Yesterday evening, the streets of Algeria erupted with joy after the announcement that the hated, de facto dictator-for-life was withdrawing from the presidential election scheduled for April. “No fifth term for Bouteflika!” was the rallying cry of the masses for weeks. Now it seems that they have achieved their goal.
President Abdulaziz Bouteflika has announced that he will not stand for a fifth term. This withdrawal is a big victory for the masses in action over a regime that did not want to budge. The latest estimate (France24, 11 March) put the number of participants in the daily demonstrations at somewhere between 10 and 15 million at their height, out of a population of 40 million. This scope of these mobilisation has not been seen since the country achieved independence in 1962.
The call for a general strike on social media was also gathering momentum since yesterday. But this sent shockwaves through the ruling class, several layers of which seemed to be abandoning Bouteflika or at least hedging their bets by not supporting him outright. Besides the Imams and judges declaring their newly discovered independence from the regime, the head of the army, in a cryptic message, announced that the army shares the same goals as the people. There can be no doubt: a real political storm has broken out. The ruling class is now trying to manoeuvre in order to regain the initiative. They are afraid that, should they continue their former intransigent position, they would risk being overrun completely by the revolutionary wave. Thus they are trying to give concessions in order to buy time and peace.
But the exaltation of the masses is nevertheless mixed. The decision not to run in the next presidential elections does not mean Bouteflika has resigned. Quite the contrary. It is a manoeuvre of his clan of generals and businessmen to remain in power. The announcement yesterday evening included more measures. The presidential elections have been postponed sine die. No new timetable has been set. A national conference (of whom?) will be convened to establish a new constitution that will be submitted to a referendum at the end of the year. Then, and only then will there be new presidential elections.
But again, no precise dates have been set. Until then, Bouteflika will preside over a technocratic government. This means, in reality, an extended fourth term for the president. Already, hashtags are circulating on the Algerian social media demanding “No extended fourth term”. “Leave means leave” has also quickly become a popular slogan. Ali Dilem, an Algerian cartoonist, drew a caricature of Mr Bouteflika announcing he would not pursue a fifth term. “Instead I’ll do a fourth term of ten years,” the president says.
Other measures confirm the stubborn desire of the ruling clique to stay in power. The government has been reorganised with the aim of strengthening the clan around the president. They know they have to try to deceive in order to stay in power. Intimidation and repression have not worked. So they are trying to win time, instead.
But weeks of mobilisation in defiance of the regime has increased the consciousness of the masses. They have learned more in those weeks than in years of passivity. The victory of yesterday will embolden them. They will want more. Especially the youth (the majority of the Algerians are younger than 30 years) want the whole mafia of bureaucrats, generals and businessmen out of power. “They must all leave” commented young demonstrators yesterday. Already a new day of mobilisation is announced for this Friday 15 March. The battle of Algiers has just begun.
The below article was first published in Arabic on 6 March, before the latest events.
Since 22 February, there have been mass demonstrations throughout Algeria. These are the largest protests since the al-Aroush movement in June 2000. The marches began when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s office announced his intention to run for a fifth term. This proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the accumulated anger of the Algerian youth. Although this movement seemed to appear out of nowhere, it has not been an isolated event. In fact, 2018 has seen a rise in popular struggles, the most prominent of which have been strikes by doctors, education sector workers and the strong popular uprisings in Bashar and Ouargla in southern Algeria.
A turning point
These protests, in their depth, size and combativeness mark a new phase in the history of class struggle in Algeria and the region as a whole. The Algerian regime was able to weather the storm of the revolutions that spread through North Africa and the Middle East since 2011. This was achieved by a combination of material concessions for some layers and by threatening "a return to the years of civil war" that Algeria experienced during the 1990s.
These criminals in the regime have long blackmailed the Algerian people by dredging up “the bloody decade”, during which the army and the Islamists collaborated to wreak havoc throughout the country and to kill at least 200,000 people.
They still repeat the same song against the recent protests.“The price of restoring Algeria's security and stability was huge and it is important to maintain this precious achievement”, said Deputy Defense Minister and Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Ghaid Saleh in a speech after the protests. He added: "Proper, objective thinking must bear consideration of the security accomplished after the bloody years experienced by Algeria, although the price to restore Algeria's security and stability was great..."
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia also did not forget to remind everyone who would listen of this period. He referred to it several times, especially in his speech in parliament. He also used the threat of Syria’s experiences in recent years. What he really means is: "Either surrender and submit to us, or we will unleash the forces of hell upon you.” But the demonstrators responded to him in the streets by saying: "Ouyahia, Algeria is not Syria."
What we see today in the streets of Algeria is evidence that it is now the ruling class who are afraid, while the Algerian people are raising their heads again and regaining their great revolutionary traditions.
Faced with the heroism of the masses, which were not stopped by tear gas, batons and arrests, the ruling gang was forced to make "concessions" quickly, indicating the magnitude of the terror they feel. Immediately after the outbreak of protests, the official news agency announced that Bouteflika had removed his campaign manager and former prime minister Abdelmalek Sallal, replacing him with the current transport minister, Abdelghani Zaalan. But this only led to further protests, because it was seen as nothing but a manoeuvre to maintain the rule of the clique around Bouteflika. Bouteflika himself has disappeared from public life after a stroke he suffered in 2013. It is believed that he is nothing but a puppet, a corpse in the real and political sense of the word, that is controlled by a gang of cronies around him.
On Sunday, the ruling clique issued another statement on behalf of this corpse. It declared Bouteflika’s intention to "not complete his presidential term" if he wins on 18 April, and to "organise early presidential elections" in which he will not be a candidate. And because words are cheap, the authors of that statement promised everything under the sun. They said, in the name of the president:
"I am determined, if the Algerian people elect me again, to assume the historical responsibility to respond to your fundamental demands, that is, regime change."
He also pledged to "prepare a new constitution [...] that enshrines the birth of a new republic and a new Algerian regime," as well as "the establishment of urgent public policies that will allow the equitable redistribution of national wealth, the elimination of all marginalisation and social exclusion ...", etc.
In this way, the ruling clique wants to divide the movement so that it can regain the initiative. But if these gangsters really imagine the Algerian people will believe these promises and be fooled by their manoeuvre, they have lost all contact with reality. This was proved by the Algerian people, who treated the statement with the contempt it deserved and stepped up their protests.
Accident and necessity
The immediate reason behind this popular uprising is the widespread rejection of the nomination of Bouteflika as a presidential candidate for a fifth time. But this was merely an accident that expressed a deeper necessity. A great deal of anger and indignation has accumulated over many years of cuts, looting and repression, waiting under the surface for an opportunity to express itself. This last provocation was the spark that lit the powder keg.
Algeria is a rich country, the largest in Africa (2,381,741 square kilometres), four times the size of France, and its most important source of wealth is its youth, who represent the majority of the population. Under-25s represent 46 percent of the population The unemployment rate has grown from 10.5 percent in 2016 to 11.1 percent in 2018. It has particularly hit young people and women, reaching 26.4 percent among young people aged 16 to 24, and 20 percent among women.
Algeria is also the world's fifth-largest natural gas producer and 13th in oil production. These wellsprings of wealth supplied the state budget during the period between 1999 and 2014 (i.e the reign of Bouteflika) with 750 billion dollars! This kind of money could permanently eliminate poverty and unemployment in the country and rebuild Algeria several times over at all levels, given an economic and political system based on the democratic planning of the economy and popular control over wealth.
However, despite this enormous wealth, Algeria is a country with deep problems. The president's visit to Switzerland for medical checks is one of a thousand indications of this. It demonstrates that, after 25 years of rule, and 57 years of independence, there is still not a single hospital that he trusts to provide him with treatment. The promises made in the ruling clique’s latest statement about its intention: "to develop urgent public policies that would ensure the equitable redistribution of national wealth and eliminate all social marginalisation and exclusion..." are further proof of their own political bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy of the capitalist class and the ruling gang is clearly exposed in their parasitic dependence on oil and natural gas revenues instead of investment in education, infrastructure, industry, the environment, or any other societal good. This has made the country vulnerable to fluctuations in energy prices. Thus, after energy prices fell in the international market from 2014 and onwards, oil revenues fell by 70 percent according to official figures. Foreign currency reserves also fell to 93 billion, from 114 billion in 2016. It is expected to drop to 76 billion in 2020, equivalent to 17 months of imports. The country's debt increased from 20.4 percent as a proportion of GDP in 2016 to 32.9 percent in 2018 and for the first time in quarter of a century, the country recorded a trade deficit - $13.7 billion.
In the wake of these economic setbacks, the government has launched brutal austerity policies, forcing the workers and poor to shoulder the burden of the crisis caused by the policies of the ruling class since independence. They have recently announced that the “Algerian people will have to endure difficult times”. As a ‘solution’ to the mounting economic problems they have resorted to mass layoffs. They also intended to abandon subsidies for many basic goods such as oil, and to reduce the value of the dinar to increasingly make the poor pay for the crisis. Since 2014, the dinar has lost 48 percent of its value compared to the dollar. The inflation rate reached 7.5 percent in 2018.
Along with this economic bankruptcy of the ruling class, we also witness their political bankruptcy. After 20 years of Bouteflika’s rule and more than five decades of independence there is no democratic freedom in Algeria (something even those who wrote Bouteflika's statement had to admit). For example, Algeria is classified by the United Nations as a "non-free country in terms of political freedoms" and in 2017, it ranked 134 (out of 180 countries) concerning press freedom.
The regime is afraid
The regime believed that things were under control and that "order was settled", which was reflected in the arrogance with which they dealt with popular demands and all forms of opposition. Then came this movement, which they did not expect, and whose strength they underestimated. It turned everything upside down.
The dilemma of the ruling gangsters is that they do not have much room to manoeuvre. Unlike in the past, they no longer have billions of dollars on hand to make financial concessions to the masses, especially given the significant decline in oil and gas prices and the amount of waste and corruption rampant in the state.
Their song about "the historical legitimacy", the legitimacy of the Algerian Revolution and the struggle against colonialism, no longer convinces anyone. Everyone knows that they are just a gang that confiscated the rights of the Algerian people, looted the country and turned it into a farm of the imperialist companies, (French, Americans and others), i.e the same crimes that the masses wanted to break with through the revolution.
The criminal blackmail they are waging against the people by "submission to security," by raising the spectre of the "red years" every time they face a mass movement, no longer works, especially on young people, for whom the only terrorism they have known in their lives is the state terrorism. It is possible, that the ruling clique, cornered by these protests may resort to terrorist attacks here and there (or at least to allow them to take place) in order to derail the revolutionary movement. But it is highly unlikely that they would risk returning to the years of civil war after they burned their fingers and their interests were severely damaged.
They are now facing a real impasse. Their retreats before popular demands will reveal their impotence, increase the confidence of the masses and embolden their demands. But the regime’s intransigence threatens to increase public anger, and should the protests draw in new layers and affect more regions, this will deepen the splits at the top. In war, as in chess, there comes a stage where a move in either direction (retreat or attack) could still lead to defeat, and the ruling gang in Algeria has reached this situation.
But they are not the only ones who are afraid of the great rise of the Algerian people. All the regimes of the region feel the heat under their backsides. The Algerian working class is one of the strongest working classes in the region and on the continent as a whole. It has a long history of struggle and great revolutionary traditions. Thus its rise and triumph will inspire all the peoples of the region and the whole continent. Indeed, the masses on the streets of Sudan since February started to raise slogans of solidarity with the movement in Algeria. And the leader of the Rif movement in Morocco, Nasser Zafzafi, sent a message to the Algerian youth from his cell, expressing his solidarity with them.
The imperialists, especially the French, are following these events with concern. This is normal, because what is happening in Algeria certainly affects France. The Algerian regime plays the role of France’s obedient dog in the region amidst the so-called "war on terrorism", and in restricting migration. They also have significant interests in Algeria in terms of investments and trade, the latter of which amounts to $5 billion a year, as Algeria is one of the largest importers of French wheat and an important provider of energy (providing 10 percent of France’s requirement of gas, etc.).
The most important factor is the presence of a large Algerian working class in France, which has a great revolutionary tradition and is involved in the mass struggles that recently broke out in France. They are also following with interest and sympathy events in their country of origin, and are very angry at the complicity between the French ruling class and the ruling gang in Algeria.
What frightens the French ruling class and Algerian gangsters is the possibility that this movement will ignite a new chapter in the revolution throughout the region and extend its sympathy to Europe itself, especially France. Because there is no stable country in the whole region, there are mass protests demanding change everywhere. Between 2017 and 2018, Morocco has seen strong protests in the Rif and Jrada, not to mention many strikes, general strikes and students protests. In recent weeks, it has experienced a movement of protests, headed by teachers on temporary contracts, along with unemployed youth.
Tunisia is also witnessing the outbreak of mass demonstrations against the high price of goods, and various forms of exploitation and oppression. Jordan had seen big protests in June 2018 against an increase in taxes, which led to the overthrow of the government. Iraq has also been hit by strong protests in Basra in July and October. Even Iran has seen protesters take to the streets on several occasions over the past year. Sudan is wracked with major protests right now, which the dictatorial regime of Bashir has not yet succeeded in stopping, despite deploying bullets, arrests and other brutal methods of suppression.
The need for a revolutionary party
The poverty, marginalisation and national oppression experienced by the peoples of the region is the direct result of the capitalist regimes in the region. The Maghreb region is rich in wealth and, under a democratically planned socialist economy, could become a paradise on earth, for the benefit of the peoples of the region as a whole, not for a bunch of thieves as it is today. But this requires the overthrow of capitalism, the destruction of its dictatorial regimes, and a severing of ties with imperialism. In short, it requires a socialist revolution and the seizure of power by the working class.
In Algeria, and all over the region, the masses have repeatedly demonstrated their desire for change and their ability to achieve it. There is no sacrifice that they have been unwilling to make during these last years to change their situation. And with great heroism they have faced repression of all kinds. But the problem is the absence of revolutionary leadership that can unite these struggles and give them a fighting programme.
The reformist leaders of trade unions and left parties are completely corrupt and bankrupt. They have become traitors in the service of the regimes. The only struggle they know is to participate in elections, parliaments and ‘dialogue’: they have abandoned any revolutionary perspective. Many of them have become a tool to pass austerity policies and attacks on the gains and rights of the working class and youth.
Revolutionary youth and Marxist activists must assume the task of building a revolutionary Marxist party, like the Bolshevik Party, which succeeded in 1917 in leading the Russian working class to power, building a state of workers and poor peasant councils. This task is indispensable and urgent, and without which there is no possibility of victory despite all the masses’ great sacrifices, just as the steam evaporates when there is no piston box to direct it. Nobody will do this for us, we must make our own destiny.
In order to do so, we have to trust our class: the working class, which is the only class that creates all the wealth in society. And we must arm ourselves with Marxist ideas, which will enable us to build the necessary forces to lead the struggle to change society and eliminate cruelty, injustice, exploitation and slavery. Only in this way will we live to see the triumph of socialism in Algeria, in North Africa and throughout the world.