Call for a
Constituent Assembly? Constitutional Tinkering Will Not
Put an End to Capitalist Misery – For a Workers and
Against the Military Regime!
Sweep Away All the Bourgeois Clans and Overthrow the Capitalist System!
More than a million Algerians have taken to the streets on several occasions in the hirak ("citizens movement") against “the system.” Above: protest against Bouteflika regime in Algiers, March 24.
The following article is translated from a supplement to L’Internationaliste
(May 2019), publication of the League for the Fourth
International. For the French language original, click here.
APRIL 24 – Hundreds of thousands of Algerians have taken to the streets every Friday since February 22 – we are already up to the ninth round. More than a million demonstrators have come out on several occasions. These are undoubtedly the most important demonstrations since independence in 1962 and have extended to the farthest reaches of the country, with women and young people playing a prominent role. There is talk of a “February 22 Revolution.” This is an illusion, in the same way that the uprisings that overthrew Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt (in 2011) were described as a revolution, only to be followed by the rise of the Islamists, and then the return of the military.
People chant, “System get lost!” Yes, it’s a whole system, not just a president or a clan. Nor is it only the absence of (bourgeois) “democracy.” But whether it’s corrupt cronies or powerful generals, they will never leave power willingly – they must be overthrown. After the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2, dictated by the generals under pressure from the street, the Algerian regime (colloquially known as le pouvoir, or “the power”) is regrouping. This system of massive unemployment and low wages, of all-encompassing repression, is called capitalism, and to sweep it away we need an internationalist, socialist workers revolution. It is up to the most dedicated militants to forge the necessary revolutionary leadership.
And not only in Algeria: across Africa, from Sudan and Mali to South Africa, there are struggles to bring down entrenched governments that have been in power for decades. In the imperialist metropoles we see populist movements such as the “yellow vests” in France, sometimes on the left but more often on the right, which are a distorted response to the ravages of the capitalist economic crisis that have lasted since the stock market crash of 2008. In the absence of a revolutionary leadership that fights against the real cause of the unrest and the destitution of those at the bottom, namely the rule of capital, the populists seek scapegoats, be it the banks or immigrants.
In Algeria, the immediate impetus for the protests was given by President Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term. Since “Boutef” has hardly been seen in public or heard from since a stroke in 2013 (which didn’t stop his fourth term!), it became bitter joke that Algerians were ruled by a picture frame. Of course, it was clear to all that there was a whole corrupt clan propping up this invisible and mute mummy. But to get rid of these parasites, it will take a lot more than good-natured weekly mobilizations.
The pent-up anger against the hogra – the arrogant contempt of the ruling class for the population it claims to represent – finally broke through at the national level. At the same time, haunted by the nearly 150,000 deaths of the civil war that raged from 1991 to 1999 between Islamic reactionaries and a murderous army, and well aware that this army stands firmly behind the “decision-makers” (the networks of bureaucrats and businessmen who feed off the misery of Algeria), demonstrators have repeatedly stressed the peaceful nature of their demonstrations.
Thus, ultimately, the aspirations of the masses for a truly honest and democratic regime are counting on the goodwill of at least a section of the armed forces. General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, chief of staff of the ANP (the National People’s Army), ordered the arrest of several important figures from Bouteflika’s entourage. However, the army is playing cat and mouse with the demonstrations and can at any time resort to massive repression if protesters continue to challenge the military’s transition plans. The strategic task thus posed is how to transform the nascent popular uprising into a workers revolution.
The examples of Tunisia and Egypt show that cosmetic policy changes only lead to a dangerous stalemate. We asked at the time, “What happened to the ‘Arab Spring’”? Our answer:
“Democratic demands can mobilize millions in overthrowing bonapartist military/police rule. But in this era of capitalist decay, as imperialist rulers systematically destroy democratic gains of the past, from trade-union rights to public education, they will not and cannot tolerate even limited bourgeois democracy for those who toil in the workshops of ‘globalized’ capitalism. If one semi-colonial dictatorship is overthrown, it will be replaced by another, slightly reformulated anti-democratic regime so long as the weak bourgeois ruling class dependent on imperialism remains in power.”
–“Storm Over the Middle East,” special issue of The Internationalist, Summer 2012
President Bouteflika with General Gaid Salah presiding over a military parade in 2012.
As the popular movement has been organized on a weekly basis like the “yellow vests” in France, Bouteflika’s handlers initially similarly borrowed from French president Macron’s containment policy: in mid-March it was announced that he would not run again and would eventually step down after “consulting” the population on future changes. No one bought it.
In late March, General Gaïd Salah was obliged to step in, proposing that the Constitutional Council declare Bouteflika unfit for office, as provided for in Article 102 of the Algerian Constitution. The speaker of the parliament’s upper house, Abdelkader Bensalah, would then serve as caretaker president. But Bensalah is a known stooge of the Bouteflika gang, so that did not in any way reduce the size of the demonstrations.
Gaïd Salah repeated his “suggestion” on March 30, this time adding that any attempt to “undermine” the army would be a “red line” not to be crossed. On April 2, Bouteflika finally resigned. Salah, himself a former protege of Bouteflika, began purging the secret police agencies of Bouteflika’s supporters to bring those agencies back under the direct control of the army, in effect streamlining the repressive apparatus.
Some protesters have counterposed Article 7 of the Constitution, according to which “the people are the source of all power,” to the provisions of Article 102, but this is really just abstract rhetoric. Another call was raised to purge the famous three “Bs” – Bensalah, Tayeb Belaiz (president of the Constitutional Council) and Noureddine Bedoui (head of the interim government). Belaiz has now resigned and the ministers of this “government” have had a hostile reception wherever they go. But driving out the corrupt politicians one-by-one would be a never-ending process.
Presidential elections are now set for July and, although sentiment for boycotting them seems to be steadily growing, the generals could still impose them. It was symptomatic of the isolation of the Bouteflika clique that the initial mass marches were not met with instant police repression. But Gaïd Salah’s recent statement that the demonstrations were under the “protection” of the army was perhaps more threatening than reassuring. The announcement in El-Djeich (the voice of the army) on April 5 that the armed forces would support “the legitimate demands clearly expressed by the people” gives the high command plenty of room for maneuver.
Recent incidents indicate that the army is losing patience with protesters. On Tuesday, April 9, as students were preparing to march on the center of Algiers, as they had done since the beginning of the movement, they were attacked and arrested by the police. On Friday, April 12, riot police in the center of Algiers fired tear gas grenades at densely packed crowds, which included children and elderly people. Even groups leaving the demonstration to return home were teargassed, and plainclothes police chased young protesters in the streets. The following week, on Tuesday, April 16, shock troops from the Investigation and Intervention Brigade were sent to the Faculty of Law of the University of Algiers to break up a student demonstration.
A particularly chilling event was the arrest of protesting youth on Saturday, April 13, in the square in front of the main post office, the site of the weekly student demonstrations. The ten arrested members of the Democratic and Social Movement (MDS, successor to the former pro-Soviet Stalinist party, PAGS) and the Youth Action Rally (RAJ, a civil rights association) were taken to a police station located 20 kilometers outside Algiers. The four women arrested were subjected to a strip search – a despicable act of humiliation, and a clear warning to the entire left.
In the last two days internal quarrels at the top of the repressive organs have intensified. General Gaïd Salah has issued warnings and threats against the hard core of the Bouteflika clan’s supporters, the DRS (Department of Intelligence and Security, now called the Department of Surveillance and Security after a cosmetic reorganization). At the same time, the army chief of staff complains of the actions of the masses who have chased away ministers and declares that it is necessary to “defeat” those who work for “destabilization,” that he will impose a “peaceful transition”, that there will be presidential elections in July, period. He wants to “end the game,” as the headlines say. “Game over”1 in reverse? We think not.
A Constituent Assembly Under Military Tutelage?
The condemnation of the “system” and of the entire regime is both widespread and deep, but has no positive agenda other than a nebulous desire for a new form of government. Neither a political leadership nor any organs of struggle have emerged. There are some slogans hostile to General Gaïd Salah, but they are far from universal. Although most of the protesters are young and from the “popular classes,” the presence of various professions, from lawyers and university professors to journalists and judges, has also played an important role.
The movement has been fueled by labor strikes and work stoppages, but these have not turned into a general strike, and the stoppages sometimes had the character of a multi-class “civic” mobilization. Even the billionaire Issad Rebrab, whose industrial group Cevital (metallurgy and agribusiness) is the largest private enterprise in the country, entered the game and joined the demonstrations. But workers on strike at the Metal Structures plant near Bouira are only the latest victims of ruthless exploitation by Cevital.
General Gaïd Salah rounded up the “usual suspects,” businessmen linked to the Bouteflika clan, such as Ali Haddad, president of the FCE (Business Leadership Forum), who was detained at the Tunisian border while trying to flee the country. But to accuse this clique just of plundering the country or even throwing Algerian oil money on megalomaniacal projects, like the huge $ 4 billion Algiers mosque, is to seek to divert attention from the far larger crimes of Bouteflika and his regime, in which state capitalism cohabits with a rapacious crony capitalism.
Especially following the counterrevolutionary overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991-1992, Algerian governments, as pawns of imperialism, imposed the so-called “neoliberal” policies of privatization and austerity for workers, following the International Monetary Fund’s playbook. This already began under General Zeroual, the predecessor of “Boutef.” After the attempt to industrialize the country by using oil revenues to buy state-owned “turnkey” factories proved to be a failure, the turn to the “free market” was led by the Islamists
In the fall of 1988, after a revolt of urban youth which was repressed at a cost of more than 500 lives, the regime initially undertook to loosen up the political system by establishing a multi-party regime. The immediate beneficiaries were the Islamists, which led to intervention by the army after their victory in the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991. The generals sought to preserve their monopoly of power at any price. However, following a cruel civil war, the army installed Bouteflika as president to work for reconciliation with Islamist reactionaries and pursue their “free market” policies.
Thus a future government controlled by the military could continue, or even strengthen, privatization and austerity measures under the pretext of breaking with the “system.” Since the year 2000 there have been tens of thousands of protests against rising food prices, unemployment and widespread corruption – the same causes of the protests this spring of 2019. Southern Algeria has been wracked by strikes in oil installations. However, they were suffocated due to their relative isolation, as well as by bonuses and coupons provided by the regime. The same strategy of cooptation and repression could be followed today.
The two main government parties, the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Democratic Rally (RND) are largely discredited. This is also the case of the bogus opposition parties, based mainly in Kabylia, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Socialist Forces Front (FFS). The latter, despite its name, is a bourgeois party that supports a “social market economy”. In addition, there is the Workers Party (PT), falsely termed “Trotskyist”, which has previously given “critical support” to Bouteflika, and rather uncritical support for his policy of “national reconciliation” with the Islamists.
It must be emphasized that this system is designed to the satisfaction of the military power at the heart of the regime. The FLN is played off against the RND, the FFS against the RCD, while the PT provides “anti-imperialist” background noises, as the pro-Moscow Stalinist party did (under the pretext of breaking with the “system”) before its collapse. Nevertheless, these too all are discredited. One of the main arguments for constitutional reform is that it is high time to reduce presidential power. But a more traditional parliamentary system would also be subject to manipulation by the generals, and any pretense of achieving “democracy” in the semi-colonial framework will be illusory.
Currently, these three opposition parties are trumpeting the slogan of a constituent assembly, in order to redo the Constitution. They deliberately spread illusions about the role of the army. On March 30, the first secretary of the FFS declared that the army must “bend to the will of the overwhelming majority of the Algerian people,” that it “must ... be a guarantor of the good progress of the democratic transition and cannot in any case influence its ins and outs.” But then, none of these parties has ever been a real opponent of the “system.” In fact, Louisa Hanoune, the main leader of the PT, had previously called on Bouteflika himself (in 2004) to organize a national congress to form a constituent assembly!
The Social Democrats of the Socialist Workers Party (PST), historically associated with the United Secretariat (USec) of Ernest Mandel, have joined in these frauds. Like their French co-thinkers who founded the NPA (New Anti-Capitalist Party), they abandoned their “Trotskyist” rhetoric for more traditional reformism. The PST does not even claim that a Constituent Assembly would be the first step towards some kind of “socialism.” For them, the last stop on their trolley is called “sovereign constituent assembly representing our democratic and social aspirations” (Statement of the PST, April 21).
Worse still, the PST concocts pseudo-Marxist arguments about how the bourgeois officer corps could become part of the “revolution.” For example, an article on the PST website, “Legal Debate and the Challenge of Transition” (March 28), envisages the possibility “of political conditions allowing the popular forces to bring most of the armed forces into the ranks of the revolution ... allowing the country to move from military rule to a democratic civilian government.” A dangerous and even suicidal illusion! These anti-Trotskyists are advocating a constituent assembly under military tutelage!!
Compared to these docile “constitutional” social democrats who seek to play the role of the Kadets (the Constitutional Democrats) in the Russian Revolution, even the call for a “truly democratic and popular revolutionary government” by the vestigial Stalinists in Alger Républicain (3 April) seems quite a bit to their left.
During the elections for Bouteflika’s second term in 2004, we of the League for the Fourth International wrote that in a country like Algeria, “dominated for decades by an authoritarian regime which considers itself unmovable, one cannot exclude the possibility of calling a constituent assembly in response to the thirst for democracy of the working masses.” We stressed, however: “But for this to have a revolutionary content, it is necessary to first establish the revolutionary power of the working people.” Not only does this precondition not currently exist in Algeria, today the demand for a constituent assembly would serve as a cover for a reorganized military regime subordinated to imperialism. As we said at the time:
“Can a ‘democratic’ assembly under bourgeois domination resolve the burning linguistic and regional issues that have shaken Algeria or crush the Islamic fundamentalist reactionaries? Impossible! It is a criminal illusion to imagine that a stable parliamentary democracy can be established in a country like Algeria, where a tiny layer of rich capitalists and corrupt bureaucrats, supported by the army, exercises its domination over the pauperized masses on behalf of imperialism. The army won't be kicked out of power by an impotent ‘democratic’ assembly; to accomplish this a working-class counter-power must be organized, based on councils of workers and peasants, soviets, with their own workers militias – and then the armed forces that defend capital will begin to come apart. The proletariat must fight, with independent class struggle, for the broadest democratic rights as an integral part of the fight for proletarian power, and not in an illusory attempt to achieve ‘democracy’ without overthrowing the capitalist state.”
–“Algeria: Rigged Elections and Workers Resistance to the Capitalist Offensive,” The Internationalist No. 18, May-June 2004
The Working Class Must Defend All the Oppressed
A few weeks after the start of the hirak (the “citizens movement”), Amazigh (Berber) flags appeared in the demonstrations, including in the capital. An article in El Watan (20 April) refers to failed attempts by police to seize these flags and sow divisions among the protesters. What kind of mockery of “democratization” would it be that is incapable of clearly and firmly opposing the policy of Arabization imposed by the Algerian government? This reactionary policy is not only a brutal negation of the democratic rights of the Berbers, it has always paved the way for Islamist reactionaries. In 1999, Bouteflika boasted that Tamazight (the Berber language) would never be an official language, that this demand was a balloon that he would pop.
Nevertheless, after the revolt in Kabylia in 2001, during which 130 people were victims of repression, the next year Bouteflika was forced to include Berber as an official language. This, however, has not been carried out, and there have been many student protests demanding that Tamazight education be funded. In the twilight of his reign, Bouteflika reconfirmed Berber as an “official language” (but not a “state” language) and even made Yennayer, the Berber New Year, a holiday. These are rather empty symbolic gestures.
In the words of Lenin, genuine revolutionaries demand “absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language” (“Critical Remarks on the National Question” ). We of the League for the Fourth International demand equal rights for Arabic (including the popular language, as opposed to literary Arabic), Tamazight and French. Against the poison of nationalism, it is necessary to forge the unity of the entire Algerian working class precisely on the basis of the defense of the Kabyles and their democratic rights, including their right to self-determination. This does not mean, however, that we are calling at this moment for independence for Kabylia.
The 2001 crackdown in Kabylia led to the creation of the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia (MAK). After 2010, “Autonomy” became “Self-Determination” as the MAK began to demand independence. Some Amazigh nationalists are now urging abstention from the ongoing struggle, saying that the Kabyles were strongly involved in the struggle for Algeria’s independence from France, but got nothing out of it. Their calculations would be to form a small Kabyle state against a hostile (or indifferent) Algerian majority, which supposes the patronage of one or another imperialist power – a suicidal illusion.
There is another independence movement, the Union for a Kabyle Republic, which split from the MAK. Both organizations have been targets of a veritable witch hunt in recent times, while the regime’s repressive bodies have carried out brutal arrests (with the acquiescence of bourgeois parties like the FFS and the RCD) following pro-independence meetings. We strongly denounce this new wave of attacks on Kabyle militants. However, the more moderate Rally for Kabylia, which also separated from the MAK and seeks a negotiated federal solution, presumes the goodwill of the central government in what it hopes would be a stable bourgeois democracy – an impossibility in a country dominated by imperialism. Such a solution could only be envisaged under a workers’ state.
The defense of women’s rights is fundamental to any conception of democracy, but it is not included in the main slogans of supporters of a “Second Republic.” The struggle for the liberation of women is a strategic issue for the revolution, in Algeria as elsewhere. Trotskyists demand the abolition of the paternalistic family code, full equality of rights between men and women, and complete separation between religion and the state. Homosexuals are also victims of the bourgeois moral order. A medical student was slaughtered in Algiers in February for allegedly being a homosexual. We say: Down with Article 333 of the Constitution which outlaws homosexuality!
We fight for the right to free abortion on demand, including for minors, and for a free, high quality medical system, accessible to all. The integration of women into social labor should be facilitated by measures such as 24-hour free daycare and equal pay for equal work. It is not just a matter of democratic rights, but attacking the very roots of Islamic reaction. Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a planned and collectivized economic system can emancipate women from domestic slavery. In fact, all basic democratic rights can only be secured by proletarian revolution.
Algerian history since independence shows that bourgeois nationalism has led only to a bonapartist regime, which has neither broken the grip of imperialism, nor achieved real economic development, nor realized democratic gains for women and other oppressed sectors. This again confirmed Trotsky’s theory and program of permanent revolution, which drew lessons from the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and October 1917: in colonial and semi-colonial countries, as in the case of Algeria, a weak bourgeoisie is incapable of realizing even bourgeois-democratic tasks, and it is incumbent upon the working class, led by a Bolshevik Party, to put itself at the head of all the oppressed to accomplish the democratic tasks by establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will undertake socialist tasks.
For Genuine Trotskyism in Algeria!
On March 2, it was reported in the Algerian press that Louisa Hanoune, leader of the Workers’ Party, was chased out of the demonstration in Algiers as a stooge of Bouteflika. Hanoune participated in the negotiations of Sant’ Egidio in 1995 and signed a joint platform with the FLN, the FFS and both “moderate” and hardline Islamists supporting Bouteflika’s policy of “national reconciliation.” According to a biographical article in Jeune Afrique (22 April 2016), Bouteflika offered Hanoune a ministerial post in 2000 and very much regretted her refusal. Like the French Stalinists regarding the popular front of 1936, she undoubtedly thought that she could be more useful as external support to the government, a murderous Bonapartist regime.
Hanoune met with General Gaïd Salah on 13 February 2014, and then issued a statement affirming “the need to preserve the unity of the military institution and its cohesion in the face of any attempt at division likely to undermine the stability of the country and pave the way for foreign interference.” The PT then praised “the proven experience of the army in the fight against terrorism, which is a source of pride for the Algerian people” (Algeria1, 15 February 2014).
All the PT’s speeches about “continuing the revolutionary mobilization” and setting up popular committees to prepare a constituent assembly (perhaps drawing up lists of concerns and demands, as Bouteflika initially proposed) while opposing military interference in politics look like a desperate attempt to avoid going down with a sinking ship. As protégés of the French group of the late Pierre Lambert, which abandoned Trotskyism and degenerated into reformism more than 40 years ago, the PT is a social-democratic formation down to its roots. In the recent split of the Lambertist Parti Ouvrier Indépendant (POI, Independent Labor Party) in France, the Algerian PT joined the Gauquelin (Lacaze) faction. The Gluckstein faction, in the person of historian Jean-Jacques Marie, now suddenly claims to be shocked, shocked by the pro-Bouteflika antics of the PT.
The liberal social democrats of the PST are already theorizing about a new Algerian military regime. The article cited above, which originally appeared in À l’encontre (March 30), a theoretical review published by the NPA under the title “Algeria: The Army, the Juridical and Constitutional Debate for a ‘Controlled Transition’ and the Dynamics of the Popular Uprising Against ‘the System’,” written by Nadir Djermoune, was subsequently published on the PST website. It approvingly quotes the Algerian sociologist Yazid Ben Hounet, who insists that the Algerian army does not come from a distinct ethnic group, like the Syrian army, and does not constitute a “distinct social class” as in Egypt. The conclusion of the sociologist, we kid you not, is that the current role of the army “is that of accompanying this peaceful revolution, rather than that of repression or confiscation of this democratic momentum “
As thousands of demonstrators chant “Djeich – chaab, Khawa – khawa” (people and army together, all brothers), instead of warning that the army is not a “friend of the people,” these reformists are feeding dangerous illusions. The Algerian officer corps is even favorably compared to the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal in the 1970s, and the conclusion by this member of the national leadership of the PST is that one can envisage a “partial analogy” with a “Portuguese scenario.” In fact, the opportunism of the “far left” at the time, which lined up behind various military factions (pro-Stalinist or with the manifestly counter-revolutionary Social Democrats), helped to wreck a truly revolutionary opportunity in which the construction of proletarian organs of dual power was concretely posed. But the current policy of the PST is much farther to the right than the opportunists of the 1970s.
The dangerous nonsense of the PST is echoed in the declaration of solidarity of the “International Bureau of the Fourth International” (the former USec), which praises “popular sovereignty” – a deeply anti-Marxist concept – and the “renaissance of the Algerian revolution.”. At that time, in the early 1960s, Mandel’s followers justified their support for the FLN by claiming that petty-bourgeois nationalists were building a “workers and peasants government” and would eliminate capitalism under the sway of an inevitable “dynamic” objective process. But this “Algerian Revolution” has proved mythical. The objectivist opportunism of yesterday has ended up defending bourgeois democracy and spreading illusions about an army won over to a peaceful revolution.
The Algerian masses desperately need a revolutionary leadership armed with a genuinely Trotskyist program, which understands that in order to win and extend even basic democratic rights, capitalism must be overthrown by organs of proletarian power. Against the bourgeois nationalism of the opportunist left, such a revolutionary workers party built on the basis of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Bolshevik program would counterpose proletarian internationalism, fighting for a socialist revolution that would spread throughout the Maghreb (northwest Africa) and into the heart of the imperialist centers.
The revolution in Algeria must also be linked to the struggle of the workers in the former colonial power, France. In the former colonial metropole, which is still eager to maintain its “sphere of influence” in Africa, it is crucial to fight against the divisions within the working class fomented by the racist government of Macron (and its predecessors), as well as for full citizenship rights for immigrants and the right of asylum for those fleeing imperialist devastation. The revolutionary unity between French and Algerian workers is decisive for the future of the class struggle in both countries, underlining the urgency of the struggle for a reforged Fourth International, world party of the socialist revolution. ■
Throw Off the UGTA’s Stranglehold on the Working Class!
Against State-Controlled “Trade
Forge a Revolutionary Leadership
Around 2,000 workers of the National Society of Industrial Vehicles (SNVI) in Rouiba, on March 18, have called for the departure of UNTA leader Sidi Said, to say no to a fifth presidential term for Bouteflika, and to demand the end of the "System".
The following article is translated from the supplement to L’Internationaliste (May 2019).
In the framework of the protests which began on February 22 against a fifth presidential term for Bouteflika and turned into the hirak (citizens movement) against “the system,” the action of the working class so far has been mainly one of support for the popular protests rather than acting as a working-class vanguard. There have been walkouts and strikes over specific demands. What is needed, however, is a mobilization of the enormous power of the workers to sweep away this moribund regime and open the road for a genuine revolution against the capitalist system. May Day could herald the beginning of such a mobilization. What matters then will be to arm it with a revolutionary leadership.
Local labor struggles have increased in recent years, particularly in the south. As long as they remained localized, the government was ready to buy them off using its oil revenues. The protests that began in 2017 against an increase in the sales tax were more worrying for the bourgeoisie. Then, in early 2018, there was an effective teachers’ strike, led by unions independent of the official confederation, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA). But it did not ultimately succeed, having been declared illegal. A new strike in the education sector was planned for this year when the movement against Bouteflika’s candidacy broke out.
After three weeks of demonstrations, anonymous calls for a general strike began circulating on the Internet. On Sunday, March 10, no train, local or long-distance, left the stations of Algiers. The metro, trolleys and buses were also shut down by strikes. High schools across the country have been closed by strikes. In the port of Béjaïa, in Kabylia, the strike was particularly effective, including in schools and public offices, but also in the food industry (the sugar and oil factories of Cevital). However, there was no follow-up and the strike movement did not give rise to an organizational framework capable of extending and generalizing it.
Strikes have also been reported on the sites of SONATRACH, the state oil company. Workers in the industrial area of Rouiba, near Algiers, including the SNVI auto and bus assembly plant, also walked out. A week later, a strike at the SONATRACH natural gas field in Hassi R’mel was confirmed. On Sunday, March 24, municipal employees across the country went on strike. In addition to calling for Bouteflika’s departure, the strikers in Algiers, Blida and Constantine also demanded salary increases, as well as improvements in the areas of health, housing and education. Strikes were renewed in various sectors during that week. From March 29 in the wilaya (prefecture) of Tizi Ouzou in Kabylia there was a strike in public offices and banks, schools and SONELGAZ gas stations.
One of the strikes that was not a direct result of the anti-Bouteflika movement was a “wildcat” strike in the Tosyali steel plant in Béthouia, near Oran. The morning shift started protesting over a suicide attempt by a factory worker after management told him that his latest short-term contract (his fourth) would run out after six months instead of a year. Thousands of other factory workers have similar short-term contracts. The workers blocked the factory, stopped the mill and circulated a petition denouncing the local UGTA as collaborator of factory management. They also demanded a 100% increase in base wages, increases in individual and collective bonuses, and the end of “unfair” dismissals.
It remains to be seen if the strikes to support the popular movement will trigger a class offensive. Mass unemployment and the proliferation of short-term contracts mean that the working class is on the defensive. Despite its militancy, the Algerian proletariat has been betrayed on all sides, unable to bring together its struggles in a unified counter-offensive and present itself as an alternative to the regime, or to provide a way out for the plebeian masses, especially the desperate youth of the country. The main reason for this failure is the grip of the UGTA’s dead hand on the working class. Far from mobilizing the workers to defend their interests against capitalist attacks, this corporatist organization and its corrupt apparatus have been the instrument of one government after another to prevent the workers’ struggle.
UGTA: An Obstacle to Mobilizing the Workers
During the March 8 march for International Women's Day, protesters demand the ouster of President Bouteflika and also denounce UNTA leader Sidi Said.
In El Watan (18 April) there appeared an article, “Historic Mobilization of Trade Unionists Outside UGTA Headquarters: Sidi Saïd Told to ‘Get Out’.” In demanding the departure of the leadership of the confederation, they would have us believe that there was a degeneration of the UGTA starting with the arrival of Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, who turned it into a simple device at the service of the bosses, and that it must now be put back on the path laid down by its founders in the service of the workers. What a lie! The UGTA is not a workers union born of the struggles of the exploited. On the contrary, it is an obstacle to workers’ defensive economic struggles. It is an emanation of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists of the National Liberation Front in the struggle for independence, and then became part of the state apparatus as a mass organization of the FLN (see The Internationalist No. 18, May-June 2004).
While all pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracies tend to integrate with the bourgeois state in the imperialist era, the UGTA is an integral part of the machinery of bourgeois repression whose task is to prevent the formation and growth of working-class trade unions. The end of the FLN’s political monopoly after 1988 opened up a new field of maneuver for the UGTA bureaucrats: from then on, they maintained links with all three bourgeois parties that make up the system: mainly the RND (which they helped found ) along with the FLN and the RCD. The corporatist system thereby became more flexible, but it has not been abolished. Competing unions were theoretically possible, but in practice they were rarely registered; at best, they are simply tolerated.
Under Sidi Said (“Captain Madjid”), the UGTA at first mobilized behind Bouteflika’s candidacy, then backed General Gaïd Salah in opposing the protests. To be sure, in this troubled period there have been some manifestations of dissent. In Kabylia, UGTA locals organized marches chanting slogans such as “Down with Sidi Said” and “Give the UGTA to the Workers.” The April 17 demonstration of about a thousand trade unionists in front of the UGTA headquarters in Algiers to demand the ouster of Sidi Said was supported by the representatives of the PT. To justify their turn, these semi-official social democrats appeal to the dogma of the French social democracy (the Amiens Charter) according to which political parties worry about elections whereas the unions deal with economic problems, a distinction which is particularly absurd in Algeria.
The trade unionists quoted in the El Watan article are activists of Louisa Hanoune’s PT. After taking advantage of all the financial privileges and acting as a parasititical appendix of the regime, having supported all the bourgeois gangster cliques, from “Boutef” to Sidi Said, today, in the face of the mass revolt, they want to restore their image by tailing after the popular movement. However, workers don’t have short memories.
The PT is not alone on the left in seeking to “democratize” the UGTA. La Riposte (29 March) of Allan Woods’ International Marxist Tendency, in an article announcing that “The Algerian Revolution Has Begun!” tries to peddle the lie that UGTA is “the powerful workers union of the country,” whereas its real role has been to stifle the struggles of the workers. Movements to reform the UGTA are also enthusiastically backed by the PST. This is not surprising, since the PST is itself part of the UGTA bureaucracy (although other PST activists are leaders of independent teacher unions).
The predecessors of the PST even claimed in the 1970s, when the UGTA was part of the one-party regime of the FLN, that the UGTA could have a “class struggle leadership.” It is frankly impossible to claim that the UGTA has only recently become a tool of government. The reformists look back to Aissat Idir, one of the founders of the UGTA during the war of independence in the 1950s. The UGTA declared then that its task would not be to defend the interests of the working class, but rather to be an instrument of the nationalist movement which was being transformed into a new ruling class, “passing from the stage of making demands to the taking of responsibilities” (L’Ouvrier Algérien, August 7, 1962).
Today, the PST joins the call (April 22) for a “huge national rally on May 1 in Algiers to reclaim the UGTA for the workers and demand the immediate and unconditional departure of the national secretariat and of its secretary-general,” Sidi Said. An article on the French NPA website, “Algeria: on the dissidence in the UGTA and strikes” (17 April) refers to a “rebellion” inside the confederation. There are allegedly some dissident sectors of the leadership that would be ready to throw Sidi Said overboard, just as the generals sacrificed Bouteflika. Moreover, the social democrats of the PST are linking their call to reform the state-controlled “union” to the maximum program of a constituent assembly, without a single mention of a struggle for socialist revolution.
If under the pressure of the street and in the course of a convulsive class struggle part of the bureaucracy of the UGTA should break away and join a union organization independent of the state apparatus, it will not be thanks to the class-collaborationists of the PT and PST. And such a step would emphasize even more the need to forge a truly revolutionary leadership.
As for the independent unions, which have some support in the education and health sectors – they have now joined together in the Confederation of Algerian Trade Unions (CSA), which even includes imams (Islamic clerics) as government employees. They remain anemic, and not just because of their semi-legal status. They function as auxiliaries rather than irreconcilable enemies of the UGTA and are open to state patronage. We note in particular that the SNAPAP receives support from the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, which operates at the international level as a trade union branch of U.S. imperialism, funded directly by the government.
The question of independence from the bourgeois state is not simply a tactical issue, but a political one. As Trotsky pointed out, “in the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can really be independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.” For many currents that claim to be Trotskyist, this is at most a ritual formula that they cite on rare occasions when they want to give themselves a left cover while they continue their reformist daily work.
For the Algerian proletariat, on the other hand, organizational and political independence from the capitalist state and all wings of the bourgeoisie is decisive for transforming the struggle against the regime into a movement for workers revolution to overthrow the capitalist system. This is precisely why the League for the Fourth International insists on the need to forge the nucleus of a revolutionary and internationalist workers party that fights for a workers and peasants government and the extension of the revolution to the entire African continent and inside the imperialist metropoles. ■
- 1. A message in a video game indicating the player has lost. In the demonstrations that brought down Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, demonstrators carried homemade signs saying (in English) “game over.”