Tuesday 25 February. Thousands of factories closed down, the sky was without planes, the streets were without public transport, banks and offices where closed and the printing presses of the daily papers stopped.
For the third time since its independence from France in 1962, Algerian society came to a standstill as the result of a general strike. The strike was called for by the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) the Algerian trade-union federation.
The two-day general strike against the government’s announced programme of privatisations and for higher wages. The strike was a complete success. According to figures by the UGTA 90% of economic activity came to a standstill. In the public services (education, administration and healthcare) and the state controlled firms the strike was a complete victory for the unions. In the private sector companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, symbols of global capitalism, where paralysed by actions as were the steelworks of d’El Hadjar (the former state owned company now controlled by Indian investors).
The d’El Hadjar works, along the Algerian coast, was once one of the jewels of the nationalised sector of the Algerian economy.
The nationalisations of the steelworks, the oil and gas industry, and other sectors were once presented as ’socialist’ measures by the FLN-led regime. Balancing between Capitalism and Stalinism the Algerian regime could keep a half way course for a time. As the CWI explained in previous statements and analyses, as a result of the fall of Stalinism these types of regimes swung further to the right. Adding to the pressure for neo-liberal reform were the economic forces of globalisation together with the ideological offensive by the major imperialist powers and by institutions like the EU, the World Bank and the IMF.
Privatisation programme taken a step further
Today’s government is taking the programme privatisation a step further. The government has been looking for foreign investment as a way out of the terrible political and economic crisis the country is in. One of the aims of the leadership is to conclude a ’strategic political partnership’ with France, in the words of the Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem. The French president Chirac travels to Algeria this weekend and the visit are seen as extremely important. For France the goal is to rekindle the imperial relationship with their former colony. Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, said that French investors "where on their way back to Algeria" and that France was "fully prepared to back the political and economic reforms which are necessary for Algeria’s stability and prosperity". The Foreign Minister said that French investors where interested in sectors like transport, electricity and banking. These sectors are still state-owned but with the move to privatise them the Algerian government rolls out the ’red’ carpet for French bankers and investors.
France was embarrassed by its relationship with Algeria when the regime, backed by the military cancelled a general election in 1992 that a fundamentalist Islamic party was poised to win. In the absence of an alternative representing the interest of the working class, the population got dragged into a civil war, a deadly vice, between the armed Islamic force, the GIA, and the army. The GIA attacks that followed the cancellation of the elections and the brutal methods employed by the army to put the insurgency down claimed at least 120,000 lives. Whole villages where destroyed and residents killed. Although the international powers supported the cancellation of the elections and feared the coming to power of an Islamic party in Algeria, in public, at least, they had to criticise the methods employed by the regime. Nominally, France had to observe a European Union embargo on weapons exports to war torn Algeria. But since S11, Washington’s ’war on terrorism’ has had an Algerian spin-off resulting in a new weapons deal between France and the Algerian regime. The US also agreed last December to sell attack helicopters and night vision equipment, which Algeria says it needs to fight terrorism.
Diplomatic sources said four topics would dominate the three day visit of Chirac: Iraq, Western Sahara, Algeria’s debt and investment needs, and the ’struggle against terrorism’. A spokesperson at the French Institute of International Relations said France "was bitterly disappointed" that none of the North African countries had supported its position in the UN security council opposing the use of force in Iraq and calling for more time for the UN weapons inspectors to carry out their tasks. Chirac is not going to Algeria for a friendly talk. Politically and in economic terms he wants to secure the influence and interests of French imperialism and has brought a portfolio of clear demands. On the economic issues and privatisations the Algerian government is following his lead.
Sidi Saïd, a leader of the UGTA, has criticised those in government, like Abdelhamid Temmar responsible for privatisations, for "wanting to sell companies [as if in] the souk [the marketplace]. They are ready to sell companies and don’t care if these companies are performing or not. They rather let the whole situation rot."
The UGTA is closely intertwined with the state-apparatus and its leaders are part of the regime. They had to come out and organise a two-day general strike because of grass-roots opposition to the government’s plans. The trade union leaders only took up the question of privatisation, isolating it from the more general issues like the high and rising level of unemployment, the stagnation of purchasing power, the poverty level pensions and the lack of democratic rights. Furthermore, the general strike excluded the oil and gas-sector, which accounts for virtually all of Algeria’s foreign earnings, for fear of enraging the US and damaging their interests at a time when the Bush administration is preparing for a war on Iraq (the situation in Venezuela could stay unstable for months to come and the US has closed an arms deal with them).
No faith in French imperialism
The official line the UGTA adopted was that they wanted to protect Algeria’s image abroad. They used this so-called reason to refrain from organising any marches or demonstrations during the two-day general strike. This shows that the trade union leaders are trying to protect the fundamental interest of the Algerian ruling class. While the UGTA expresses the general despair and also the willingness to fight against privatisations, the lack of an independent position and programme defending the interests of the working class and poor is an obstacle for the struggle of the working masses and poor. In the Algerian situation, as in many other countries in the neo-colonial world, where the ’laws of exception’, giving the military extraordinary powers following the ’dirty war’ with the Islamic groups, are still in place, the struggle for democracy and the right to form independent formations of the working class go hand in hand with the struggle to overthrow capitalism and imperialism.
The stance the French ruling government and presidency is taking over Iraq is in no way a reflection of some ’benign’ kind of capitalism or imperialism. At this point in time the French ruling class, defending its own interests, disagrees with the US and Britain on the methods employed in their dealings with Iraq and fear the consequences of a possible war in the Middle East. As the example of Algeria, or the involvement of French soldiers in the civil war in Ivory Coast shows, they will not hesitate to use their economic weight, bribery, extortion or force when the protection of their interests and influence calls for it. Algeria’s leaders may have the ’choice’ between French or American paymasters. But history has shown that for the working class the only option is to fight on an internationalist programme defending and connecting the interests of the working class and the poor worldwide in the struggle for socialism.