With the new year having hardly begun, an important wave of revolt is hitting North Africa. While in Tunisia, an unprecedented period of protest is shaking the Ben Ali dictatorship, for over a week, Algeria has been also overcome by a series of popular “riots”. These have involved, until now, most notably young people, in a country where the population below 30 years old represents 75% of the total. This massive unrest reveals to the eyes of the world the depth of the despair and rage of this ‘no future’ generation, sharpened by the effects of the international crisis of capitalism.
This wave of riots, which started in the western suburbs of Algiers, rapidly swept to other cities such as Oran, Blida, Bouira, Tizi Ouzou, Dejlfa, Ouargla, Constantine and many other parts of the country. Most of these places have not experienced riots of this scale for over two decades. Even governmental figures, if they are worth anything, are forced to recognise that about 24 wilayas (regions) have been hit by the movement - in other words, half the country.
Day and night, groups of youths have engaged in violent clashes with the police, blocked roads with burning tyres or tree trunks, and in some cases attacking public buildings and everything that symbolises the authority of the state and the wealth of the rich. Even if riots in Algeria are far from a new phenomenon, their present scale, as well as their rapid geographical extension, giving them a national character, could be a signal of explosions of greater proportions in the near future.
In the past, the regime had been able to contain such explosions of anger as isolated incidents. Now, it seems that a new breach has been opened, and many working class people have been looking towards the youth with sympathy and inspiration, though not always approving of their methods of action, especially when acts of looting or destruction have been involved. Some reports state that in some areas, inhabitants have been organising in order to discourage young people from some counter-productive acts of vandalism.
A ‘pre-1988’ climate
But these acts, carried out by a minority, cannot eclipse the overall significance of these riots. The human rights website, “Algeria Watch”, commented that: “Very few Algerians are against the mobilisation of young people; in street conversations, most of them find it legitimate, in a country where other ways out are blocked, and the ordinary means of expression are absent. The parallels with the events of October 1988 are commonly pointed out amongst the oldest ones.” That year, the huge social crisis facing the country led to a series of riots, walk outs and strikes, which ultimately led to the downfall of the monolithic one-party rule of the FLN. Bloody repression by the army left several hundreds people dead, and the lack of an independent workers’ left political force to drive the revolt forward was exploited in the aftermath by reactionary Islamist forces, which plunged the country into a terrible civil war for a decade.
As neighbouring Tunisia illustrates, the iron grip of a repressive regime and the lack of basic democratic rights, which have contained opposition and frustration for so long, means that once such energy has been released, it can go much further and take an extremely explosive turn. Commenting on the prospects of such a movement, Mohamed Zitout, a former Algerian diplomat, told Al Jazeera: “It is a revolt, and probably a revolution, of an oppressed people who have, for 50 years, been waiting for housing, employment, and a proper and decent life in a very rich country.” If it is not yet a revolution, the possibility of the present movement taking on revolutionary dimensions is clearly present, in a country where the traditions of resistance of the oppressed are ancestral. The attitude of the working class, which has not yet entered the scene as such, will be decisive in determining the development of these protests.
Accumulated anger has been bursting out simultaneously in many areas, shared and assisted by internet facilities such as facebook, youtube or twitter, cutting across the attempts by the State media to cover up the scale of what is happening. Like in Tunisia, the violent repression deployed by the regime as a response (in Tunisia, around 20 people have been reported shot dead during demonstrations, while in Algeria, at least 5 people have been killed) has only helped to inflame people’s anger even more. Unsurprisingly, the ongoing violent repression and killing of demonstrators has benefited from the silence and complicity of Western ‘democratic’ governments, who, at best, have limited themselves to expressing their ‘concern’.
300 people from Tunisian and Algerian backgrounds gathered on Sunday afternoon in Marseille to demand an end to repression in the Maghreb. The CWI is asking for the immediate release of all people arrested because of their involvement in protests in Tunisia and Algeria, and is encouraging similar actions wherever possible.
Not just a food riot
This tsunami of riots does not come like thunder from a calm sky. Already for months, a revolt has been brewing in Algeria. According to the daily newspaper, Liberté, an average of almost 9,000 riots and ‘troubles’ each month took place in 2010 alone. For months, workers at companies in Algeria went on strike one after another. In March of last year, we wrote: “Strike after strike, protest after protest, are transforming the country into a social cauldron ready to explode at any time.” This is increasingly being confirmed by the recent events. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the recent dramatic rise in food prices, which have risen by between 20 and 30% since the beginning of the month. This is particularly the case for oil, flour and especially sugar, the price of which has increased by 80% in the last three months alone.
Wage increases achieved in the public sector, after years of struggle and strikes remain derisory. And as these increases have not even been implemented everywhere, they are already eaten up by soaring prices. In the private sector, the situation is even worse. To go shopping and feed one’s family has become a daily challenge; for the increasing number of people with no job, it is an impossible task. The insecurity of life and rampaging misery have convinced most Algerian people that the public measures of price controls are absolutely useless, and give total freedom to speculators and monopolies to increase relentlessly their profit margins on the backs of the poorest, including small shop keepers and market and street vendors. In the streets of the working class neighbourhood of Bab El-Oued in Algiers, which has become a symbolic bastion of the protests, people kept repeating, “50% wage increase for the cops! And what about us?” Indeed, the only sector which has benefited recently from a significant wage increase has been the police, in a conscious attempt by the State to increase the reliability of its armed forces amid growing prospects of social disturbances.
Fearing losing control over the situation, an urgent meeting of ministers last weekend agreed a number of measures to reduce the price of sugar and cooking oil. But this will hardly be enough to appease the situation, even less the huge hatred against the regime. Indeed, even if the rising cost of living has become a critical concern and one of the decisive triggers of the recent revolt, the reasons for the anger are much more profound. What the youth are expressing in the streets is part of a general discontent. “Expensive life, no decent housing, unemployment, drugs, marginalisation”. That’s how the inhabitants of Oran, the second biggest Algerian city, are summing up the reasons of their protests.
There as elsewhere, this cocktail of factors, framed by a police state which muzzles any serious opposition, and protects the clique of rich corrupt gangsters in power, constitutes the background of recent events. Social inequalities between the poor and the ruling elite have grown in proportions not seen since independence. While Algerian GDP has tripled in the last ten years, the gigantic revenues from oil, responsible for most of this growth, have only served to fill the pockets and bank accounts of a tiny minority, close to the ruling clan, while the majority of people increasingly suffer from under-nutrition, or even famine. The increasing cases of money laundering and corruption affecting all sectors and at all levels of decision-making, have contributed to highlight the continuous hijacking of the country’s wealth for the benefit and luxurious life of a few.
Reported by the newspaper, El Watan, a young demonstrator marvellously summed up the situation: “Nothing will hold us back this time. Life has become too expensive and famine is threatening our families, while apparatchiks are diverting billions and are getting rich at our expense. We do not want this dog’s life anymore. We demand our share in the wealth of this country.”
Youth in despair
In 2001, young Algerian protestors facing live ammunition shouted to the police: “You can not kill us, we are already dead”. The same “nothing to lose” spirit is fuelling the present rebellion of the youth. Indeed, no perspective is on the offer for a generation that is particularly hardly hit by huge levels of unemployment, and reduced to day-to-day survival activities. Officially, unemployment affects 21.3% of young people between 16 and 24; the reality is probably even worse, as all the statistics are completely falsified by the authorities, with some even estimating that 60% of the active population below 30 are without work. Even a large proportion of graduated young people are filling the ranks of the unemployed once their studies end. The future for young Algerians is often seen as a choice between prison and exile, and suicides rate among this category of the population reaches sky-high proportions. The building of “fortress Europe” and the increasing repressive measures being taken against the numerous candidates for emigration to Europe mean that in practice, there is no other way out for these young people than to take the road of struggle and collective action.
Although generalised, the present movement mainly involves those deprived youths from poor neighbourhoods, and has not yet gathered around it the active mobilisation of the mass of the population. The entering into action of the working class will be necessary to give this movement a more organised and mass character, and avoid it being transformed into futile and disorganised acts of despair that could be more easily crushed by the state forces.
While in Tunisia, the trade union federation, the UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers) has expressed its solidarity with the youth and assisted their struggle through calling for action, the Algerian workers can hardly rely on such initiatives from the UGTA (General Union of Algerian Workers), which has reached an incredible level of corruption, betrayal and subservience to the Bouteflika regime. The only public statement made by the UGTA leadership until now has disgustingly defended the government’s version of the situation. Over the last few years, this submission to the government has cut it off from entire sectors of trade unionists, who left the UGTA to join more combative, independent trade unions. The battle to vitalise, unify and democratise these independent trade unions are some of the important tasks facing the working class at the present.
The setting up of local committees of resistance in the neighbourhoods and in the workplaces could be a very useful tool in order to assist the struggle of the youth, to involve the rest of the population in mass actions, and to coordinate, along with independent trade unions, work stoppages on a national level. Already, some sectors, such as the dockers of Algiers’ port or workers from the healthcare sector, are talking about engaging in strike action. This is of a huge importance. Generalising such steps could transform the situation. An appeal for a national strike in support of the youth rebellion would enjoy a mass response and would contribute to transform the huge anger and frustration that exists into a much more powerful movement, that could potentially bring this rotten regime down, and open the way for really democratic, and socialist change.