The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is just beginning to be felt in Algeria. Earlier this month, the government announced that the national budget would be slashed in half due to the global collapse of oil prices. Simultaneously, the much-discredited government is cynically manoeuvring to bury the popular Hirak movement under the cover of this healthcare crisis. But this coronavirus has brought to the fore the contradictions of a bureaucratically-ruled country, corrupted to the core by ‘le pouvoir’. These repressive measures cannot be allowed to asphyxiate the militant mood for change that has once again gripped the country.
The Hirak movement to date
Ever since the ailing, debilitated ex-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he was running for a fifth term in February 2019, political struggle has been the order of the day. For many Algerians, who rightly considered Bouteflika a puppet for le pouvoir, this was the kick in the teeth required for them to take to the streets and have their voices heard. Last year, the capital Algiers saw the largest protests in over a decade, in defiance of the 2001 ban on demonstrations. The regime’s arrogance in insisting on keeping its impotent figurehead enraged the masses, and led to this powerful revolutionary movement that shook the country.
Concessions were granted to the movement thick and fast. Bouteflika stepped down, and Algerian prisons welcomed a whole gallery of renegades from les pouvoirs. The Hirak movement decisively rejected the presidential election stitch-up last December. All five candidates were either part of the old regime, or closely associated with it. These carefully selected candidates were met with a successful boycott of the election, resulting in the smallest turnout of all time. Slightly less than 40 percent of those registered turned out, but the official number is likely exaggerated. In the words of one protester, “Bouteflika leaving means nothing if his men continue to run the country”.
This incisive comment hits the nail on the head. It reflects the mood among those that have been tirelessly organising to bring down the regime in its entirety. Abdelmadhid Touboone, the new President of Algeria, has no authority over the masses – this should come as no surprise, he was Bouteflika’s Prime Minister!
Since the Hirak movement began last February, millions of Algerians have marched every Friday. This is supplemented with the student marches on Tuesdays. Touboone’s election was no remedy for this, despite the wishful thinking of those behind the curtains scrambling to maintain the status quo in Algeria. But the initial movement to oust Bouteflika was transformed into one that wants rid of all the remnants of the old regime – a military-bureaucratic capitalist dictatorship riddled with sleaze, corruption and nepotism. Touboone’s calls for dialogue and promises of change have since fallen on deaf ears.
Despite previous warnings by government ministers for the demonstrations to stop, 13 March saw thousands again taking to the streets for the 56th Friday. This is emblematic of the distrust that is felt towards the regime and the political instincts of the masses. The calls for social distancing and to cease demonstrating were met with suspicion, with many believing this to be a political trick or manoeuvre by Touboone and his corrupt cabal. On 17 March, Touboone announced a series of measures to fight the coronavirus, including tightening restrictions on movement. However, it was the calls of prominent activists, academics and journalists that resulted in the 57th demonstration being cancelled for 20 March, not Touboone. Though the mass mobilisations are currently contained, as soon as the lockdown eases, this will lift the lid on the seething frustration and anger. Much remains to be done, and the financial dire straits of a country bureaucratically run, and dominated by foreign imperialism, are bringing the cracks to the surface.
Financial catastrophe and healthcare
For now, Touboone has granted mild and meek concessions: the minimum wage has been raised from 18,000 dinars per month to 20,000 dinars; and income tax will be abolished for those earning less than 30,000 dinars. We should be clear: this is a sticking plaster for a much-deeper problem: the obscene wealth that is accumulated by the upper echelons of society, and the poverty and misery to which the masses are condemned. As if the situation wasn’t bad enough for the old regime, the crash in oil prices and the coronavirus crisis will lead to economic catastrophe. Algeria’s Saharan Blend oil was recently trading at less than $20 a barrel. Reuters have reported that 2020’s budget was based on a price of $50 a barrel. This leaves the government between a rock and a hard place. Touboone will be obliged to carry out a significant austerity programme, aggravating the social and political instability. In a word, fanning the flames of the mood of burning indignation.
Informal workers in Algeria, and across the whole of Africa, are at severe economic risk. Since they frequently work in small crowded market spaces, relying on face-to-face interactions, they will be particularly exposed to the deadly virus. Without unemployment safety nets or institutionalised sick pay, falling sick in the coming period could present an existential threat to the livelihoods of many Algerians. To add insult to injury, the health system in Algeria is in a deplorable state. Despite Touboone’s claim that Algeria is fully prepared to fight the pandemic, the country has only 400 ICUs – put differently, one per 100,000 people. This optimism is easy to preach from the ivory tower that the President himself enjoys, but it is unlikely to cut ice with ordinary Algerians.
The fact stands that Algeria’s health system ranks 173 out of 195 countries. The chauvinistic bragging that Algeria’s doctors are among ‘the best in the world’ is a blatant attempt to martyr those that have not been provided with adequate protection, and whose death will ultimately be the fault of the state. If the health system is in top condition, why do senile government officials – including Bouteflika himself – seek medical treatment abroad? Indeed, before the outbreak of COVID-19, Algerians often described hospitals as ‘mouroirs’ (places for dying). This will lamentably find its full expression under the current crisis. From the false promises to build five new hospitals back in 2014, to the weak planning and shortage of equipment that plagues the health system, the government has failed the people of Algeria. A perfect storm is brewing for Touboone and his cronies.
We must be clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has not created new problems for the country, it has merely exacerbated existing issues, shining a spotlight on the inequalities and corruption that gave rise to the Hirak movement in the first place. Touboone may parrot the oft-repeated lines of diversifying the economy as the oil prices dwindle, but this is a case of too little, too late.
Foreign exchange reserves are now an estimated $55 billion, down from almost $200 billion in 2014. They are expected to fall to $44 billion by the end of 2020. This has been accompanied by the depreciation of the dinar by 49 percent between 2014 and 2019. With wages remaining largely stagnant since 2012, the dire economic situation will continue to upset the social equilibrium. In the face of a failing health system, despite the billions of hydrocarbon dollars brought in during Bouteflika’s sultanistic reign, and life becoming ever-more precarious, the need for transformation of society is becoming ever-more clear. With more unemployment on the cards, the devil will continue to find work for idle hands. The issue for the regime is that this will be of a revolutionary character.
Repression ramped up
Despite his pro-Hirak rhetoric, it took little time for Touboone's real ambitions to come to the fore. The regime is trying to exploit the COVID-19 crisis in order to bury the movement once and for all. Repression has continued to fall on the open adversaries of the regime – from journalists to those taking to the internet to air their grievances. Touboone’s government claims that censorship is necessary to shut down foreign interference and protect ‘national sovereignty’. This narrative has nothing to do with the real situation. Hassina Oussedik, the director of Amnesty International Algeria, has stated: "At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is prompting governments around the world to consider early release of prisoners, the authorities have decided to detain and convict people solely for exercising their rights to liberty of expression”.
We need only look at the imprisonment of Khaled Drareni, who among others, has become an emblematic figure in the Hirak. Drareni is the founder of the Casbah Tribune and a representative of Reporters without Borders (RSF). He was charged with “inciting an unarmed gathering and endangering national unity”. It is clear that his ‘crime’ is reporting on events in a way that does not sing the tune of the regime. The Algerian constitution states that an offence by the media cannot be punished by imprisonment, but from its position of deep insecurity and weakness, the regime has cracked down with draconian measures. This shows above all that they are on the ropes, and makes the rally cry for democratic rights even stronger.
The criminalisation of freedom of speech has even landed meme creators in jail. Karim Tabbou is currently in prison on trumped up charges of the same variety as Drereni. This has been likened as an attempt to “return to the iron order, the same one that, in the 1970s, required all Algerians to buckle up and walk straight," by journalist Akram Belkaïd. But this is a completely different period, and any attempts by the regime to bury the struggle will be met by ferocity. The grit and determination already shown in the face of repression indicates that the Algerian people will not be silenced. Ultimately, nothing has been solved, and the ideas that inspired an entire generation of youth are showing no sign of wear. Asma Mechakra, a campaigner for the release of Tabbou, explains this well: “The regime fails to realise that 'Hirak' is first and foremost made up of ideas, and ideas cannot die". That vision, for a society free from le pouvoir is still struggling to find their fullest expression.
Power vacuum remains: consolidate the dual power
The Arab Spring is very instructive on the question of where next for the Hirak movement. Tremendous uprisings and mass mobilisations ended in brutal counter-revolution in Egypt, a ‘democratic transition’ in Tunisia and a bloody war of attrition at the hands of militias and reactionary forces in Yemen and Syria. There is obvious anxiety about any of these routes, as they have not enacted any real change for the masses.
The recent uprisings that shook the world in 2019 – from Sudan to Chile, to Liberia and Hong Kong – have yet again demonstrated the boundless energy of the masses to fight for real change. Those typically apathetic towards politics have had their lives shaken to the very foundation. The Hirak movement has been accompanied by flourishing of cultural activities in the main squares, alongside rigorous discussion in the coffee shops and on the steps of the national theatre. A strong thread of resistance and resilience has captured the country. In the words of the National Liberation Front militant Louisette Ighilahriz, now 83 years of age, she has been partaking in the movement “so that le pouvoir knows that it has betrayed the people; it has betrayed our fight”.
The continuing struggle of Algerians is nothing short of a revolution. The past feelings of weakness and helplessness in the face of le pouvoir have been overcome. Algerians have dramatically entered onto the stage of history. After success in boycotting the election, the question that sharply needs posing is who rules the country: the military and their senile stooges, or the Hirak movement of workers, the poor and the youth?
The fact is that the Algerian ruling class can reconcile themselves to losing Bouteflika, and they can take advantage of that new situation. Toppling the figurehead of the much-hated regime is only the beginning. The popular movement, in order to succeed, must overthrow the old regime by creating a situation of dual power, extending the committees and assemblies, linking them up at a wilaya, regional and national level. The movement of committees and assemblies must be firmly rooted in the workplaces. As Zine Labidine Ghebouli, an Algerian scholar points out: “The future of Algeria depends on the capability of the [Hirak] to organize itself in a way that allows it to represent an alternative to the system”.
The ruling class cannot reconcile themselves, however, to the overthrow of old economic order, by expropriating the commanding heights of the economy. This is what is needed in order for the democratic demands of the movement to be realised.
For a socialist Algeria!
We know what the revolutionaries are against: the regime, its political handmaidens, the economic order of corruption and mismanagement at one end of the pole, and poverty for millions on the other. But these democratic and national demands of the movement are in fact revolutionary tasks: they can only be achieved by breaking with capitalism and imperialism. The regime will never agree to the disbanding of the forces of repression, as we have seen, and will continue to crackdown on the protesters while granting meagre reforms to save face. Improvement in living and working conditions will be of an incomplete character if economic power is left in the hands of le pouvoir. The desperate situation facing Algerians has been accentuated by the coronavirus crisis. But in order for healthcare, housing and livelihoods to see any genuine improvements, the renationalisation of privatised companies and expropriation of the oligarchy and the multinationals must be carried out. These elites have enriched themselves off the back of the working class for over half a century, and the movement has the power to put this to an end if it sets its sights to a socialist future for Algeria.
We can see the potential that is implicit within the objective situation. The committees that have begun to mushroom in workplaces, schools and universities lack coordination over the provinces and nationally, but these could serve as organs of workers’ power in the struggle against the regime. A network of elected representatives, directly recallable to none other than the people themselves, would act as a powerful tool for organisation, and a platform for political discussion to find its resolve. In order to regather their forces, and not lose momentum, the representatives of the movement must categorically rule out negotiating with the regime. Putting the brakes on a movement that threatens the entire political establishment would lead to no meaningful change. There is no discourse or discussion to be had with those that have siphoned off the riches, and shared them among themselves, while throwing down the barest crumbs from the table and repressing the workers and poor for decades.
The energy, initiative and indignation of the workers and youth is the lifeblood of the Hirak movement. This must be harnessed, or else the vision for a better future will fade, and the movement will stagnate, ebb and enter into decline. The watchword must continue to be: out with the regime in its entirety!
Like any movement, the Hirak movement has deficiencies. But nothing is absolutely pre-determined. It also has many strengths, which Touboone and his clique are aware of. There is a need for a Marxist tendency agitating, and patiently explaining within the committees, the workplaces, the schools and universities, that the democratic and national demands can only be achieved if capitalism is done away with. The impetus of a successful anti-capitalist struggle in Algeria would have huge implications for the entire region, and beyond. It would offer the workers of the world a rallying call for socialist revolution.