ALGERIA March 10 : The working class enters the scene

Our correspondents in Algeria report on a new, eventful week — from March 6 to 10 — in the revolutionary process that began in Algeria on February 22. 

Algiers, March 10, 2019

Ouvriers algériens zone industrielle de roubia

Wednesday, March 6. While the higher-up officials of the regime seem not to want to back down, there are increasing calls to demonstrate on Friday, March 8, with explicit reference to International Women’s Day. But this time, important organised sectors of society are calling to mobilise, as is the case, for example of the National Organisation of Mujahideen (which brings together former combatants of the Algerian Revolution). Reacting to the statements of the Trump administration, which the day before claimed to « support the peaceful demonstrations », the students in Algiers came up with a new slogan, in Arabic: « Trump, leave us alone! This is a family affair that can be settled within the family! » 

In the organised sectors of the working class, mobilisations are continuing in the effort to reclaim the UGTA, the historic trade union federation. Thus, in the workers’ bastion of Rouiba, the eastern suburb of Algiers where the largest industrial zone in the country is located, the local UGTA union affiliate met « at the insistence of the workers and the trade union sections, » the statement said. « The workers welcome the peaceful, fraternal and responsible nature of the demonstrations. Unable to remain on the fringes of the deep popular aspirations expressed in these actions, we join our voices to say ‘yes’ to a change of system. » The UGTA affiliate’s declaration went on to call for « a system that guarantees individual and collective freedoms and the free exercise of the right to organise« . The local union also demanded « an emergency meeting of the National Executive Board (…) to discuss the situation and take a clear position in the interest of the country, the workers, and the UGTA« . 

Friday, March 8. It is again a historic day. In the morning, thousands of demonstrators begin to gather in all cities, large and small. Women, in particular, who came in large numbers, are visible in all the contingents. In Algiers, all the city’s major arteries are blocked by more than a million demonstrators — this in a capital, let us recall, where all demonstrations, up till only three weeks ago, were illegal. 

In the capital, as throughout the country, you can see tens of thousands of Algerian flags (in Algiers, a woman waved a hand-sewn flag from 1953), with thousands of slogans, written on hand-made signs and sometimes on banners, that are chanted loudly by thousands of voices. The « No to the Fifth Term », in all its forms, is accompanied by slogans against the regime: « System: Clear Out! »; « Let the Voices of the People Be Heard! ». 

Everywhere, we see scenes of fraternisation with the rank-and-file police officers: « Police officer, take off your cap and join us! », chanted the demonstrators. Here and there, in some contingents, better-structured organisations have large painted slogans on signs and banners. Thus, in Algiers, a contingent marched behind a large banner that read: « Sovereign Constituent Assembly! The People Must Decide, System: Clear Out! ». Many of the signs put forward these other demands: « Equality in the Struggle and in Rights »; « Repeal the Family Code! »; « For Democratic Freedoms and Social Justice! » 

It is under these conditions that the UGTA education federation, breaking with the support for the « Fifth Term » by the general secretary of the UGTA, Abdelmadjid Sidi Saïd, issued a call for a general strike as of March 10. 

The day after this powerful movement, the government made a major mistake. On March 9, it announced that the students’ holidays, initially scheduled for April 4, had been moved up to March 10. This was a crude maneuver in an attempt to defuse support for the general strike by students and higher education teachers. But students did not waver in their determination to pursue the strike. « For the first time in history, activists, teachers and students are joking that they have to oppose taking their holidays.’ On all campuses, students are organising to force the continued opening of university restaurants and student unions. Committees are formed to impose the opening of services, thus allowing students to stay on their campuses and continue the strike as of March 10. 

Sunday, March 10, the beginning of the workweek in Algeria. In the morning, students and high school students start working in a large number of high schools and university centres. But the most significant event of the day is the emergence of the Algerian working class, leading its organisations into the field of battle with localised strikes that are part of a major strike that is growing and becoming generalised nationwide. 

In large industrial centres, workers are meeting in the thousands with the union sections and, little by little, they are joining the strike. At 11 a.m., the workers of the huge industrial area of Rouiba decided to march on Algiers, and they brought the high school students into their contingents. For the first time, the government called out the gendarmerie, a unit more « reliable » than the police, with the aim of blocking the access roads to the workers seeking to march to Algiers. 

Workers in many companies, such as Sonelgaz, express in their slogans their desire to win back the UGTA, chanting « Sonelgaz no longer wants Sidi Said! » 

In Algiers, the tramway and metro are at a standstill. The majority of private passenger buses between the eastern and western parts of Algiers to the centre of Algiers are at a stop. In the other wilayas (departments), private urban, suburban and interwilaya transportation is also shut down by the strike. The port of Bejaia is on strike. In the secondary education 

sector, the staff strike has freed up tens of thousands of middle and high school students, who are protesting in the streets. In many cities, the strike also affects businesses, which are mainly closed. 

In the middle of the day, the UGTA trade union sections in the Hassi R’Mel area – one of the gas-extraction centres – issued a call to strike. Concern is spreading among all the forces committed to maintaining the regime, who are trying to oppose and stop the strike with statements such as that of an « international oil expert », widely relayed on social networks, who said: « I have no doubt about the sincerity of many of these appeals (for a strike). But my duty, as an expert, is to explain to you how the Algerian oil and gas system works (…). My conclusion is therefore as follows: a strike in the national oil and gas industry is excessively dangerous. It is to be avoided at all costs. » Despite the warnings of « Mr. Expert »… the workers continued to swell the movement en masse

Aware of the state of the relationship of forces at the present time, the workers did not seek to radicalize their movement, and they returned to work at the end of the day. 

But their emergence onto the scene, wielding their traditional weapon, the strike, and their struggle to reclaim their organisations for the struggle, are a powerful factor that is heightening all the contradictions. 

This is illustrated by two facts announced a few hours apart. On the one hand, a thousand judges publicly announced that they will refuse to supervise the presidential election if Bouteflika runs for a fifth term. On the other hand, the 8 p.m. news reported, as if nothing had happened, this Sunday evening that, « President Bouteflika has returned from Geneva where he was undergoing medical examinations. … » 

Algiers, March 10, 2019 Correspondents