Labor in Algeria’s Revolt
- Cole Stangler
Millions-strong demonstrations in Algeria have forced authoritarian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office. Independent labor unions are fighting to ensure workers — not military officers — decide what happens next.
- Interview by
- Cole Stangler
Algeria is in the midst of a historic popular uprising. Protests began in February of this year, as Algerians revolted against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plans for a fifth term in office. Coming to power in 1999, Bouteflika suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, after which he made few public appearances and was widely understood to be the puppet of a clique of high-ranking military figures. Protests intensified over the course of February and March, drawing millions to the streets of the capital Algiers and elsewhere, calling on Bouteflika to stand down before presidential elections originally slated for April 18.
In late March, the head of the armed forces Ahmed Gaid Salah called on the country’s Constitutional Council, the equivalent of the Supreme Court, to declare Bouteflika unfit for office. Last month, the octogenarian leader finally announced his resignation, turning over the presidency to the former head of the Senate Abdelkader Bensalah, under the terms of the Algerian Constitution. The latter plans to govern temporarily and oversee a new presidential election on July 4. However, protesters remain unsatisfied, continuing to demonstrate against corruption and in favor of a much deeper democratic transition.
To get a closer look at the protests, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler spoke with Algerian labor leader Rachid Malaoui. Since 2003, Malaoui has served as president of the SNAPAP (Autonomous Union of Public Sector Workers). He is also president of the CGATA (Autonomous General Confederation of Algerian Workers) a confederation of independent unions. Both are separate from the UGTA (General Union of Algerian Workers), the only union officially recognized by the Algerian government. The SNAPAP and CGATA have backed the protest movement since February. This conversation took place just after the ninth straight Friday of protests on April 19.
Why are you continuing to protest?
We’re protesting to change the system, the regime. The system hasn’t been changed. The people who represent the system haven’t changed. There aren’t free, transparent, and legitimate elections in place. That’s why we’re continuing. Nothing has changed for the moment.
People often talk about the “regime” or “the system” in Algeria. What does that mean?
The president represents a system. How have elections taken place since independence up until this moment? Through the trafficking of votes. In other words, there haven’t been transparent and legal votes. There has just been the façade of votes, but the institutions — the President, the National Assembly, the Senate, the government — are illegitimate. Because the people didn’t vote for them. This represents a system. That’s why we want these people to go and for institutions to assume the roles that were designated for them by the people.
And the army plays an important role here, too?
Yes, in general up till now it’s been the army that has picked Algeria’s presidents and designated the leaders of its institutions.
There was a phase after independence, in which the authorities (“le pouvoir”) took charge of social problems. The army led a coup d’état in 1962 to take charge. But people didn’t push back so much against this. They had just won independence, and, at the same time, the army rallied behind the word “socialism” and gave benefits to the people, including education and free health care. Universities and schools were developed, and we had a generation of people who completed their studies.
But the single-party system continued, supported by the army. The president after Hourari Boumediène (who ruled from 1965 to 1978), Chadli Bendjedid, came from the military. In 1988, there was a popular revolt to demand democracy, also driven by the country’s economic problems. This produced a small opening, and the authorities accepted a constitution that gave the right to form labor unions that could bargain sector by sector and to create political associations and civil-society organizations. Our union was created in the public sector over the following two years, and in 1990 became the first registered union.
But the army didn’t allow enough time for civil society to build itself. The following year the Islamic party won the municipal elections and then a majority in the National Assembly. And the army intervened. It conducted a coup d’état and took power back. So, the army was in control again and installed an interim president, a former revolutionary who was killed by special security forces six months later, while giving a speech, live on television. In 1992, a state of emergency was declared. Then there was a presidential election (in 1995) controlled by the military. Three years later, this military official (Liamine Zéroual) was pushed to resign by military officials. Then Bouteflika arrived (in 1999).
In 2004, the army was divided over the prospects of a second term for Bouteflika. The security services were sympathetic toward him and won out over the opposition that came from the rest of the military. With their support, in 2008 he changed the Constitution, allowing him to run for another term in office. In 2014, the army also imposed a fourth term, and in 2019 a fifth.
Already in 2014, there were protests. I spoke out at the time, in the El Watan newspaper, and said a fourth term was a good thing for the opposition because it would allow citizens to better organize. And voilà. In 2019, before the fifth term, people came out into the streets. The army has changed its mind, because it couldn’t turn its weapons against the people. One of the popular demands was for Bouteflika and his brother to leave office, and he’s done so.
Still, his allies remain in power, in a system he has spent over twenty years building. It consists of three major figures: the former head of the secret services, General Toufik; the head of the army, Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has his own military security; and the presidential office with its own military security (led by Athmane Tartag).
But people said, “we don’t want to play this game anymore.” The head of the army initially took a stance against the people, but they weren’t afraid, and they came back on the streets. After the second and then third marches, the army leadership changed its stance. they agreed with one of the demonstrators’ main points, namely that this sick president needed to leave office.
Yet before Bouteflika left office he had already put a mafia-like, corrupt government in place. According to the constitution, his automatic replacement is the president of the Senate, Abdelkader Bensalah. He is now serving as interim president.
The people responded by saying, “We don’t want the four Bs anymore.” Who are the four Bs? The president of the Constitutional Council Tayeb Belaiz, the former president of the Senate Bensalah, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, and the fourth is Mouad Bouchareb, the president of the National Assembly. Following the eighth march, one of the four Bs, Belaiz, resigned. So now three Bs remain.
Interim president Bensalah remains in office and has installed a new head of the Constitutional Council that the people don’t trust. At the same time, he wants to begin consultations with civil society and with parties to organize presidential elections in July. It’s not going to work. People don’t want elections organized by these people. They want a transitional government and an independent commission to run elections, not the Interior Ministry. That’s the first thing. Then there are people who propose a constitutional convention.
That’s what’s happening now. The ninth march on April 19 was to say “no” to Bensalah, to say “no, we don’t want to negotiate.” Bensalah is trying to get people to meet him, but opposition parties have declined the invitations. The people are saying “everyone who meets with Bensalah is a traitor. There’s no path to the future [with him].” Major independent figures don’t want to meet with him either. So he’s trying to buy time.
We’ve threatened a general strike, a political strike, with consultation with parties and other members of civil society. If Bensalah continues like this, we’re ready to move to a day-long general strike and all of Algeria shuts down. But with the participation of everyone. All of the movement.
Already the municipal workers are saying they don’t want to organize these elections. The municipalities are the most important part of elections in Algeria and even mayors have said “we’re not going to organize elections.” There are judges saying, “we’re not going to organize elections.” And government officials saying, “we’re not going organize elections.” All of this is to say there won’t be elections on July 4, as proposed by Bensalah.
So you don’t want to participate in the elections called for July 4. But could you explain what exactly protesters’ demands are?
A majority of the population agrees that we don’t want elections with this mafia in charge. We want a transition managed by independent figures, the installation of an independent commission to manage the elections and not the Interior Ministry, that’s it. Then there are two demands being made. Some people want a direct election of the president. Others want a Constituent Assembly.
[Editor’s note: On April 27, days after this interview was conducted, the CGATA union confederation issued a broadly worded statement along with twenty-seven other unions, human rights organizations, and groups from civil society calling for “dialogue” with “political powers” and a “democratic transition.” The groups also called for a “radical change of the system.”]
What’s the role of unions been in this movement? And workers more generally?
The first day, we called on workers to come into the streets, to mobilize. After that, other sectoral unions did the same. There are also some who want to take control of the movement, unions that called for strikes but also participated in the system of power [“le pouvoir”], that received funding from authorities. Before they would say, “We don’t do politics.” Now they’re following the crowds. That includes yellow unions that signed anti-strike pledges. But when they saw the popular movement, they called for joining the masses.
That’s fine. Which is to say, for us, everyone needs to participate. Afterwards, the people can recognize these unions for who they are — there’s a history that shows their record. But at the moment, we must liquidate the mafia that’s running Algeria.
Politically, is there any progressive organization, or opposition force that’s being formed?
People can talk about the Left and the Right, but this tradition went away a long time ago. A so-called left-wing party still exists but it doesn’t have much strength [In the 2017 elections the Socialist Forces Front achieved 2.4 percent of the vote and the Socialist Workers’ Party 3 percent]. The authorities didn’t allow political parties to develop. Of the parties that remain, there are the center-left nationalists and the moderate Islamists. But there’s no left-wing force.
At the same time, workers in the streets are socially conscious and left-wing, even if they’re not under the banner of the Left, and even if we’re not fighting in the name of the Left.
Also, the student movement has grown substantially. Five, ten years ago, it was eliminated by authorities who had previously provided them with funding. Now, the student movement has left that behind. It’s very sizable and it’s taking the streets again. They represent 1.4 million people nationally. That’s not nothing. The student movement is always left-leaning, even it’s not organized as being explicitly left-wing.
It seems like there’s been relatively little violence against demonstrators. When I think about the yellow vest protests in France, which have seen hundreds of injuries; unless I’m mistaken, violence in Algeria hasn’t been of the same scale. What’s your analysis of the use of force by the state, or the lack of it?
The first day, the police tried to stop protests. But they didn’t have the authorization to use force. They wanted to see how strong this movement would be. They saw. After the second march, there was a call for everyone to support this movement and come into the streets, including women too.
After the third and fourth marches, there were attempts to create problems within the movement. To put pressure to scare people. There are many young people in Algeria, but there’s also the half of the country normally considered the “silent population,” which also come out in the street. These people don’t want conflict. When it saw that things were peaceful, it came out and made itself felt. So [the security forces] tried to put pressure on the marches, including blockades to prevent people from other parts of Algeria coming to protests in the capital of Algiers. Tear gas was also used, including in tunnels, which is very dangerous.
They shot at students with tear gas at the Grande Poste [historic building in central Algiers]. They tried to do this and when it didn’t work, there were certain authorities, as part of the internal power struggle, that used this to try to start a conflict with the army and the police, to create incidents so that the protests would no longer remain peaceful. It didn’t work. Even the head of the armed forces [Gaid Salah] issued a declaration saying, “We’re going to protect the marches, we’re going to protect the population and the marches.”
Even [Gaid Salah] explicitly accused former security services chief General Toufik of planning a plot. Forces within the state were hoping to create incidents to spark violent demonstrations, to provoke a state of emergency and kill the movement. But it didn’t work. Today the population is still coming out in the streets and it isn’t afraid.
To conclude, were there any sources of inspiration from abroad for this movement? We’re seeing a popular movement in Sudan as well …
There were declarations from military leadership that there were plans from foreigners to intervene in Algeria. There was even news circulating that former General Toufik had met with French figures and opposition forces in France. But for us inside the movement, we haven’t seen any foreign involvement. It’s a movement led by Algerians, just like in Sudan it’s a movement led by Sudanese.
Now in Sudan, there’s support from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia [both of which have pledged financial aid for the country since the establishment of a “transitional military council”]. The departing Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was closer to Qatar than to Saudi Arabia. So, they’re trying to support the military there. But Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, they only help armies. In Egypt, they helped Sisi because he’s a military man. The United States and its Saudi and UAE allies support coups d’état, not the population. In the Egyptian case, they intervened in order to help the military, and in Sudan, the coup was also led by the military, even if the population supported it.
In the Algerian case, there hasn’t been a military coup d’état. Right now, it’s the people who asked for the president to leave and it’s the people who are demanding Bensalah to leave. So even if the army took a stance that was slightly in favor of the people, it didn’t oversee a coup d’état. On the other hand, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, would very much like to see a coup that ensures democracy doesn’t develop in Algeria.
If Algeria succeeds in developing a democratic state governed by the rule of law, other countries will return to democracy. That’s a danger for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and even for el-Sisi in Egypt.
In Libya, we see General Haftar launching his offensive on Tripoli at the same time as the movement in Algeria. He wants to take power through force and not through elections. This is supported by Sisi, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and France. All these states want a coup in Libya so that a dictatorship will be there to manage the oil industry and other resources there in a stable way.
But are actors in the Algerian revolt inspired by the movement in Sudan?
Sudan started first, Algeria came next. The populations are in touch and share information. But Algeria was ready for its movement. Just like Sudan was.
There’s not a huge interest from civil society, from labor unions, or from human rights groups abroad. They’re not active in blocking their governments from intervening and supporting the military.
It’s rather upsetting that international civil society isn’t so motivated to support the Algerian population, like it was in the Arab Spring of 2011. I’m talking about international civil society — not governments. They should be building pressure at home so that their governments don’t intervene in Algeria.