Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has withdrawn his bid for a fifth term in office after mass protests spread across the country. On Friday, March 8, there were huge demonstrations. Never before have so many Algerians, including many women, expressed their anger in the streets. Their reaction is entirely legitimate. They could no longer stand the farce of keeping an ill, disabled man at the head of the state while, behind the scenes, the ruling clique of businessmen continued to take over the country’s resources.
The demonstrations attracted mostly workers--young and old, with or without work--as well as students, who are all outraged by what they call “bad life” and by the worsening of their living conditions. The minimum wage is 130 euros per month and many workers don’t even earn that much. Poor living conditions are the rule. Algeria boasts a majority of young people, but a third of them are unemployed. As a consequence, more and more youths aspiring to better conditions put their lives at stake by trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Algeria is oil-rich. But the country’s public services are deteriorating, schools are overcrowded and hospitals have been abandoned. Last summer, there was an outbreak of cholera, a disease caused by poverty. At the same time, rich businessmen continue to suck money out of sectors like oil, gas, construction and import-export. The country’s resources and cheap labor have attracted foreign capitalists such as Renault (cars), Total (oil), Sanofi (pharmaceuticals) and Lafarge (cement) who are far from being ill-treated by Algerian officials.
The protest movement has no doubt created a new situation in Algeria. For one thing, the aim of the regime’s decision to nullify Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term and postpone the presidential election was clearly to put an end to the protests. Rivaling politicians inside the Bouteflika clique will probably reach an agreement and nominate a younger man to succeed him. This would mean changing everything… so that nothing changes. In 2011, the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt raised great hopes. To change things, many protesters were ready to give their lives--and did so. But their hopes were betrayed and power remained in the hands of the wealthy. Egypt for instance simply replaced the previous dictator by a new one.
In Algeria, the danger could come from the army’s attitude. In the past, the military has shown its willingness to carry out horrendous massacres (for instance in October 1988, when the army opened fire on protesting youths from working-class neighborhoods killing hundreds).
Behind the apparent unanimity of today’s protesters, conflicting interests are at work. The majority simply want to have a job allowing them to live a decent life. But those who are already privileged want an even bigger share of the loot, like billionaire Issad Rebrab, owner of Cevital, a food-processing company, or Franco-Algerian businessman Rachid Nekkaz. The race for profitable spots inside the state machine has already started.
Many companies have been affected by strikes, which indicates that Algerian workers are trying to find a way to express their class interests. If they fail to do so, even basic democratic demands might not be met and the “change” would be limited to the name of the new strong man.
Let’s hope that protesters will carry on and will raise more important questions than Bouteflika’s fifth term. They must use their strength to target those who monopolize the wealth produced by working people. These days, Algerian demonstrators are shouting: “They have millions, we are millions”. Indeed, the natural targets of the millions upon millions of oppressed men and women must be the millionaires!
French President Macron is seemingly worried about the situation in Algeria. But he has maintained his support of the Algerian authorities, refusing to take sides with Algerian-born workers living in France who support the protesters. The development of this revolt could inspire workers and spread to other parts of North Africa or to France. Let’s not forget that France and Algeria share a common history, marked by 132 years of colonial domination and looting imposed by the French state on the Algerian people; and by the creation here, in France, of a working class that owes a lot to Algerian immigration.
Workers in Algeria and France have the same interests. Their claims deserve to be asserted on both sides of the Mediterranean. Long live the struggle of our sisters and brothers in Algeria!