A Regime Divided

Hocine Belalloufi
David Broder

Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Algeria to protest authoritarian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Yet the demand for change also reflects cracks within the ruling regime.

Algeria's President Abdulaziz Bouteflika attends the closing of the Third OPEC Summit , November 18, 2007 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Salah Malkawi / Getty

The political crisis today shaking Algeria did not fall from the sky. After a long crisis in the ruling regime, everything now suggests that the current political order is reaching its end. Indeed, president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s promises of constitutional reform indicate the authorities’ own awareness that their regime no longer corresponds to the interests of the dominant forces in Algerian society. Yet they are also mounting a final bid to maintain control of the now-inevitable reform process.

Indeed, if the turning point is now upon us, many questions remain unresolved. It is unclear if this change will indeed, come, or if the country will again fall under the control of a dictatorship. And it is also unclear how exactly the change will take place: something which remains hard to predict in a fast-moving situation. There may be blood and tears, or else a reform without too much upheaval and fallout. With Algeria in the balance, the way has been opened to a coup de force within the regime, change through popular mobilization — or, perhaps, both at once.

Origins of the Crisis

The onset of the regime’s crisis was already apparent in a crisis of representation, which first took concrete form in signs of mass popular disaffection at the ballot box. According to the (systematically inflated) official turnout figures, only 50.7 percent of eligible voters took part in the most recent presidential contest in 2014, as against 74.6 percent in 2009. The regime’s candidate Abdelaziz Bouteflika had lost some 4.5 million votes between the two elections.

Yet the political system remains largely lifeless. It is dominated by the presidential coalition (the National Liberation Front, FLN, the National-Democratic Rally, RND, the Algerian Popular Movement, MPA, and Algerian Rally for Hope, TAJ) and their satellites in the employers’ union (Enterprise Chiefs’ Forum, FCE) and trade union movement (General Algerian Workers’ Union, UGTA), while all opposition is marginal. This dominance owes not least to the regime stranglehold on both public and private TV. Nonetheless, apart from the regime’s own clientele, most Algerians do not vote. Many millions of them — especially young Algerians — are not registered on the electoral roll.

At the same time, the main “elected” institutions do not even reflect election results. The presidency of the Senate and the prime minister’s post are held (respectively) by Abdelkader Bensalah and Ahmed Ouyahia, two leaders of a minority party, the RND. The December 2018 senate contest was the scene of massive fraud among the “ally” parties of the “presidential majority,” to the benefit of the FLN, of which Bouteflika is the honorary president. This lack of institutional credibility was moreover confirmed by an October 2018 putsch against the president of the National Popular Assembly (APN), Said Bouhadja.

This popular disaffection with Algeria’s institutions does not spare the opposition parties, all of which have trouble convincing or mobilizing the population. Indeed, the same could equally be said of both the employers’ federation and the trade unions. Most Algerians do not believe in the possibility of a transfer of power within the current political system. The radical Islamists who won the hearts of many citizens in the 1980s to 1990s are no longer politically credible, and yet no other force has managed to fill the space they opened up.

Beginning exactly two decades ago, Bouteflika’s reign has been punctuated by an impressive — and constant — series of scandals. These ranged from cocaine trafficking to corruption involving real estate, large public projects (the east-west motorway), procurement involving foreign multinationals, the Khalifa affair (with public funds squandered by a company set up by a Bouteflika protégé), privatized assets sold for a single symbolic dinar … This list of scandals is too long to go through all of them, but each involved members of the ruling nomenklatura (ministers, police, and army officials) and/or their children and the new wheeler-dealer bourgeois class.

Many Algerians consider corruption a simple deviation from an abstract norm (whether religious or secular) which commands: do not steal. This phenomenon is thus understood in its purely moral dimension. This spontaneous moralizing vision is consolidated by the conscious discourse of the oppositional “ultra-liberals,” who spin us the yarn of an uncorrupt capitalism in which everyone gets what they deserve: the “good capitalism” that supposedly exists elsewhere but not in Algeria. And yet we only need follow world news to understand that corruption knows no geographical limits (from the USA to the EU, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil) and that some “respectable” states even specialize in recycling the cash that results from it, from Switzerland to Luxemburg, Monaco, Panama, and other not-so-virgin islands.

Yet corruption has played a particular role in the last four decades of Algerian history. Alongside measures to dismantle the public sector, corruption has helped strip the Algerian people of what formally belonged to it under the title of public property: public companies, urban and agricultural real estate, other assets … It has contributed to the bleeding of foreign trade, substituting a private monopoly for the old public one. Corruption is, then, no accident, or still less an error or “deviation.” Rather, it is a process necessary for allowing an illegitimate minority to accumulate capital while the majority is proletarianized.

Under Bouteflika, Algeria has also seen a concentration of power and a concomitant rise in authoritarianism, which has considerably strengthened the executive. The hyper-presidential constitution, tailored to his needs, and the emergence of an outrageous and grotesque cult of personality, do not, however, only result from Bouteflika’s own legendary megalomania. Rather, they express the objective need to concentrate power in one figure, the better to unite the different factions and impose anti-popular policies or indeed policies which do not necessarily enjoy consensus within the regime itself.

This authoritarianism is marked by the refusal of any real negotiation or even consultation with opposition parties, unions, and associations; the lack of spaces and organisms that can peacefully mediate social contradictions (or even the contradictions within the regime) through legal channels; repeated attacks on democratic and trade union rights (shackles on the right to strike, demonstrate, associate, or meet); repression against all opposition; the outrageously partisan character of both public and (illegally created) private TV; and barely concealed threats of repression coming from the Interior Minister and Deputy Defense Minister. Yet all this cannot but provoke popular resistance. Indeed, the real instigators of revolutions are not revolutionaries but authoritarian regimes.

The series of self-contradictory decisions and cases of score-settling within the regime show that cracks are beginning to emerge within the regime’s façade of homogeneity. The apparently unsackable security-services boss, general Mohamed Mediène, was fired the year after Bouteflika’s reelection in 2014, and the Intelligence and Security Service (DRS) he directed was reorganized. In 2018, the inspection of a ship containing 701 kg of cocaine led to the removal of Abdelghani Hamel, chief of the General National Security Directorate (DGSN). His successor lasted only a few months, with several of his measures (including his reorganization of the police service) blocked by the Interior Ministry. Top-ranking officials in the National People’s Army have been forbidden from leaving national territory, had their bank accounts frozen, and been arrested, only to be released without explanation.

One of the main signs of the regime’s crisis lies in its inability to complete the structural economic reforms it began in 1980. If back then it set a course toward neoliberalism, the state continues its role in directing the economy. The country’s energy (hydrocarbons) and mining resources remain in public hands, much to the anger of the ultra-liberals (in both the regime and the opposition), the imperialist powers of the G7 and their financial institutions from the IMF to the World Bank. Large public companies that had previously been privatized (Sider El Hadjar steel, to the profit of ArcelorMittal; Asmidal, which became Fertial after the Spanish corporate Grupo Villar Mir became the majority stockholder) had come back under the state’s remit.

One further sign — and not the least important one — of the regime’s crisis lies in its difficulty responding to imperialist pressure. It still supports the Sahara and Palestinian people’s cause, and refused to back imperialist interventions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. It has rejected any Algerian army involvement in operations outside national borders or the establishment of foreign military bases in Algeria, while also refusing the creation of migrant transit centers on its soil. Yet it has friendlier relations with (and increasingly defends) the criminal Saudi regime, has said nothing publicly on the destabilization of Venezuela, and has proven incapable of blocking “Israel’s return” or the multiplication of French and American military intervention in the region. In more recent weeks it has even taken part in the “Flintlock 2019” military maneuvers under the United States’ Africom command in Burkina Faso and Mauritania, following the Algerian Navy’s May 2018 involvement in Africom maneuvers in Greece. This amounts to a considerable foreign policy turn, which can only feed contradictions within a regime that traditionally looked to Moscow (particularly in military matters) and held firm to its nonalignment.

Indeed, though often depending on public command and state protection in order to compete on the international market, the domestic fraction of the bourgeoisie does not pursue a confrontation with the imperialist world order, and instead pursues a liberalization policy. Yet is caught in a vice between not only the popular masses but also an imperialist-backed comprador fraction of the bourgeoisie. This latter defends an ultra-liberal conception of integration in / submission to the global market and the imperialist order. It has been considerably strengthened over the last three decades, thanks to the civil war of the 1990s, the running-down of public companies ordered by the IMF (the Structural Adjustment Plan signed in 1994), and the transformation of the supposedly productive and industrial Algerian economy into a bazaar economy based on imports. This radicalizing comprador fraction incessantly stresses the government’s lack of energy in mounting structural reforms and integrating Algeria into the world market.

This contradiction between the regime’s explicit neoliberal course and, on the other hand, the constant series of pauses, about-turns, and retreats, not only feeds the ultra-liberal democratic opposition but also mounting popular discontent and dissent within its own ranks. Unemployment today stands at 11.7 percent of the active population, peaking at 28.3 percent among 16–24-year-olds. There is a severe lack of job opportunities for graduates, while 43 percent of employees are under the radar of Social Security. The purchasing power of those in work, the unemployed, poor, and landless farmers, and small artisans and traders, is plummeting under the triple effect of price rises, the depreciation of the dinar, and stagnation in both salaries and pensions. The reduction of the state’s engagement in both education and health care has hit the destitute classes hard, as the authorities undermine what remains of Algeria’s welfare state.

When the masses — quite rightly — respond to all this with resistance, the only response is repression. The authorities use the justice system to suppress the right to strike, have transformed the Labour Code into a Capital Code, mounted arbitrary arrests of civil servants, bloggers, and journalists, banned demonstrations and rounded up activists, and even beaten up football supporters …

From this we can conclude that the Algerian regime is neither monarchist nor truly republican, neither a dictatorship or a democracy, neither a theocracy or a secular regime, neither pro-imperialist or (any longer) anti-imperialist, neither ultra-liberal nor anti-neoliberal. Rather, its inability to resolve the contradictions of Algerian society, or indeed thus that cut through its own ranks, constantly bring conditions of crisis to the surface. This impasse is, indeed, telling of the regime’s inability to reform itself. We are thus condemned again to live through more or less violent political crises: ones that could transform into the kind of crisis favorable to revolutions, but also to imperialist adventures on Algerian soil.

The Explosion of the Political Crisis

This crisis of hegemony could have continued for months and years longer. But it was the presidential election planned for April 2019 that unleashed political crisis, with the announcement that Bouteflika would stand for a fifth term — the very peak of our rulers’ cynicism and their contempt for the people. Neither the masses nor the various oppositional forces could tolerate this move.

Before February 21 there had been no social or political force that threatened the regime. It faced an only verbal challenge, from powerless and marginalized oppositionists. Even workers’ strikes did not really worry it, even as they multiplied. This situation lent itself to a fresh run for the outgoing president, or, more precisely, for the framed photo of him which is exhibited by his zealous and self-interested partisans on all occasions (official ceremonies, rallies). The status quo looked like the country’s future — one that would be impossible ever to get past.

But the protests of February 22 were a turning point. After anonymous appeals launched on social media, the masses spectacularly burst onto the political stage. One week later came a popular wave without historical precedent, as one million people demonstrated across the country’s forty-eight wilayas (provinces).

This mass mobilization changed the political scenario. It broke through the wall of fear and won back the right to demonstrate across the country, most notably in Algiers, where protests had been banned since 2001. It pushed the government to reprimand certain mayors in the parties of the presidential coalition, who had blocked various other candidates’ efforts to gather signatures among citizens. It forced the state media (under pressure from their own journalists and technical staff) to give a fairer account of the situation in the country. It freed up power of speech and initiative, opening the way to protests and demonstrations from multiple social categories, from students to lawyers, journalists, teachers, doctors and paramedical staff, artists, writers, high-schoolers … All this culminated in the historic demonstrations of March 1, which demanded the departure not just of Bouteflika alone, but of the whole regime.

In the Field

Since February 22 there have been two rival camps in the field — the regime camp, and the people’s camp. Yet each of the camps rallies a disparate variety of social forces which do not share the same interests.

The popular camp masses together different and even opposed social categories and political forces, which are nonetheless united around immediate political goals: Bouteflika not standing again, and regime change, even if this latter slogan is not necessarily expressed as such. These two demands constitute both the basis and the cement of this camp. It is supported by all the opposition political forces, from the ultra-liberal democrats (whether secular or Islamist) to the broad left, including the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), the Workers’ Party (PT), the Socialist Workers’ Party (PST), and a series of more or less formally organized left groups.

Rich on its own dynamism, this camp has now set the rejection of the April 18 elections at the center of its objectives. It has no more developed political program, is not structured, does not have spokespersons, and still less any identified and recognized political leadership. But at this stage, these weaknesses paradoxically constitute strong points; they prevent the movement neither from taking the initiative, building its offensive, or indeed racking up further support.

Given its powerful momentum, the movement’s actions have multiplied: large demonstrations each Friday in the forty-eight wilayas, unrelenting protests by students, high-schoolers, lawyers, artists, health workers, and so on. This camp is truly on the offensive. Having reasserted its right to demonstrate it is now passing to a higher level — strikes. This firstly means local and/or sectoral strikes (first beginning in certain universities, and planned across the education system starting from March 13, at the call of the independent unions). A general strike was also called for March 10–15, following anonymous appeals as well as calls coming from the old union structures suddenly revived for the occasion, such as the Productive Forces Union Federation (COSYFOP).

The popular movement’s offensive dynamic has allowed it to rack up support from trade unions, associations, and social movements. It has also been joined by figures from the employers’ union FCE (which itself supports Bouteflika) as well as mayors and militants from his FLN party. It is also worth noting other political forces joining the movement, notably the National Mujahideen Organization (of former combatants in the independence struggle) which constitutes the spine of the “revolutionary family” on which the regime bases itself. Beyond offering its support to demonstrators it has denounced the “collusion between influential forces within the government and shady businessmen who have illicitly profited from public funds.” The same is true of the Association of Veterans of the MALG (the Ministry of Armaments and General Liaisons, during the war of liberation from French rule), i.e., the ancestor of the secret services, directed by former Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia.

As for the regime camp, it is essentially composed of a series of apparatuses: the presidency, the army high command, the national military police, the security and intelligence services, the government, and other institutions (the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Council, the National Assembly, and Senate), the parties in the presidential coalition, the public and private media, and the leaderships of the regime’s satellites (the UGTA trade union, the FCE employers’ forum, the National Union of Algerian Women, along with a dozen parasitic student organizations) but also influential religious-type associations: the Sufi brotherhoods (zaouias) and the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars.

This latter camp is well-organized, disciplined, and keeps its grip on the forces of order, the administration, an imposing media apparatus, and the state’s financial and material resources. But it has also lost the initiative. It finds itself backed onto the defensive, isolated, and losing a little more support each day.

Also posed, in this sense, is the question of reactions within the security forces. The Algerian regime is among the most inscrutable that exist and gives the impression of never having emerged from the clandestine conditions of the war of national liberation. But some indicators suggest, at the very least, malaise within its ranks, or even dissent. This doubtless played some role in the emergence of the movement, resting in particular on the anonymity of social media.

We should not be naïve. The spontaneity of the demonstrations does not mean that there was no invisible hand that intervened to help trigger them. No movement of this breadth is chemically pure. If there is, indeed, some manipulation by discontented elements of the security services — many of whose structures have been dismantled in recent years — this would above all confirm that the present crisis does not simply split those “on top” from those “at the bottom”; it is also a crisis “at the top” itself. The fact that enormous masses of citizens have mobilized simply confirms that the malaise was, indeed, there, and that it is deep-rooted. The spark could only catch fire if the powder-keg of discontent was already full to the brim.

A Relatively Balanced Situation

The strength of the popular movement has numerous consequences. Candidates for the April 18 electoral masquerade have withdrawn one after another, while those representing other opposition parties had already announced their refusal to take part. Respected lawyer and human rights champion Mokrane Ait-Larbi, a pro-democracy activist of long standing, has quit the leadership of dissident major-general Ali Ghediri’s election campaign as well as the electoral process itself.

With the main political battle now playing out in the streets rather than the ballot box, the left- and right-wing oppositions are radicalizing. The symbolic figurehead of the ultra-liberal democratic camp, the Cevital industrial group’s boss Issad Rebrab — who has been mobilizing his employees for months, backed by the ultra-liberal opposition parties, to protest against the “blocking of his investment” by the state — cancelled a March 5 demonstration initially planned to take place in Tizi Ouzou (Kabylie). But he explained this by insisting that “this is not the time for sectoral demands” but “regime change.” It is a long time since he was arguing that industrialists ought not get involved in politics.

For their part, the left-wing parties — Socialist Forces Front (FFS), Workers’ Party (PT), and Socialist Workers’ Party (PST) are calling for support for the popular movement and rejection of the presidential election. They have come out in favor of a new Constituent Assembly being elected. The PT backs the creation of Popular Committees and the convergence of the forces that support a Constituent Assembly; the FFS has announced that it is withdrawing all its MPs and Senators. The PST, which has consistently raised the demand for a Constituent Assembly, calls for the self-organization of the masses and the preparation of a general strike in order to shift the balance of forces. Like the PT, the PST opposes any imperialist intervention and is fighting for workers and trade unions to enter the movement with their own demands.

Yet despite the defections from regime ranks, which are multiplying and accelerating as the popular movement develops, those “at the top” are still holding onto power. They cannot do everything, but they still have the power of repression available to them. The army is massing troops close to the cities and the country’s main strategic thoroughfares.

The Immediate Political Dilemmas

Slowly but surely, the popular camp is expanding, getting organized, and growing stronger. It has no interest in a frontal clash with the regime. Rather, it needs time so that it can better sink roots and get itself organized. Particularly urgent is the need for its popular base (workers, unemployed, pensioners, students, high-schoolers) to rebuild, after the major social and political blows it has suffered over the last four decades, from the 1992 coup d’état to the civil war, the IMF structural adjustment plan, the undermining of social rights, and repression. At the same time, it needs to clarify its political outlook and choose between the ultra-liberal opposition and the opposition instead coming from the Left.

If at this stage the ultra-liberal opposition is part of the popular camp, does it have the will and means to continue this support for the people’s mobilization? Or will it end up negotiating a way out of the crisis with the regime, to the benefit of the ruling classes? This latter hypothesis is highly probable. It thinks that its time has come, and that it must not only reign but also govern. It thus wants to get rid of any barrier to its own free development. This explains its radicalism in the face of the Bouteflika regime.

The bourgeoisie wants to seize its historic opportunity finally to eject the petty-bourgeoisie which has held onto the state apparatus to this day, and so long hampered its development. But at the same time, the bourgeoisie fears being outflanked by the popular masses, who will not be happy to lift it to power but will eventually put for war their own demands and political objectives. The unfinished revolution in Tunisia since 2011 has confirmed that the fall of the dictatorship and the establishment of a bourgeois parliamentary democracy are not the “end of history.” Not for the toiling majority, anyway.

As it joined the movement, the UGTA trade union local in the historic workers’ bastion of Rouiba-Reghaia, eastern Algeria, clarified what the working class expects from the mobilization:

Unable to stand aside from the profound popular aspirations being expressed, we add our voices to say yes to a systemic change. [That is, in favor of] a system that preserves the people’s inalienable ownership of the nation’s natural resources, rehabilitates the state’s role in social and economic development, and fights against poverty and inequality. A system that sets itself apart from oligarchies, attributes fresh value to labor, and sets humanity at the center of development. A system that guarantees individual and collective freedoms and the free exercise of union rights.

This, of course, is the exact opposite of the ultra-liberal project. This is why this latter, which favors an economic approach much more radical than the current regime’s own, is advancing a transition that will result only in a fresh presidential election.

For its part, the left wing of the popular camp (FFS, PT, PST), is more or less coherently proposing a solution from below. This will give the people its say, at once reestablishing it in its role as the sole sovereign power, through the election of a Constituent Assembly. In the PT and PST’s outlook, such an assembly would be charged with determining what new system is to be established, while immediately proclaiming democratic freedoms and satisfying the workers’ and poor Algerians’ social demands and aspirations.

At the same time, the PST proposes an anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal democratic convergence. Such a front could bring together the parties, trade unions, and social movements that share this same vision. But initiatives such as these have a lot of catching up to do.

Republished from Contretemps.

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Hocine Belalloufi is an activist in the Parti Socialiste des Travailleurs (PST) in Algiers. His works include La démocratie en Algérie. Réforme ou révolution? and Grand Moyen Orient: guerres ou paix?

David Broder is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism.

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