Algeria, the sleeping giant of the Arab world, has awoken. In a country where open dissent was rare, tens of thousands have taken to the streets across the country, demanding an end to decades of despotism. This, in a country where street protests have been illegal for decades. What is behind this recent turn of events?
Recently it was announced that the ailing, half-dead, octogenarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was running for a fifth term as president in the April 2019 elections. This is in spite of the fact that he has hardly been seen in public since a stroke he suffered in 2013. This has left him incapacitated and unable to govern the country. He is effectively a stooge in the hands of ‘le pouvoir’ (‘the power’), the shadowy cabal of generals and intelligence officials that has ruled Algeria since independence in 1962. In particular his brother, Caid Bouteflika, and other aggrandising ancillaries in the crooked court that is the Algerian deep state, are suspected of being the real governors of the country.
A system rotten from top to bottom
Algeria is effectively a military-police dictatorship with a smiling, civilian face. The presence of ‘le pouvoir’ is ubiquitous. Ordinary Algerians have long chafed under the weight of the dictatorship and its suppression of independent political activity. The corruption and greed of the Algerian ruling class has long been public knowledge. Like so many throughout the Arab world, the Algerian masses are burdened with poverty, inequality and high unemployment. The economic crisis has worsened ever since the collapse of oil prices in the last few years. Far from attending to the urgent problems of the masses, the state has simply been a tool for the enrichment of a few elites connected to the ruling FLN party.
The regime has been able to stave off dissent partly through brute force, partly through fear mongering. The devastating civil war of 1991-2002 saw hundreds of thousands of deaths and the reduction of much of the country to rubble. The civil war was triggered by the military cancelling a free election in which the Islamist opposition were set to unseat the FLN. This blatant coup encouraged an Islamist insurgency, which struggled, in vain, to seize power, before collapsing in the face of brutal military repression. Bouteflika, then a senior member of the military junta, was pushed forward as the army’s candidate for the presidency, which he won in 1999, succeeding Liamine Zeroual.
After Bouteflika came to power, high oil prices allowed him and the the Algerian ruling class stabilise the country and also foster the growth of a prosperous Algerian bourgeoisie. The state legitimises its rule by referring to its leading role in the liberation struggle against France. The legacy of the anticolonial struggle of Algerian peasants and workers has been shamelessly and cynically appropriated for demagogic purposes by the gangsters and swindlers who currently run the country.
During the Arab Spring, Algeria remained quiet. The masses, haunted by the memory of the carnage of past years, opted to stay away from the streets. However, the price for peace and quiet has been the suspension of any meaningful democratic freedoms. Repression and surveillance exists on an astronomical scale. Elections are shams, in which the FLN easily trounces any ‘opposition’. The clique of businessmen and generals in the FLN continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the population. This has been accelerated by the liberalisation of the economy, in which generous management contracts have been awarded to cronies of the president and his supporters.
Disgusted by the open corruption of their rulers, the mounting tensions and contradictions in Algerian society have come to a head. A new generation of young Algerians that are not traumatised by the memory of the brutal civil war, and have no feeling of loyalty to the venal ruling party or state, have been at the forefront of protests. Demonstrations began on 22 February, when Bouteflika first announced his plans to run for a fifth term in office. Or more accurately, when his handlers announced on behalf of the mute, wheelchair-bound invalid that their puppet president would run for another term.
On 3 March, Bouteflika’s campaign manager formally submitted his candidacy. Candidates are usually expected to do so in person, but Bouteflika was in fact in Geneva for what were described as ‘routine medical checks’. In fact, the man is as near death as it is possible to be, and it was reported on 9 March that he had been moved to intensive care. This Sunday, he returned to the capital amid angry protests against his continued rule. A letter from Bouteflika was read out on state television whilst he was abroad, in which he promised to step down within a year if elected for a fifth term. This promise is regarded with contempt by most Algerians, who have no reason to trust in a regime that has promised much and delivered little.
The protests have so far been largely peaceful. Many believe that the army will refuse to use brute force to suppress the uprising. The scars of the civil war are deep enough that few soldiers will want to precipitate another bloodbath by firing on their own citizens, least of all to save the political career of a dying man. Splits within the ruling class have emerged. Some members of the ruling party have called upon Bouteflika to step down. The head of the army has delivered an official statement on the situation. Despite its cryptic nature, it is seen as sympathetic with the demands of the protesters. This is a sign that ‘le pouvoir’ is losing patience with its frontman, and is perhaps preparing to ditch Bouteflika in favour of a younger, more energetic figure who can diffuse tensions by promising political change.
The Algerian masses should not fall for the ‘bait-and-switch’ which the regime will most likely try to enact. The example of Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia shows that, when confronted with the wrath of the masses, the elites will simply change their existing personnel for young and friendly faces promising reform, but providing little meaningful change. The military are not genuinely interested in democracy or improving the lives of the masses, but in protecting their own privileges. If they see Bouteflika as a liability, they will not hesitate to dump him and put up a fresher face, perhaps a businessman, as his replacement.
Only socialism offers a way forward
The demonstrations have involved people from all sections of society – workers, students, teachers and even lawyers. A general strike is currently underway, and students have walked out of classes, prompting the government to bring forward the date of the annual spring break. With such a cross-section of the Algerian population involved, it is undeniable that this is at the very least a pre-revolutionary situation.
The opposition has one main weakness – it is divided. Islamist, liberal secularists and socialists all compete for authority over the opposition movement. It was an Islamist victory in the elections of 1988 that triggered the military coup, which saw the outbreak of civil war and years of bloodshed. As reactionary as the role of the military was on that occasion, Islamism does not provide a way out either. It is a reactionary ideology that simply serves to legitimise the injustices of capitalism by giving it a pious face.
The Islamists were able to capitalise on the resentment and anger felt by Algerian workers and the declining legitimacy of the regime. This regime had managed to put in place a social security system by the aid of the nationalisation of the economy in the early years of independence, when the country was effectively run by what Ted Grant called a “proletarian Bonapartist” state. This had given the regime a solid base of support among the Algerian workers and peasants, which was also derived from the authority of military officers and politicians that had led the liberation struggle against France. Like other oil-rich nations such as Venezuela, however, Algeria found itself unable to continue sustaining this once oil prices dropped, forcing it to conduct brutal austerity policies that lost it support from its mass base. This left a vacuum in which an organised Islamist movement developed. That particular episode ended in a bloodbath.
The liberal secularists offer no solutions, either. As decrepit and reactionary as the regime is, Bouteflika and his advisors have held back on a lot of the promised liberalisation of the economy. Recently, the president vetoed an attempt by his prime minister to force through a wide-ranging programme of privatisation, to the dismay of that wing of the Algerian ruling class which wants an acceleration of free-market reforms. A ‘liberal’ regime, despite its smiling, democratic face, would simply accelerate the programme of privatisation, deregulation and marketisation which has caused so much misery for ordinary Algerians.
At the moment, Algeria is in an uncomfortable halfway position between the state-run economy of the ‘70s and a more neoliberal economy, a position that is unsustainable. Elements within the ruling class would like to push for yet more liberalisation. The clique around Bouteflika, however, rightly fears the social disruption that such policies would cause, policies that would inflame public resentment. It is no coincidence that the president vetoed these measures shortly before announcing his bid for a fifth term. A ‘liberal’ regime would simply open the country to being plundered and pillaged by Western corporations. Such policies would be pursued under extreme pressure from the world market, as foreign investment would be needed to make up for the collapse of oil prices. These measures would further devastate the living standards of ordinary Algerians, pushing them into the arms of right-wing populists like the Algerian Islamists. The resulting turmoil could even precipitate yet another military coup, with the army stepping in under the pretext of ‘restoring order’. This will bring Algeria right back to where it started.
There is no way out under capitalism. These bourgeois forces can only occupy the space they are in because there is no strong, revolutionary, working-class movement and leadership. The task of building such a force is the most important one at this stage. The only answer to the plight of the Algerian people is socialism.
The policies of past Algerian governments in the ‘60s and ‘70s, despite the important role given to the state, were not authentically socialist. They were top-down, bureaucratic measures in which the working-class had no democratic oversight over nationalised industries. The Algerian masses must not merely overthrow Bouteflika, but the whole rotten capitalist system, which is the source of Algeria’s misery. In place of this untenable halfway house, a democratic, planned economy controlled by the workers and peasants of Algeria must be put in place. This will involve nationalising the commanding heights of the Algerian economy, which will only be possible on the basis of the overthrow of the bourgeois state in favour of a workers’ state. The Algerian revolutionaries must purge the army of all reactionary elements, turning it into a workers’ and peasants’ militia. They must put Bouteflika and his cronies on trial for human rights abuses. And they must recover the millions of dollars embezzled by corrupt officials and ensure a thorough accounting of state finances.
For a Marxist leadership!
On the basis of the planned economy, investment in schools, hospitals and industrial production can begin on an unprecedented scale. This will provide jobs, healthcare and a decent standard of living for all. Algeria has so much potential to be a shining beacon of socialism in Africa and the Arab world, given its youthful, educated population and its cosmopolitan traditions. The Algerian masses are rediscovering their revolutionary history, reclaiming it from those who have appropriated its legacy to justify their tyranny and self-interest. A successful revolution in Algeria would inspire the masses in neighbouring Tunisia, also struggling against a failed ‘liberal’, ‘democratic’ regime that has overseen declining living standards and continued misery and poverty. It would also inspire the masses of Morocco to rise up against their own autocratic monarchy. They could then unite with Algeria to form a North African Socialist Federation, which could grow to encompass Libya and even Egypt in the near future.
Naturally, all this is impossible without the right leadership. Within Algeria, there a Marxist party must be built that can patiently explain to the masses the tasks that they must rise to fulfil. The fragmented, largely middle-class, official opposition can offer no way out. It will by no means be an automatic process, but the work should begin as soon as possible, before the opportunity is lost. The position of the army remains uncertain, they appear to be waiting on events. Most likely, as mentioned, they will attempt to replace Bouteflika with a younger stooge that can placate the demonstrators with vague and insincere promises of reform.
The Algerian masses must stand firm. They must accept no guarantees or promises of reform, but demand the wholesale abolition of the rotten and morally bankrupt system. They have shown that they are the only ones who are capable of changing society and pushing it forward. They cannot trust the empty promises of the ruling clique. They cannot trust in any other power than their own. The movement cannot stop here, it must push further to the downfall of Bouteflika and the whole rotten edifice built around his rule.
Long live the Algerian people!
Down with Bouteflika!
For a socialist Algeria!