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From The Socialist newspaper, 7 April 2010

Mass protests and strikes continue to shake Algeria

THE BEGINNING of 2010 has been marked by an intensification of struggles by the workers and poor of Algeria. Enormous resentment and frustration is rising because of ever-worsening living conditions, sky-rocketing unemployment, and the ceaseless rise in the cost of living.

Cedric Gerome, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

Added to that is the lack of democratic rights and the systemic corruption of the ruling class and officialdom.

Until now, the regime of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has used a combination of the 'carrot and stick' to end the numerous protests, youth riots and workers' strikes.

Strong repression, systematic threats and intimidation have been deployed, especially against strikes. These include: legal action, arbitrary arrests, suspensions of wages, threats to dissolve the unions calling strikes, and threats of exclusion from public sector jobs.

After the eruption of important strikes in recent months, these methods have only revealed the weaknesses of the regime and its fear of losing control of the situation.

On the other hand, the acute housing crisis and the sporadic local explosions of anger linked to this question, have forced the regime to take some measures to re-house families.

In most cases, however, this kind of 'concession' has only convinced more people to take their turn on the streets.

Referring to the announcement by the authorities that new houses would be allocated to hundreds of families in the poor district of Diar Echem, in El Madania commune (Algiers), the newspaper, Le Jour d'Algerie, said: "The re-housing of the residents of Diar Echem after their uprising has finally set a precedent and raises the threat of the protests spreading. People think now that to qualify for a home, you must go out into the street."

The official media conceals what is really happening and praises the regime's policies.

In one of its recent editorials, El Moudjahid, one of the official voices of the regime and ardent defender of Bouteflika's policies, offered a picture of the country which seems to be taken from Alice in Wonderland: "In a decade, the impact on the ground of the improvement of the living conditions of the population, thanks to the programme of the President of the Republic, is incredible."

Workers' fightback

For several months, public-sector workers, teachers and doctors in particular, have been engaged in massive and prolonged strike action, called by independent unions.

These independent unions, although not officially recognised by the government, are becoming more and more the channel for working class anger.

The official UGTA union is totally incapable of leading any form of resistance. It has long been utterly discredited, as being a servant of the regime, and openly betrayed the recent disputes.

Since the start of the school-year, teachers have been in intense mobilisation, with a long series of courageous strikes. Notably, they were demanding a wage review and the full recognition of their unions. Also, the lack of teaching staff has become a critical issue.

The strikes in the education sector have been met with constant intimidation from the regime. Some striking teachers have been savagely beaten by the police. This was accompanied by a propaganda offensive: a constant stream of lies, publishing fake figures of teachers' wages, or depicting them as 'privileged people', sacrificing the future of their students by preventing them from studying.

Despite that, the massive turnout during the teachers' strike has been maintained. The strike, which started on 24 February, saw 93% of the 500,000 teachers participating.

The government also used legal means in an attempt to break the movement. The strike was declared 'illegal' by a court verdict on 3 March. However, the teachers continued their strike in large numbers. The education minister then called for the suspension of any teacher continuing to strike.

In the same vein, public health practitioners have been on unlimited strike for months, for decent wages and a revision of their status.

The strike has been met with an important wave of support and sympathy from ordinary people and workers. On the other hand, it has been hit with repression from the state, and with attacks against the right to strike.

In late March, the health minister used the courts to declare the strike 'illegal', and announced the sacking of all the workers who continue to challenge the authorities.

Contagion

Accompanied by other significant strikes at the beginning of the year (see previous article: http://www.socialistworld.net/index.php/4065), these disputes are encouraging other sectors to fight back.

At the end of January, 126,000 taxi drivers were on a two-day national strike. Workers from the 'professional formation' engaged in a three-day national strike from 22 March. Train drivers in Algiers spontaneously went on strike on 28 March to demand a wage increase.

500,000 local council workers decided on a two-day national strike from 30 March, to denounce the "degradation of working conditions and purchasing power".

"The disputes are beginning to look like volcanic eruptions from which the lava is spreading across the whole country (El Watan, 15 March)."

More than ever, the vital need of a united struggle has to be put on the agenda. A national strike of all public-sector workers for an increase in real wages, the full recognition of independent trade unions, and for the defence of the right to strike, could be a first step to bring the different sectors together in a united front against the attempts of the government to silence the voice of the working class.

Wages

The issue of wages has been the starting point for many of the disputes. Throughout the 1990s, on the demand of the IMF, the Algerian regime has steeply devalued the national currency (the dinar), reducing to the extreme the real wages of the workers and their families.

Moreover, the liberalisation of commerce has opened the door to all sorts of speculators who are artificially raising the prices of basic commodities, to make profits on the backs of the poorest.

In contrast to the poorest people, during the Bouteflika era, MPs and ministers have been regularly rewarded with generous wages increases (the last one being 300%). Also, foreign multinationals and a whole layer of 'nouveaux riches' have made fortunes by profiting from the neoliberal reforms implemented in the last two decades, including the dismantling and privatisation of previous state-owned companies.

There has also been an avalanche of corruption and fraud scandals hitting the heart of the regime: cabinet chiefs, managers of national companies, members or ex-members of the government, etc.

These scandals are also revealing that, at the top of society, there is an internal battle for power going on behind the scenes between factions of the army and the military intelligence service, and Bouteflika's clique, to prepare the post-Bouteflika era.

Programme

The endeavours of the national football team are consistently used to trigger patriotic feelings. And the ruling elite (part of which still comes from the old generation of FLN leaders of the Algerian war) still tries to exploit the deep anti-colonialist sentiment in order to provide itself with a new dose of legitimacy.

However, the social basis of the regime has been shaken. This leads it to increase repression, along with propaganda which describes the struggles of the masses as the plots of a minority wanting to 'destabilise the country'.

This could have a certain impact if the workers' front remains divided, and its actions compartmentalised. A more generalised and clear strategy to cut across the propaganda of the government and its divide-and-rule policies is absolutely vital.

For this, the working class needs its own organisations and structures through which strategies can be democratically discussed and implemented. The formation of democratic committees of struggle must be established in the workplaces and communities.

Without a clear political programme and structures to unify the struggles, the energy of the masses runs the risk of being wasted.

Worse than that, the despair in some layers of the population, and the alienation of some sections of the youth, could be diverted into conflict between working communities. This already happened last year with violent clashes of Algerian people against Chinese working immigrants in the capital and other areas.

What is urgently needed is a workers' party that can play the role of "concentrating all the drops and streamlets of popular resentment into a single gigantic torrent", as Lenin famously put it.

Such a party could become the junction between the different workers' actions and the numerous local protests for the improvement of infrastructure and social conditions.

In the final analysis, for these battles to be successful, they will have to confront the political power and the interests of the capitalist elite. In other words, they will need to remove the resources of the country from the thin layer which controls them at present, and put them in the hands of working-class people.

For the full version of this article see www.socialistworld.net

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