The Algerian Revolution: “leave means leave!”

Yesterday, millions of Algerians took to the streets for the fourth consecutive Friday to protest against the regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. According to initial accounts, the protests were even bigger than the record protests that shook the regime last Friday (8 March). Long accustomed to carrying out all of its crimes with impunity, the regime is now being forced to realise that the revolutionary masses are not going to give up easily.

Despite all attempts by the ruling clique to stifle and sabotage the movement, tens-of-thousands of Algerians started taking to the streets from the morning. In every neighbourhood, school, university and workplace, the masses had been preparing. In Algiers and other major towns, the police had tried to block all the major arteries within and leading to the city, but by the afternoon, millions of people had swallowed them up. All the main streets of the city center were packed, and it was the same in other cities and towns:

The regime was left paralysed by the force of the mass movement. From Algiers, to Constantine, from Oran to Tamassat in the deep south, the huge protests occurred in all corners of the country, demanding the resignation of Bouteflika, the end of corruption and cronyism. The protesters carried slogans such as “No to extension [of the president’s fourth term]”, “The decision [is] of the people”, “Leave means leave”, "For a rule of law based on legitimacy", "To not respect the Constitution is a crime", "Neither Bedoui nor Said, no prolongation!" In Tamassat, a large banner on the street read, “No to Washington, no to Paris, we appoint the president!”:

The masses losing their fear

The movement is maturing by the day. Where previously the demands were centred around Bouteflika’s candidacy, more and more slogans are being aimed at the regime as a whole. One large banner in Algiers depicting a series of regime kingpins read: “Every traitor will come to an end”. Another read: “I tried this regime [which also means ‘diet’ in French] and I didn’t lose weight, so I will change my regime.” At the same time slogans referring back to the revolutionary anti-colonial struggle is being revived although this time aimed at what used to be the main organisation of that movement, the FLN.

Today cop in Béjaïa supports protests Image Lotfi DKSymptomatically, a video of a policeman joining the movement in the industrial town of Bejaia has been shared widely / Image: Lotfi DK

On Thursday, the army made a threatening statement to those planning to go on the protests, saying that it would preserve security "in all circumstances and conditions”. But it was clear that the movement today presented too much of a challenge, and the armed forces were forced to restrain themselves. It is clear that, had the generals intervened directly against the movement today, they would risk breaking the army along class lines. Symptomatically, the video of a policeman joining the movement in the industrial town of Bejaia has been shared tens of thousands of times during the day.

At the same time, the strike movement that started last Sunday appears to be continuing. Throughout the week, teachers and students at all levels of the education sector and across the country had been on strike, along with many other layers such as magistrates, small business owners, civil servants etc. Most importantly, however, is the oil and gas sector, which accounts for 35 percent of Algeria’s GDP. Here, the state-owned Sonatrach company - which is also the largest business in Africa - had threatened all of its workers with grave consequences in the event of "any gathering of any kind or [collective] stoppage of work, [even if only] short-term". Nevertheless, workers across the sector, in the oil and gas fields in such places as Hassi Alramel, Hassi Messaoud and other petrochemical hubs, reportedly came out on strike in open defiance:

There are several videos circulating online from Hassi Martin and Hassi Ramel, showing mass protests on the streets: the biggest protests these areas have ever seen. This is a key development:

A revolution unfolding

The movement erupted on 22 February, when Bouteflika announced that he would stand for a fifth term as president of the republic. Barring the corruption and authoritarian nature of his regime, the outrage of the masses is compounded by the fact that Bouteflika has been more-or-less vegetative since he suffered a stroke in 2013. However, lulled into a false sense of confidence, the cabal of generals, businessmen and state bureaucrats who use him as an empty vessel for their rule, thought they could go about their usual business with impunity. Dialectically, however, this was one insult too many, and decades of pent-up anger and frustration at the degenerate regime bubbled towards the surface. Initially, these gentlemen thought they could react to upheavals as usual, by threatening to drag the country down a bloody civil war such as the one in Syria, or that Algeria itself witnessed in the ‘90s. But the defiant youth on the streets replied with the slogan: “this is not Syria”. They have had enough.

The head of UGTA (The General Union of Algerian Workers), Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, who is close to Bouteflika, warned (the ruling class) about the rising mood of anger amongst the working class. This was also reflected in a statement by the UGTA branches in the large industrial suburbs of Algier, Rouiba and Reghaia, saying that, "the members do not want a system that is linked to the oligarchs."

All of this came to a head last week, starting with a multi-million-man day of protests on 8 March, followed by a widespread call for a general strike. This strike movement started to materialise on Sunday 10 March. At first, individual groups of workers went on strike, coordinating only on an individual level and via social media. But throughout Sunday and Monday, the vast majority of the local chapters of the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), defying their regime-friendly leadership, joined in. The strike swept through the country, hitting ports, car plants, trains, metros, agri-businesses, shops, schools, and, most importantly, the oil and gas sector, which saw major disruptions.

As the confidence of the masses was rising, the ruling class began to wobble. FLN veterans of the anti-colonial struggle, organised in the National Organisation of Mujahideen stated that, "it is the duty of Algerian society in all its segments to take to the streets." Imams throughout the country refused to carry pro-regime sermons, and 1,000 judges said they would not legitimise an election if it went ahead with Bouteflika in the race. Even the army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has been rabidly opposed to the movement, threatening it at every occasion came out on Sunday saying that “the people and the army have a common vision for the future”.

The decisive factor in all of this, was the entrance of the working class onto the arena as an organised force. In the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, it was exactly the developing general strikes that dealt the final blow to the ailing dictators. Seeing that the Algerian working class was moving in the same direction, the regime quickly withdrew. What these gentlemen fear the most is that the working class should realise its own power and potential. That is, that it should realise it does not need the capitalists, the oligarchs, the state bureaucracy and the generals to run society.

The regime manoeuvers

Manoeuvring for time, Bouteflika (or rather, the people who speak in his name), announced that he would not stand for a fifth term. Instead, the elections would be postponed (indefinitely) while a national “conference” is organised where a new constitution will be drafted. He also dismissed the former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and appointed a new one, Noureddine Bedoui; as well as a Deputy Prime Minister, Ramtane Lamamra.

Aimed at throwing dust in the eyes of the movement, these measures don’t change anything. Noureddine Bedoui is supposed to be a more “human” and likable face than Ouyahia, but that is ludicrous considering the former Interior Minister is also known as “Minister of Oppression” for his brutal treatment of protesters and strikers in his previous position. This is also an attempt to share power at the top, with Bedoui representing the intelligence agencies and the state bureaucracy, while Lamamra, who is also close to Bouteflika, represents the “liberal-democratic” business community. Bedoui has promised a new “inclusive” government within days, saying that this government will include young people - as if the main grievance of the masses is the age of the ministers. The point is that there is an unbridgeable gulf dividing the interests of the workers, the poor and the unemployed from those of the parasitic oligarchs, state bureaucrats and generals. No reshuffle of the cabinet, regardless of age, will change that fact.

The so-called National Conference is supposed to be led by Lakhdar Brahimi, who holds no official position, but who for years has been a career diplomat in the UN. But one protester, who reflects the general mood towards Brahimi, held up a sign reading: “Who are you?”

Young man protesting Who are you Image Presse AlgerieThe so-called National Conference is supposed to be led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the attitude towards whom is reflected in this placard held by a young protester, which reads: “Who are you?” / Image: Presse Algerie

None of these measures, in fact, changed anything. As many have correctly pointed out, now instead of a fifth term Bouteflika is poised for a fourth term with no end in sight even though according to the constitution, he can no longer rule legally beyond April 28.

Radicalisation

The only aim of this manoeuvre was, on the one hand, to divide and disorientate the movement, and on the other to buy time for the regime to regroup in order to strike back. But as in every other turn of this movement, the regime miscalculated. The masses were outraged at the blatant manoeuvring of the ruling class. At the same time, the movement gained a tremendous amount of confidence by seeing how they made the regime bow to it by taking radical, collective measures.

While the general strike movement did ebb slightly, the protests did not end - far from it. Throughout the week, tens-of-thousands of teachers and students struck and took to the streets on a daily basis. In fact, to deter students from meeting up, the regime announced university holidays until 4 April. Joining the youth on the streets, new layers came out every day. As one protester said:

“We did not want a presidential election that would inevitably lead to Bouteflika’s fifth term, and now we have Bouteflika but with no election.”

The manoeuvre of the regime had the opposite of the intended effect. It radicalised the masses who previously were mainly concerned with Bouteflika, but who are now increasingly aiming their wrath at the system as a whole. The regime, by contrast, is scrambling to find a foothold, with more and more insiders defecting every day. Hocine Kheldoun, a regime insider and former minister, reportedly came out against Bouteflika saying: "Game over. Bouteflika has no choice but to quit now." It is clear that panic reigns behind the scenes.

At the top, the ruling class is desperate to restore some sort of stability, but it has two major problems. Firstly, any real (living) candidate to replace Bouteflika would disrupt the equilibrium of the power-sharing arrangements behind the half-dead corpse of Bouteflika. And secondly, any major retreat in the present situation would imbue the masses with confidence, which would be an obstacle for the regime moving forward.

French imperialism

Behind the domestic capitalists, French imperialism is equally concerned. Emmanuel Macron, who only a few weeks ago was supporting the reactionary Venezuelan opposition on “democratic” grounds, does not seem to have any qualms about supporting the degenerate, civilian-military dictatorship in Algeria. Initially, he was seen tacitly to support Bouteflika by refusing to comment on the irregularities of the election campaign and the crackdown on protesters. After Bouteflika’s announcement on Monday, however, he commended the move, while at the same time calling for “a transition of reasonable length (!)”, which goes exactly against the wishes of the Algerian people, while falling in line with the Algerian ruling class.

The Algerian masses responded to Macron with slogans such as “Macron, leave”, with a general opinion of: “we do not ask France and the US to accompany us, or to give us lessons and guidance, we just ask for France to provide us with the list of illegally acquired assets and bank accounts of its agents so we can recover the sums and to charge them accordingly". At the same time as tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets in France, the movement in Algeria threw its support behind the French yellow vests. In this way, the class lines are being sharpened on an intercontinental level.

It is a damning condemnation of the FLN, once the standard bearer of the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, that it is now little more than the agent of French imperialism itself. It goes to show the limitations of the revolutionary struggle for democratic rights, if it is not carried over into a struggle for socialism.

Dead end of the regime

Algeria is often described as the country which, magically, avoided the Arab Spring. In reality, Algeria was one of the first countries to enter a revolutionary course at the end of 2010, when thousands of youth took to the streets against their miserable conditions. This was followed by a strike wave during the spring of 2011. But the regime managed to regain control due to a number of factors. Firstly, the regime still held a certain legitimacy due to its revolutionary past. Secondly, the regime used the memory of the terrible civil war of the 1990s to threaten the masses, in particular the older generation. Thirdly, and most importantly, the regime could lean on the high oil prices and buy social peace, by giving big economic concessions. In fact, public spending increased by 25 percent! With the rising size of the population and the sharp decline of oil prices in 2014, however, this rentier economy could not last. Cuts and austerity were put back on the agenda. Over 90 percent of Algerian households are reported to have seen their living standards fall since 2014. This led to a wave of strikes and protests over the past two years.

What all of this really reflects is the dead-end of Algerian capitalism. In a country awash with human and natural resources, one-third of the population earns less than $1.25 per day. Average purchasing power is reported to have fallen by up to 60 percent since 2014. Meanwhile unemployment, officially, remains above 10 percent, while it is around 30 percent amongst the youth. All of this is compounded by the never-ending corruption, greed and arrogance of the ruling clique, which has amassed enormous riches.

For years, it bullied its way around Algeria, scheming, stealing and murdering as it deemed fit. But this time was one too many. All of the pent up contradictions of the previous period are coming to the surface now. The masses are entering the scene of politics and, as the regime is experiencing every day, the laws that applied to the previous period no longer hold. Under the hammer blows of events, mass consciousness is quickly catching up.

The regime is trying to buy time and to undermine the momentum of the movement. In this way, it is bidding for time to strike back. The only way to counteract this is by the movement taking resolute steps forward. For this, the entrance of the working class onto the scene is decisive. The strike movement which has been bubbling away must be stepped up. Strike committees must be set up with elected delegates in every school, factory and workplace. These must be connected on a regional and national level to strike the final blow to the regime. Once the working class begins to move, no force on the planet can stop it. In the Tunisian Revolution the regime fell after three days of national mass strikes. In Egypt, it took two days of nationwide strikes before Mubarak was overthrown. These are the examples to follow.

The revolution comes at a time when all other countries in the region are yet again teetering on the brink of a revolutionary explosion. If the Bouteflika regime is toppled, it will send shock-waves throughout the region, reigniting the Arab Revolution.

The regime has no legitimacy left. It is nothing but a small group of parasites who play no productive role whatsoever. The so-called opposition is nothing but junior partners of these people. The only people who toil every day to make Algerian society function are the workers and peasants. Only by overthrowing the capitalist class and taking power in their own hands can they end their plight and take society forward.