Algeria: wave of strikes terrifies the ruling class

As strikes get underway throughout Algeria, the ruling class is yet again retreating in the face of the revolutionary masses. More and more top officials are calling for the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Following yet another million-man march last Friday, a wave of strikes has been spreading in since Monday. The call for a general strike started gaining ground last week on social media, and via a series of trade union organisations. In particular: the UGTA chapters in Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou, as well as the independent public sector union SNAPAP, which called for a three-day general strike for all public sector workers. The strike was also most effective within the sectors represented by these organisations.

On Tuesday, only one day after the strikes started to take shape, the ruling class, which is terrified of a general strike, appeared to give certain concessions. The chief of the Algerian armed forces and Deputy Minister of Defense, Ahmed Gaïd Salah, publicly urged the president to be removed following article 102 of the constitution, which allows for the removal of the president if he is unfit to rule. The masses correctly saw this as another manoeuvre to pull momentum out of the movement.

General strike 2 Image fair useFollowing a million-man march last Friday, a wave of strikes has been spreading in since Monday / Image: fair use

The effect however, was the exact opposite. It only served to imbue the movement with more confidence and defiance. It is clear that the protests which are scheduled tomorrow will be some of the biggest so far. At the same time, it served to concentrate the demands of the movement, which are now fully focused on the removal of not only Bouteflika, but the whole edifice around him. The main slogan of the movement has become: “down with the system”.

Throughout the week, public sector workers have closed down government offices, schools, ports, gas stations etc., and in many places they are being joined by private sector workers. Of course, in a country like Algeria where the state controls a large part of the economy, the effect of such a strike is very significant.

In Tizi Ouzou province, the strike is more or less general, with all government buildings closed down, such as the city hall and the tax offices as well as banks, schools, Sonelgaz gas stations and Naftal offices (the main commercial gas supplier), bringing life in the city to a grinding halt. At the same time, the local UGTA chapter is organising daily marches with thousands of people demanding, on the one hand the downfall of the regime; and on the other, the removal of Abdelmadjid Sidi Said: the general secretary of the UGTA, who until yesterday had refused to back the mass movement against the dictatorship.

The protesters are raising slogans such as "down with the system" and "return UGTA to the workers", "down with Sidi Said", "popular power", "UGTA is Aissat Idir [a UGTA leader during the revolutionary war of independence in the ‘50s], Abdelhak Benhamouda [a former UGTA general secretary who was assassinated in 1997], but not you, Captain Madjid"," yes for an UGTA that defends workers ", "the voice of the people", “respect the popular will", "we are united, you are finished" and "no to foreign interference". The protesters are also taking aim at the newly appointed Prime Minister and his lieutenants, saying "Lamamra, Brahimi, the foreign hands are behind you."

Naftal workers on strike:

A soldier greeting Tizi Ouzou protesters:

March in Tizi Ouzou:

In Bejaia, where the UGTA has also taken the lead in organising the strike, it is general. Effectively, power in the province is in the hands of the trade union movement.

All local government offices are closed and so are the post offices, Naftal gas company offices, Sonelgaz gas stations, CNAS insurance offices, ENPI property offices, the labour inspectorate, tax and financial services offices, tourism crafts, water management, energy companies, transport workers, a series of private enterprises and many more! The Bejaia port, which is the tip of the Hassi Messaoud oil pipeline from the Sahara, making it the most important oil port of the Western Mediterranean, has been shut down by workers demanding the downfall of the regime:

The workers are also joining the students and other groups, who are organising daily marches calling for system change.

Beyond that, in the second city of Algeria, Oran, which is also a key industrial city, strikes are widespread. Apart from the massive public sector strikes, workers at the ports of Oran, as well as the port of Arzew, 40 km from Oran, are on strike, with many of the workers marching to the city itself:

At the Tosyali Algerie steelworks in the industrial zone of Bethioua, more than 1000 workers are striking in support of the revolutionary movement:

Aside from the workers, there are many protests by lower-middle-class layers, such as lawyers and retired army personnel who fought in the civil war in the ‘90s.

Throughout the country, the strike call is being adhered to in varying degrees. In particular, government offices, tax office, Sonelgaz gas stations, Naftal gas distribution offices, banks, Mobilis, Algeria Telecom offices, post offices and other businesses, especially publicly owned entities, have all been shut down to one degree or another. The protests are covering all corners of the country, from Annaba and Constantine, to Tamanrasset, Algiers and Oran. In some areas, such as Boueir, Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, where there has been strong union backing, this is also bringing thousands of people onto the streets.

Annaba:

Bouira:

Sonelgaz:

The main weakness of the strike has been its lack of organisation, which has meant that, in key areas such as Algiers and in the oil and gas sector, the strike is reportedly relatively weak. Nevertheless, in Algiers, there have been reports of strikes, such as in the SNVI truck plant:

However, this was due to the workers in the plant happening to take up the call, and they have little means of spreading the action. In the crucial oil sector, there are several reports of strikes in Sonatrach, in places such as the Hassi R'Mel and Hassi Messaoud oil fields:

Despite not seeing major strikes, thousands of people have been taking to the streets in Algiers throughout the week. Students, football fans, lawyers, teachers, architects, artists magistrates, veterans of the civil war, researchers as well as workers and unemployed youth were on the streets. All of the stress, pain and injustice inflicted upon the masses is now finding an outlet in the arena of the revolution:

Class contradictions within the movement

Before and during the strike, however, a chorus of ‘experts’ and ‘educated’ people, who supposedly support the movement, were campaigning against a general strike. The liberal El Watan, for example, carried a number of articles warning against organising a strike.

In one of these, Said Salhi, Vice President of Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, warned that the call for a general strike had caused "concern”. He said "At this stage, there is no reason to organise a strike…” and that a “minimum service” had to be ensured. He criticised the organisations who called the strike for “putting a fait accompli before [the rest of the movement]."

Of course, he didn’t have any scruples when it came to unilaterally making the decision to discourage a strike, in spite of widespread support for one.

In another article in the same paper, economist Ferhat Aït Ali similarly warned against a strike, painting a black picture of the country running out of electric power, damaging the operations of hospitals and other services. Conveniently forgetting the major trade union bodies who had taken up this call, he warned against “anonymous people on social media” calling for people to take drastic steps. He continued by saying that “this is an act of war, not a challenge” - indirectly blaming the workers for whipping up a civil war. He also said that the strike of tax collectors “is an act of war against any state," and that the logical outcome of this will have to be a “generalised insurrection”.

General strike 3 Image fair useA chorus of ‘educated’ people, who supposedly support the movement, are campaigning against a general strike. This shows that they fear the revolutionary movement more than the reactionary regime / Image: fair use

The fact that the calls for a general strike in some cases have been anonymous, in reality, only means that they reflect a general mood on the ground, where workers and youth see no way forward for the movement by simply taking to the streets every Friday. Said Salhi states in the article above that calling a general strike should be left to the unions. But the problem is that the main union structures are clogged by a suffocating bureaucracy, which is itself a part of the regime. It is not by chance that slogans against Sidi Said, the head of the UGTA, are some of the most popular on the marches.

The working class is champing at the bit to enter the arena of struggle. Seeing all paths blocked in the unions, many workers and youth see social media as a place to connect with other like-minded people. In places such as Tizi Ouzou, Boueira and Bejaia, where the UGTA has taken a lead, the result has been overwhelming support for the strike. What is needed is for the activists of these and similar organisations to coordinate, to spread the strikes and support workers in places where the official structures are not up to the task.

Secondly, these gentlemen argue that the strike will mean disaster for the country, because people will not have food, fuel etc. But this is false. The workers themselves are more than capable of running services to support their communities. For instance, in many areas, Naftal workers have made sure that gas canisters for homes have been available. Similar solutions can no doubt be implemented elsewhere. This does not require a weaker strike, but a stronger one. It requires strike committees from all industries and businesses to link up on a regional and national level to coordinate the strike, and make sure that the people are not made to suffer any negative consequences.

In the end, however Ait Ali hits the nail on its head. For him and his liberal and upper-middle-class friends, this movement is merely a challenge: a negotiation with the people in power. Not a fundamental change. He is content with seeing a few personnel and policies changed at the top - in particular, policies that would open up for privatisation and liberalisation. In this, he reflects the interests of a certain layer of middle-class and business people who are fundamentally not opposed to the system as such, but merely want to be allowed a seat at the table. For them, it is not necessary to overthrow the state, which is infested through and through with people tied to the ruling class. They merely want a space reserved for themselves.

For the working masses however, the situation is different. It is becoming increasingly clear that Bouteflika leaving will not change anything fundamentally. For them, the top state officials are all part of the same group of parasites that has been oppressing them and plundering the wealth of the nation at the expense of the workers, the youth and the poor. The masses are now demanding that Bouteflika’s whole gang and the system they represent be removed.

General strike 4 Image fair useA revolutionary general strike puts the question of power on the agenda. It reveals, in front of the whole population, that workers are the backbone of society / Image: fair use

At the moment, the state is weak, it is incapable of going on the offensive. But it is clear that, at the first possible chance, the ruling class will not hesitate to use the full force of the state apparatus to crush the mass movement. In fact, the army and former Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, made it abundantly clear on several occasions in the past month that, if necessary, they will drag the country down the road of civil war, like the one in the ‘90s, to defend the current regime.

If that is not a declaration of war, then what is? And what was it that changed their minds? The biggest concessions and defections from the regime have come during the two strike movements (10-12 March, and this week). In fact, the general strike, by revealing the might of the working class, is the surest way to maintain a peaceful revolution.

Since the beginning of the strike movement, a whole series of regime insiders have been defecting. First, the head of the army, then the former Prime Minister Ouyahia, and even our dear UGTA head Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, all called for the removal of the president on the basis of article 102 of the constitution. But this will merely transfer power to Algeria's Constitutional Council, which is part of the same cabal of people who have been running society throughout the past period. Obviously, the response was a loud and clear “NO” from the streets. The hangers-on of the ruling class permeate the whole of the state and as long as they remain in this position, they will form a reactionary block against the will of the people.

Faced with a potential general strike, the ruling class is powerless to resist. A revolutionary general strike puts the question of power on the agenda. It reveals, in front of the whole population, that it is the workers who are the backbone of society. As opposed to the oligarchs, top officials and businessmen, who can be disposed of without anyone noticing.

Mr Ait Ali complains about what will happen to the hospitals if the workers strike. But the question he should be asking is: what would happen to the hospitals if it wasn’t for the workers? Day and night, workers, nurses and doctors (who are increasingly proletarianised) toil to overcome the conditions imposed by austerity, and the corruption and incompetence of the ruling class, and their hangers-on in the state bureaucracy. The strike exposes this truth for everyone to see: that hospitals, schools, shops, factories, and indeed, society itself, can function full well, without the bosses. It can be run democratically by working people without the input of ‘experts’ such as Mr Ait Ali. That is why the liberals hate the general strike.

These ‘friends’ of the revolution are happy to talk about democracy when there is nothing at stake, but when the question is posed point blank, they are far more afraid of the revolutionary movement than the reactionary state apparatus, which they merely want to “challenge”. These people form a fifth column inside the revolution. Their aim is not to lead the revolution to victory, but to lead it down safe channels, which will keep Algerian capitalism intact, although possibly with a few new faces at its head.

But for the working masses, the process is different. At each stage, their confidence is growing, along with their political consciousness. Each manoeuvre of the ruling class is merely spurring the movement forward, proving to the workers that they cannot entrust these charlatans with their destinies. In order to strike a decisive blow, however, the strike movement should not be scaled back. It must be strengthened. Striking workplaces must set up coordination committees and link them up with other revolutionary committees on a regional and national level.

Through these, a concerted effort must be made to spread the strikes to all major industries and cities - in particular, Algiers. At the same time, delegates should be sent to the barracks to try to win over the soldiers to the revolution. In this way, it is not only possible to break the ruling elite, it also lays the foundations for a future, democratic, workers' state.