Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has decided against running for a fifth term in office and has postponed the presidential election scheduled for April following mass protests.
On Friday 8 March, hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets around the country after Bouteflika confirmed his decision to stand in April’s presidential election. Bouteflika came into power after the 1999 election in which he was the sole candidate.
He was seeking a fifth term despite serious health conditions caused by a stroke in 2013.
The protests are an expression of a profound popular discontent with the current political, economic and social situation in Algeria.
The slogans that have emerged from the protests go beyond the presidential election and denouncing a fifth term for Bouteflika . They also relate to social and economic demands to end high unemployment, precarious work conditions and inequality. The demonstrators expressed widespread dissatisfaction at 20 years of Bouteflika rule.
In 1999, Bouteflika presented himself as a saviour from the economic and political crisis of the 1990s. But he represented the interests of a military oligarchy that controls oil and power resources, a bureaucratic class that took advantage of state power to accumulate wealth, mainly through French oil and gas companies.
Economic and social conditions deteriorated as Bouteflika followed the same neoliberal policies his predecessors had implemented.
The current protests reflect the power of the Algerian people, who achieved independence from France in 1962 after “the Algerian revolution”.
The National Liberation Front led this revolution, leading to the withdrawal of the French occupation. However, many veterans say the independence agreement guaranteed the interests of French imperialists. They called for the shift from the national revolution to the socialist revolution.
After Houari Boumédiène seized power in a coup in 1965 state policies swayed towards privatisation and a liberal economy, which guaranteed that the interests of international capital were met and allowed a small number of the bourgeoisie to accumulate capital and enrich themselves by taking advantage of the state structure. For the majority of Algerians, this led to severe economic and social problems.
In 2018, oil exports made up 95% of Algeria’s foreign income. Social inequalities had increased significantly and unemployment rates were at 12.3%. More than one in four Algerians under the age of 30 is unemployed.
Students and workers to the fore
The Algerian student movement has been actively engaged in the protests. Thousands of students participated in the mass mobilisation, resulting in the Ministry of Higher Education ordering an early start to the spring holidays. However, the students defied this attempt at demobilisation and continued to mobilise.
The leadership of main Algerian trade union UGT supported Bouteflika’s candidacy, but many of its local branches rejected this alignment and released statements denouncing the position of their leaders.
Recently, a huge number of the working class joined the protests wearing yellow jackets similar to those worn by anti-Macron protesters in France.
The trade unions of teachers and educational workers called for a teacher strike on 26 and 27 February. A week later, a general strike shut down the transportation system, schools and commercial facilities.
Algeria hasn’t seen this kind of opposition in three decades, although there have been many protests that reflect the growing social struggle. There were massive mobilisations against finance law in 2017 and a big strike by workers against pension reform and huge demonstrations in 2011 demanding an increase in the minimum wage.
Many activists in Algeria consider this wave of protests as a continuation of the political turmoil that has shaken the region since 2011. They see this new surge in protest as a step forward in a revolutionary process. Others consider it a promising revolution against the political crisis of the Algerian ruling class.
The voices of the youth, women and men express a flagrant reality: the 82-year-old Bouteflika does not only represent a failure of the ruling class to find its “constitutional representative” but also the failure of the entire liberal regime to meet the demands of the Algerian people and the need to provide a human alternative to robotic neo-liberalism.