The Arab Spring Lives on in Algeria

Hamza Hamouchene

Algeria is in the throes of a revolutionary moment. But having overthrown dictator Abdelaziz Bouteflika last spring, the movement must now find a way to return the class issue to the center of politics or risk watching the revolutionary moment slip away.

A view of downtown Algiers taken from Mohamed Gacem street in Algiers, Algeria, December 6, 2007. Pascal Parrot / Getty

Interview by
Shireen Akram-Boshar
Brian Bean

Since February, the people of Algeria have waged an inspiring revolt against the dictatorial regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and its crony capitalist policies. Along with the revolution in Sudan, the Algerian uprising represents a new wave of the revolutionary process of the Arab Spring. After massive demonstrations against the dictator’s continued rule brought millions into the streets, a popular movement (Hirak Sha’bi) quickly took shape, overthrowing Bouteflika in early April.

Since then, demonstrations have continued in opposition to the military, which has maintained de facto authority over the country. Attempts to hold premature elections earlier this summer were thwarted by massive weekly protests and civil disobedience. But the current movement remains in a standoff with the general-director of the armed forces, Gaid Salah.

At this crucial juncture, Shireen Akram-Boshar and brian bean spoke with Hamza Hamouchene, an Algerian scholar and activist, about the revolution, the lessons to be drawn thus far, and what comes ahead. Dr. Hamouchene, who is based in London, is a founding member of the Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC) and Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA) and a prolific author on the region.

Shireen Akram-Boshar and Brian Bean

It has been four months since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to resign. Algeria’s massive Friday protests have continued, demanding a civilian government in the face of growing repression. The regime’s plans to hold elections in July were scrapped, even though the mandate of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah has expired. What is the current state of the revolutionary movement in Algeria?

Hamza Hamouchene

It has been almost six months since the start of the popular uprising in Algeria, and despite the scorching heat of the summer months, the movement is still pushing forward with protests every week. This past Friday was the twenty-fourth weekly Friday march, with millions of Algerians from every part of the country continuing to protest and demand radical democratic change. The student movement is still organizing protests and marches every Tuesday as it has since February. As demonstrated by their slogans, Algerians are determined to continue their revolution and put an end to the ploys and manipulations of the counterrevolutionary forces, led by the military high command, in particular General Gaid Salah.

The slogans are clear and direct: “A civilian not a military state,” “A republic not a military barrack,” “Gaid Salah is with the traitors,” among other slogans hostile to the general-dictator and his insistence on holding presidential elections as soon as possible. Algerians know that elections without a transition period would mean a return to the status quo and a victory for the counterrevolution. For months now, the state has attempted to divide, exhaust, and suffocate the movement, mobilizing its media outlets and online propaganda and manipulation, and continuing to use repressive methods towards protestors including physical violence, arrests, and imprisonment.

The numbers in the streets have decreased from those of March and April, understandably due to the torrid heat. But we are still seeing millions in the streets, some Fridays witnessing mobilizations as large as those of the spring. This was the case on Friday, July 5, which coincided with the fifty-seventh anniversary of Algerian independence from French colonial rule. The symbolism of the day added strength to the popular demands of freedom, sovereignty, and justice. The protestors linked the current situation with that of colonialism and claimed independence from the neocolonialism imposed on them by the corrupt elites facilitating the looting of their country.

One needs to recognize a victory when there is one. The presidential elections that were scheduled for July 4 did not take place, thanks to the determination and perseverance of the popular movement. The current interim president Bensalah remains, some say unconstitutionally, with the blessing of General-Dictator Gaid Salah — who, in the name of the constitution, wants to force an election on the Algerian people.

The Algerian military regime is trying to gain time, betting that its tactics will weaken the movement. So far, these plans have not succeeded. Even the old tactic of using the conquests of the national football team to quell dissent has failed. Though the regime tried to win their loyalty, the slogans and chants from Algeria’s football fans as the team won the African Championship were in support of the ongoing revolution. After all, the hymn of February’s initial demonstrations came from the stadiums.

In the last few weeks, there has been a shift from an emphasis on the need for a real transition period towards the need for dialogue with the regime. Several initiatives sprang up to facilitate that dialogue (more accurately, a monologue). However, these initiatives, including the instance for mediation and dialogue led by a former president of Parliament and the July 6 conference led by a former diplomat and minister, have been rejected by the people who see them as a ploy to distract from the real issue of radically transforming the current system.

In a nutshell, the Algerian revolution is still alive and there are signs that it will radicalize and enter a new escalation phase. This is evidenced in the new slogan that has been heard in several places in the last two weeks: “Civil disobedience is coming.” This chant strongly indicates a readiness to escalate the resistance. It is time for progressive leaders and organizations to unite and capitalize on this opportunity to take the uprising to its next 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.

Shireen Akram-Boshar and Brian Bean

While the Algerian revolution has been characterized by its spontaneous, horizontal character, labor has played a crucial role. Algeria’s official union, the General Union of Algerian workers (UGTA), has played a contradictory role, while independent unions have endorsed the movement from its start. Could you tell us about the sectors that have been most active and the gains they have made, the various unions involved, and the struggle to retake the unions from their pro-regime bureaucracy?

Hamza Hamouchene

Labor unions do play a role and are participating in the current revolutionary dynamic, but unlike in Tunisia and Sudan, their role has been very limited. This is primarily because they have been weakened considerably over the last few decades.

The UGTA, the biggest trade union in Algeria, is affiliated with the regime and has played a reactionary role against workers’ interests. There is currently a movement inside this union to reappropriate it and remove its corrupt and pro-regime leadership. Trade unionists protested in several regions over the course of the summer, forcing the general secretary to step down. His replacement, however, is no better. Efforts to retake this union from the pro-regime bureaucracy must be strengthened. This would give impetus to the current revolutionary process, increase the involvement of workers in the uprising, and could likely take the revolution to its next stage of escalation.

As for the independent trade unions, they have been involved in the uprising since day one, staging their own strikes and marches. Unions in the health and education sectors have organized strikes and protests in solidarity with the popular movement and to demand their rights as workers. The general strike in the first few weeks of the uprising was instrumental in forcing Bouteflika to abdicate and shaking up alliances within the ruling class. The massive march on May 1 clearly supported the revolutionary dynamic. Lawyers and judges’ associations have given their support by refusing to oversee any election organized under the current regime. Students are also in the process of organizing themselves at the national level.

However, there are major challenges. At the current juncture in which the military high command is rejecting any transition period and insisting that presidential elections be held urgently, it is a problem that the independent unions are not campaigning for a general strike in order to force the military to yield as was the case with Sudan. Instead, a confederation of autonomous unions is calling for a short democratic transition of just six months. Others are calling for dialogue and have even proposed a list of names to negotiate with the regime. This strategy is detrimental to the revolutionary process and plays into the hands of the counterrevolution. Having said that, I am anticipating that the months of September and October will be restive months for labor and social contestation in the context of a growing economic crisis.

Shireen Akram-Boshar and Brian Bean

The horizontal dynamic of the uprising is in part connected to a lack of trust in leadership from other political forces. The Muslim Brotherhood (the Movement for Society and Peace) was a participant in the government and supported the regime since the late nineties. Even the leftist Workers Party (PT) has played the role of “loyal opposition” to Bouteflika, until recently couching their position as defending Bouteflika’s supposed anti-imperialism. So, it makes sense for the reaction to be horizontal organization and a rejection of hierarchy. But we’ve seen the severe limitations of “leaderless movements” from the 2011 revolutions, in particular Egypt’s. How is the movement in Algeria navigating this, and is a leadership emerging among the student movement and the wider uprising?

Hamza Hamouchene

You are right. There is a huge distrust in party politics and the political elites in general. This is for various reasons, including the ones you mentioned around the co-optation/alignment of certain political parties by/with the regime. We must also recall that the post-1992 coup regime terrorized society and destroyed the fabric of dynamic civic spaces. The Bouteflika years continued to curtail and significantly weaken the opposition parties, rendering the political scene very arid indeed.

There are some initiatives from civil society organizations, trade unions, and political parties that attempt to give political expression to the movement today but so far these seem to be timid and short-lived, reflecting the acute crisis of leadership and legitimacy the country is experiencing. So despite about six months of contestation, the movement is struggling to organize itself and constitute a solid and representative leadership that could equip it with clear vision and strategy. In fact, there is almost no willingness to do so in fear of retaliation and co-option by the regime.

The known opposition figures who still have some respectability shy away from calling people to organize and structure themselves. When it comes to the student movement, there are attempts at structuring, but these have proved challenging and slow.

This “leaderless and loose character” of the uprisings is the Achilles’ heel and a serious limitation to the first and second wave of the Arab uprisings. This way of organizing — or more precisely, the lack of it — must be understood in a context of a generalized de-radicalization of dissent in the region.

I think one lesson to draw from the failures of the Arab uprisings is that we must distinguish, as the scholar Asef Bayat did, between “revolution as movement” and “revolution as change.” These uprisings, like most revolutionary situations in history, released enormous energy, an unparalleled sense of renewal, and a shift in consciousness. In terms of popular movement and mass mobilization, the MENA uprisings were revolutionary, but in terms of strategy and vision they have had a reformist trajectory. Sudan might prove to be the exception, but as we have seen from Sudan’s latest developments, having a leading organization with a vision and strategy does not make victory inevitable, as the military are still violently clinging to power.

The MENA uprisings are lacking the kind of radicalism that marked earlier revolutions of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, where anticapitalist and anti-imperialist sentiments were expressed very clearly through well-articulated visions. The revolutionaries of the “Arab Spring,” while practicing mass mobilization for the first time in decades, are preoccupied more with the broad issues of individual human rights, political accountability, fighting corruption, and legal reform and have tended to separate politics from the economy. This lack of radicalism is reflected in the absence of strategic visions, concrete programs, and active organizing.

Why is that?

Neoliberal capitalism not only permeates all aspects of our lives and enforces compliance, but it also conditions dissent and how it is expressed. In other words, neoliberalism has altered the nature of radical politics and de-radicalized dissent. This has happened through the proliferation of the notions of free market, civil society, and individual rights alongside the NGO-ization of resistance, as Arundhati Roy describes it.

One fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is this: is the Algerian uprising revolutionary enough to withstand the dangers of counterrevolution and regime restoration? In terms of “revolution as movement,” the answer could be yes, but in terms of “revolution as change,” the answer might be an unfortunate no.

It is evident that to overcome the organized and entrenched counterrevolution, there is a need for coherent revolutionary organizations with strong leadership and strategic visions.

Shireen Akram-Boshar and Brian Bean

The various uprisings in the region have encountered the institution of the military. In many cases the military has attempted to appease the revolutionary crisis by ousting the head of state. At the same time that the militaries have worked to curtail the uprisings and prevent their continued radicalization, General Ahmed Gaid Salah has been pulling the strings since Bouteflika’s overthrow. He once said that the idea of a civilian government was a “poisonous idea” held by “traitors.” The Algerian military also has a history of violently repressing past uprisings, including Algeria’s 1988 Intifada and the Kabylie autonomous struggle in 2001, never mind its murderous role in the 1990s Dirty War. Can you say more about the institution of the military and what it represents to Algerians today?

Hamza Hamouchene

The military institution has held a particular place in Algeria’s political life since independence in 1962. The country has always been ruled by a military regime, sometimes directly, or through a civilian façade or alliance with civilians in the Bouteflika era. The military institution still holds a certain legitimacy in the popular imagination as the “direct descendent” of the national liberation army that fought a heroic war against the French colonialists. The reality is much more complex, and this dominant narrative is being contested by other interpretations of the historical events that took place during and after the war. Conflicting interpretations of history still play out today, including in the slogans and memories mobilized to give legitimacy to the demands of the Hirak. There is a lot of work still to be done to demystify this history. Mohammed Harbi has done some of this in his book FLN: Mirage and Reality.

Let’s come back to the military institution today. One thing worth thinking through is the way it militarized Algerian society and became a much-feared institution. Growing up in Algeria, talk about the military secret police was omnipresent. This created an atmosphere of general distrust among Algerians. Added to the repression of various uprisings and the cruelty and barbarism of the odious war of the nineties, and it is understandable why the current popular movement wants to avoid confrontation with the army. But Algerians make a distinction between the military high command and the rank and file, most of whom come from the popular classes. This military bourgeoisie has not only been complicit in the pillage of the country’s wealth and resources but is also an active player in the scandalous and parasitic enrichment of the few.

In the first few weeks of the popular movement, there was an almost naïve hope that the army would accompany the movement in its demands. Protestors were willing to give Gaid Salah a chance to redeem himself, something he manipulated to impose his agenda and remove his enemies from the regime. The general-dictator refuses any concessions including freeing political prisoners, guaranteeing individual and collective freedoms of expression and organizing, or allowing a transition period, and accuses anyone with different opinions of being a traitor and a destabilizing agent. However, I think the ruling faction is miscalculating and overestimating the effectiveness of their ploys and propaganda. It is true that unlike other countries in the region, the army has not fired any bullets thus far, but it continues to justify repressive measures like blocking access to the capital on Fridays and jailing activists who brandish the Amazigh flag. At the same time, Gaid Salah is consolidating his position by appointing people close to him in positions of power and influence.

In the past few weeks we have witnessed a growing hostility toward Gaid Salah. Some sections of society already consider him the main hurdle facing the Hirak. People chanted in several towns of the country: “Oh Gaid Listen, we want a civilian not a military state,” “Oh Gaid, you are a deceitful person, stop playing with us; We already said all of them will be extirpated,” “Arab or kabyle/Amazigh, we are brothers and sisters, Gaid Salah is with the traitors.”

The popular masses are extremely frustrated, and these are tangible signs of the coming escalation in resistance.

Shireen Akram-Boshar and Brian Bean

The uprising in Algeria has in its slogans, images, and spirit evoked the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Ironically, the target of the revolution now is the FLN regime which led that fight decades ago. Can you speak more about the lessons that can be drawn from this trajectory of an anti-colonial struggle — one that inspired the creation of Fatah, housed the Black Panthers, was praised by Malcolm X, and was seen as the capital of the so-called Third World — that became an autocratic regime integrated into a world system needing to be overthrown by the masses from below?

Hamza Hamouchene

Yes, one of the unique characteristics of the Algerian uprising — in its slogans, images, and spirit — is its rootedness in the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Obviously the struggle of decolonization is still ongoing, and Algerians are still claiming the popular sovereignty they haven’t recovered when formal independence was achieved in 1962.

Even though I wasn’t born in Algeria’s “golden years” (the sixties and seventies), I feel nostalgic for this era that showed clear purpose and vision. With the weight of its long struggle for independence that served as a model for several liberation fronts across the globe in the sixties and seventies, the Algerian capital became a Mecca for all revolutionaries. As Amílcar Cabral announced at a press conference at the first Pan-African Festival held in Algiers in 1969: “Pick a pen and take note: the Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Christians to the Vatican, and the national liberation movements to Algiers!”

In the sixties, Algeria was a focal point for transnational solidarity against colonialism, neocolonialism, and white supremacy. It also played a central role in Pan-Africanist discourses and held a critical place in the iconography, rhetoric, and ideology of key branches of the African-American freedom movement. Francee Covington once said: “If Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was the ‘handbook for the Black Revolution,’ The Battle of Algiers was its movie counterpart.”

Unfortunately, the Algerian revolutionary experience and its attempt to break from the imperialist-capitalist system was defeated, both by counterrevolutionary forces and by its own contradictions. It harbored the seeds of its own failure from the start: it was a top-down, authoritarian, and highly bureaucratic project, albeit with some redistributive functions that significantly improved people’s livelihoods. For example, the creative experiences of workers’ initiative and self-management of the sixties and seventies were undermined by a paralyzing state bureaucracy, failing to genuinely involve workers in the control of the processes of production. This lack of democracy was concomitant with the ascendancy of a comprador bourgeoisie that was hostile to socialism and staunchly opposed to genuine land reform. By the eighties, the global neoliberal counterrevolution was the nail in the coffin and ushered in an age of deindustrialization and pro-market policies at the expense of the popular strata. The dignitaries of the new neoliberal orthodoxy declared that everything was for sale and opened the way for privatizations.

Fanon predicted this state of affairs. He warned us of the national bourgeoisies that would betray the masses, halt liberation, and set up a national system of tyranny and exploitation, reminiscent of their colonial counterpart. Fanon rightly observed how nationalist consciousness can very easily lead to “frozen rigidity,” merely replacing the departed white masters with colored equivalents. He then exhorted us to take a rapid step from national consciousness to political and social consciousness to avoid this regression.

These so-called national bourgeoisies dispensed with popular legitimacy, turned their backs on the realities of poverty and underdevelopment, and were only preoccupied with filling their own pockets and exporting the enormous profits they derive from the exploitation of their people. In Algeria, a sterile and unproductive bourgeoisie (including the military) has had the upper hand in running state affairs and directing its economic choices. This elite is the biggest threat to the sovereignty of the nation as it is selling off the economy to foreign capitals and multinationals and cooperating with imperialism in its “war on terror,” another pretext for expanding the domination and scrambling for resources. This bourgeoisie renounced the autonomous development project initiated in the 1960s and 1970s and did not even bargain for concessions from the West, such as investments which would be of value for the country’s economy. Instead, it offers one concession after another for blind privatizations and projects that will undermine the country’s sovereignty and endanger its population and environment — the exploitation of shale gas and offshore resources being one example.

If there are some lessons to be learned from what happened in Algeria since independence, some of them are:

  • We can’t count on the national bourgeoisies.
  • Nationalism has its limits and must be transcended by a socialist project that puts workers, peasants, and popular classes at its heart and leadership, without stifling their expression and initiative.
  • Never trust a general or a colonel, however enlightened they are.

Finally, we must revisit the past and interrogate the history of the last fifty years and learn the lessons from what went wrong.

The radical and revolutionary left has a huge task confronting them: the task of putting the socioeconomic issue at the center of the debate around alternatives and injecting a class analysis into the broad movement, by pushing trade unions to be more combative and truly on the side of workers’ interests and the revolutionary process in general.

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Hamza Hamouchene, who is based in London, is a founding member of the Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC) and Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA) and a prolific author on the region.

Shireen Akram-Boshar is a socialist activist and writer.

Brian Bean is a socialist activist and writer living in Chicago.

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