of the Algiers University buildings.
The deepening: self organisation everywhere, towards a constituent assembly
The slogan “down with the system!” hits the mark. It goes beyond the personality of Bouteflika. The vast majority want to get rid of the party-state which has since 1962 parasitized society. The demand for free and fair elections together with the call for a constituent assembly would re-establish the political and social system of the country. But to implement this, self organisation is needed everywhere. It is also vital that the power of the workers is used to recapture control of the UGTA, which has kept the workers’ movement locked out of any control since 1962. As we go to press the Algerian workers are taking steps to do this.
Finally, to deal with the last defence of the regime, namely the army, it is necessary to oppose them not only with physical force but also with the social and political force of the vast majority of people in the country, thirsting to re-establish a second independence.
As the veteran of the war of independence Djamila Bouhired declared in his message to the youth of Algeria on 14th March: don’t let them steal your victory.