Algeria is undergoing a period of dramatic popular resistance to an authoritarian regime in power for decades. In Emma Wilde Botta’s second blogpost, she focuses on the construction of Algeria’s political order, the dynamics of the current crisis, and an assessment of the ongoing impasse.
By Emma Wilde Botta
The Algerian people are again rising up in a struggle for democracy, continuing their long tradition of popular resistance to authoritarianism. In April, the 20-year reign of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to an end following weeks of massive street protests demanding his resignation. Now, the army generals are attempting to settle the crisis on their own terms and maintain autocratic rule. But the new balance of forces imposed by the streets has stalled these efforts. Algeria stands at a political impasse as a timid military regime faces a persistent but indecisive popular movement.
Algeria’s uprising has been animated by the basic idea that people living in a democratic state should have the power to elect their president through fair and free elections. Since independence, an opaque clique of army generals, businessmen, and bureaucrats – often referred to as le pouvoir (‘the power’) – have ruled Algeria. Bouteflika became president in 1999, but he functioned largely as a figurehead, implementing the decisions of le pouvoir. Popular discontent, economic stagnation, and rising unemployment have challenged the regime. In February, the long simmering political crisis erupted into an on-going uprising.
The development of ‘le pouvoir’
After Algeria’s independence from France, the first civilian president, Ahmed Ben Bella, and the military, headed by Houari Boumedienne, constructed a political system out of the destruction and trauma of the war. They attempted to address social issues by bolstering public institutions and establishing free health care, under the banner of ‘socialism.’ However, the formation of the political order had more to do with cementing military rule than establishing workers’ power.
In 1965, Ben Bella was deposed in a coup, ushering in decades of military rule. Resting on its revolutionary laurels, the army enjoyed a measure of popular support. However, demands for democracy grew louder and, in 1988, week-long riots erupted, driven in part by economic grievances. The army leadership was forced to implement constitutional reforms including ending the single-party system and recognizing the right to form unions and political organizations.
With the ban on political parties lifted, other forces were able to contest for power in the electoral arena. In 1990, when an Islamist party won a majority of parliamentary seats, the military declared a state of emergency and deposed sitting president Chali Bendjedid. A nearly ten-year bloody civil war ensued between the army and Islamists. In the 1999 presidential elections, the military establishment selected former minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika as their candidate, and he won on the basis of bringing peace to the country.
Bouteflika’s election coincided with a rise in oil and gas prices. This revenue financed generous social benefits, food subsidies, and lifted the standard of living for many Algerians. In 2004, Bouteflika was re-elected in a landslide. The oil and gas sector has become critical to the country’s economy, accounting for 20 percent of the gross domestic product and 85 percent of total exports. The regime has repeatedly used its massive oil wealth to increase social spending in times of unrest in an effort to pacify civil conflict.
Oil and gas money also facilitated the development of an extensive patronage system that enriched the upper strata of the military. Rampant corruption allowed a tiny elite to accumulate colossal wealth. Bouteflika ruled in partnership with the army generals and bureaucrats that had controlled the country since 1965. When his second term ended, parliament changed the constitution so that he could legally run for a third term.
As the Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011, Algerians protested against food prices, unemployment, and the state of emergency that had been in place for over 19 years. To avoid a revolutionary escalation, like in Tunisia or Egypt, Bouteflika lifted the state of emergency and granted economic concessions, temporarily quelling unrest.
But in 2014, oil and gas prices fell. In response, the regime implemented austerity measures, slashing social services and starving public health care and education. Unemployment rose to over 25% in a country where 70 percent of the population are younger than 30. A diminished social safety net combined with rising rates of unemployment fuelled popular discontent.
Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013 and has rarely been seen in public since. Despite this, he won a fourth presidential term in 2014. It was becoming more and more apparent that the charade of elections was concealing an entrenched power structure based on the military.
The 2019 popular movement
By the end of 2018, discontent with Bouteflika’s regime ran deep. Calls for demonstrations in the Bab El Oued neighbourhood of Algiers in mid-December went unheeded, but they foreshadowed what the new year would bring.
The announcement in early February that Bouteflika would seek a fifth term was the final straw. The possibility of another term for the ailing president was humiliating and an affront to people’s sense of democracy. Rabah Bouberras, a 32-year-old shopkeeper from the suburbs of Algiers, told The New York Times, ‘We’re not hungry. It’s a question of dignity.’
Protests spread to other cities. On Tuesday 19 February, thousands rallied in Kherrata to oppose his candidacy. In Khenela, demonstrators ripped down a poster of Bouteflika in an act of rebellion that would be repeated across the country. On Friday, the revolt swelled. Over 800,000 people demonstrated across the nation. The following Tuesday, thousands of students rallied in Algiers and several other cities.
The movement exploded in the third week with an estimated 3 million people mobilizing on 8 March, International Women’s Day. In a meagre bid to appease protesters, Bouteflika promised to cut his fifth term short and call for elections within a year if he won re-election in April.
This was too little too late. Protests continued and an anonymous call was issued for a 5-day general strike. On 10 March, the regime reported that Bouteflika would not seek a fifth term but would stay in office until political reforms were implemented. Unsatisfied and outraged, massive crowds descended on Algiers on 15 March for the fourth Friday in a row in the largest demonstration yet. Algerian revolutionary hero Djamila Bouhired encouraged young protesters, saying, ‘Your elders liberated Algeria from colonial domination, and you are giving back to Algerians their liberties and their pride despoiled since independence.’
As the movement entered its fifth week, the upper strata of the military recognized the danger posed to the entire regime. General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, the army chief of staff and a long-time ally of the President, called for Bouteflika to step down due to poor health per article 102 of the constitution. If Boutefika would not, Salah proposed that the Constitutional Council declare him unfit on live TV. Boutefika’s billionaire allies began to abandon him as well.
On 2 April, the state news agency reported that Bouteflika had resigned. Under the terms of Algeria’s constitution, upper house speaker Abdelkader Bensalah was appointed interim president, and elections were scheduled for 4 July. The military leadership hoped this would be accepted as a path towards normalcy. Quick elections would allow them to reconsolidate their power.
But they underestimated the consciousness of the movement. The streets responded with ‘yetnahaw ga3’ (all of them will be removed) and demanded no elections until all Bouteflika-era officials, including Bensalah and Salah, were removed. The revolt, sparked by opposition to a figurehead, had developed into a systematic critique of the entire political order. Popular slogans such as ‘the system must go’ and ‘thieves you have destroyed the country’ reflected the growing demand for radical social and political change.
General Salah called for dialogue with the movement but was rebuffed. The president of Rally for Youth Action rejected the offer, saying he refused to negotiate with ‘symbols of the old system.’ In July, interim President Bensalah also called for dialogue, but protesters demanded the release of political prisoners and the resignation of all Bouteflika-era figures as preconditions. They chanted, ‘We will not be fooled by any dialogue. The people are conscious. They are not idiots.’
Alongside calls for dialogue, the ruling clique attempted to quell dissent and reconsolidate power by sacrificing regime officials and corrupt businessmen. In April, the military arrested several billionaires. A month later, the high level arrests continued and included Bouteflika’s brother and close advisor Said Bouteflika, former Secret Service head General Mohamed Mediene ‘Toufik’, and intelligence chief Athman Tartag.
Thus far, the regime has tactically avoided sending in the army to squash the nonviolent uprising. Ordering soldiers to harm fellow, peaceful citizens risks a breakdown in military discipline, and a soldiers’ revolt could bring down the whole system.
Despite the absence of army intervention, police and security forces have increasingly used repressive measures to deter crowds including tear gas and water cannons. At least one protester has died due to injuries inflicted by police.
Nature of the protests + organized labour
The revolution has attracted broad layers of society. The demand to end Bouteflika’s rule united people from all walks of life – working class youth, students, and women.
At their peak, the weekly protests brought out nearly 10 million people, about a quarter of the population. Nourdine Nana, a 59-year-old shopkeeper, told a journalist, ‘This is the first time we’ve all been together since 1962 [the date of Algeria’s independence] and it’s all because of Bouteflika.’ The demonstrations have been peaceful, joyous, creative celebrations of resistance.
Women have participated at an unprecedented level, the majority being young, urban, and highly educated. Many are demanding gender equality and the abolition of the oppressive Family Code. Artists have used their work to encourage protest and reflect the popular energy of the movement. New songs have become street anthems. The lyrics from rapper Soolking’s song Liberté, ‘Freedom, freedom, freedom, it is first in our hearts,’ have been tagged on walls across the country.
Industrial workers have been involved more as individuals than as an organized collective. Discontent has primarily been expressed in the streets rather than the workplace. The mid-March call for the 5-day general strike largely went unrealized. However, individual groups of workers did initiate workplace actions, and rank and file members of the official union defied their leadership and joined in.
Though revolutionary consciousness pervades the streets, the lack of an opposition coalition has hampered the movement. No organized force has emerged as the ‘organic leadership’ of the uprising. As a largely ‘leaderless’ movement, it has adopted a more horizontal nature, refusing official political intervention. Decades of corruption have fostered widespread mistrust of political parties and politicians.
Nascent organizing efforts to oppose Bouteflika existed prior to the 2019 uprising. In 2018, as worsening economic conditions fostered unrest, opposition political parties, citizen groups, and individuals founded the Mouwatana (citizenship) movement focused on discouraging Bouteflika from seeking a fifth term. However, neither the Mouwatana movement nor similar organizations have become notably influential among the masses.
There have been several, formal initiatives to bring together the movement and chart a way forward. On 15 June, a civil society conference invited 40 organizations and called for a transitional period of a year. While a conference on 6 July was attended by around 600 prominent Algerians and attempted to lay out a roadmap to new elections. The conference failed to take a critical stand against the military or directly call for the interim president to step down, instead suggesting dialogue. The movement dismissed the forum, led by a former diplomat and minister, as an attempt to undermine radical change. In mid-July, the president of the Civil Forum for Change proposed a list of experts with reputations for neutrality and without political ambition to mediate a political transition.
However, these civil society organizations (CSOs) lack legitimacy. Activist Nassim Balla explained, ‘People are used to regarding CSOs as receptacles of bad behaviour and corruption, as organisations that serve a handful of individuals intent on profiteering or building their own political career. Most Algerians do not trust them at all’.
The dearth of independent, dynamic civil society and political organizations is directly linked to decades of repression by the regime. When the ban on political parties was lifted following the 1988 riots, the regime moved to neutralize opposition parties, rendering them mostly symbolic. The left-wing parties that do exist are small, weak, and have been unable to take advantage of this political opening. Like in Sudan, the movement in the streets is not fighting under the banner of the Left.
The continuation of weekly student protests indicates that the student movement, long a target of the regime, has grown stronger and larger. The summer holidays have not dampened the momentum. Yassine, a 23 year old student, explained, ‘Despite the hot weather and the summer holiday, we are here in masses to stress that nothing will stop us as long as Bouteflika’s regime is still ruling.’
Protests continue uninterrupted in a weekly rhythm, but they have not developed into sit-ins or strikes. Organized labour has yet to become a decisive factor in the uprising. This is due in part to the regime’s efforts to significantly weaken unions. The official labour unions, including the largest union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), have been co-opted and unable to function in the interests of workers. In an encouraging sign, the rank and file has been fighting to democratize the UGTA.
Independent labour unions have been involved in the movement from the start. However, they have failed to set a militant lead. On 27 April, rather than calling for a general strike to pressure the military to yield, a confederation of independent unions issued a broadly worded statement calling for ‘dialogue’ with ‘political powers’ and a ‘democratic transition’ while echoing the demand for a ‘radical change of the system.’
International powers have responded cautiously to events in Algeria. The European Union and the United States issued vague statements about respecting the rule of law and the rights of citizens. Iran and the Gulf monarchies have no major investments nor significant strategic interests in Algeria, unlike in Syria where they intervened swiftly. However, if the generals do move to take control in Algeria, international powers will inevitably swing behind the counterrevolution. The establishment of a military dictator to manage Algeria’s oil industry is preferable to the alternative of a (messy) democratic transition.
The Algerian uprising has inspired international solidarity among ordinary people. Activists in France and Tunisia have organized demonstrations in solidarity with the Algerian people. On 8 March, over 10,000 people in Paris rallied to support the uprising. A day later, hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated their solidarity.
Algerian scholar and activist Hamza Hamouchene laid out his assessment of the uprising:
In a nutshell, the Algerian revolution is still alive and there are signs that it will radicalize and enter a new escalation phase. …Civil disobedience and strikes must be structured within a framework of clearly formulated demands. The movement and its actions must find their political expression in a radical program and coherent strategy coming from the revolutionary-minded activists, trade unionists, and other leaders. We cannot afford a setback, as democratic space is shrinking week after week. We must continue fighting for democratic rights as well as individual and collective rights and freedoms and we must demand the immediate release of all political detainees and prisoners of conscience. The road is long, but I am hopeful.
The Algerian revolution continues unabated as it enters its ninth month. Even though the planned 4 July presidential elections failed to materialize, the ruling clique is still attempting to steer the country towards presidential elections on the basis of constitutional legitimacy. In mid-September, interim President Bensalah called for elections to be held on 12 December per the constitution. In response, tens of thousands marched in Algiers chanting ‘the people want the fall of Gaid Salah’ and ‘we want a civilian state, not a military state.’ The streets continue to reject elections on these terms, demand the release of political prisoners, and call for an end to le pouvoir.
In August, the movement showed signs of radicalizing. A new slogan rang through the streets: ‘civil disobedience is coming.’ For the movement to advance, the incredible energy and resolve in the streets will have to find its expression in the workplace. Labour and left-wing forces have an opportunity to put forward a bold strategy that harnesses the power of the rank and file.
So far, Algeria’s uprising has lacked a physical occupation that we have seen in the Sudanese and Egyptian revolutions. This, in combination with a military elite that is hesitant to impose its will through force, has produced a relatively bloodless uprising. However, the stand-off between the mass movement and the military can only continue so long. Eventually, the regime will be forced to directly confront the weekly street protests, and that will mean a price paid in the blood of protesters.
The final blogpost in this series will grapple with questions raised by the Sudanese and Algerian uprisings How do we account for the weakness of organized labour and the rank and file? The relative absence of organizations and the politics of the (revolutionary) left? What explains the gap between the revolutionary expression of these uprisings (i.e. mass popular mobilizations) and their overwhelmingly reformist strategy and vision? What general lessons can we learn from the struggles in Algeria and Sudan in order to strength other movements for liberation?
Emma Wilde Botta is socialist activist and writer based in Oakland, California. She has written extensively on the Arab Spring, the Gulf States, Iran, and US imperialism. Her writing has appeared in TruthOut, the International Socialist Review, and Socialist Worker.
Featured Photograph: A collage of the 2011 revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, clockwise from top left the Egyptian revolution, Tunisian revolution, Yemeni uprising and the Syrian uprising (12 April, 2011).