Baba Aye discusses the protests in Algeria, the colonial legacy that still shapes the country’s politics today, and the decision of independence hero Bouteflika to step down
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
After two months of raging protest in Algeria, interim President Abdelkader Bensalah announced that elections will take place on the 4th of July. Former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika ruled the country for 20 years, but when the 82 year old and mostly bedridden president announced his intention to run for re-election in February, a massive uprising began against him and against his supporters in the government. Bouteflika relented and said that he would not stand for reelection, but rather postpone the elections. That did very little to quell the protests, and on Tuesday, Bouteflika finally agreed to step down, triggering the automatic appointment of the president of the National Council, the upper house of parliament, to take the role of interim president. Abdelkader Bensalah was sworn in as interim president for 90 days.
Now, protests in Algiers have not really subsided in spite of all of this. The appointment of the interim president did very little. Let’s listen.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to discuss the situation in Algeria is Baba Aye. Baba is the policy officer for the Health and Social Services of Public Services International, a global trade union federation. Baba, thank you so much for joining us today.
BABA AYE: Thank you, Sharmini. It’s my pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Baba, have the protesters achieved what they wanted, as sort of a forced resignation of not only Bouteflika, but this entire government to step aside for a new generation of leaders to take over?
BABA AYE: It itself represents a new generation in Algeria that is not held down by the dark moments of the 1990s. You could say somewhat the first face of the Arab Spring kind of past Algeria by, partly because you had what you would say “carrot and stick.” The stick was more historical; The Civil War of the 1990s stood in people’s mind as how dangerous times could be when you had serious conflict. Then there was also the carrot of state subsidies of a state that used the reins from oil to try and give a relatively decent living standard. I mean, you should have in mind that Algeria is the country with the least level of inequality in Africa, with a Gini coefficient of 27.6, as against Nigeria for example, of 43, and the other end South Africa with 63.4.
But all this kind of started to fall apart with the collapse in the price of oil in the international markets by 2014 thereabouts, and you had rising prices of commodities, and cuts in subsidies, and shortage of will, and rising unemployment, that’s like 30 percent by last year. So you had a young population of working class people that were not only angry but were not held back by some of what the older generation could cast their mind back to the 1990s civil war. So I would say it’s part of the broad, long drawn situation that the world is since the Great Recession, where the old refuses to die, that is, the old order of neoliberal capitalism and capitalism in general, and the young struggles to depart it. But it faces challenges of organization, faces challenges of ideological question, but all the same, points to move forward.
And in the particular case of Algeria, you have had this reawakening, this second phase of the Arab Spring, and part of the resurgence of what can people and youth in struggle against the present system which has shown that it does not work and which has had the hegemony, it has been able to wield shattered–not exactly shattered, but broken enough–to create such spaces as what you now see in Algeria and elsewhere in Sudan.
SHARMINI PERIES: OK. Now, let’s talk about the nature of the uprising. You identified them as young people and that this is a late Arab Spring. What is it that they want, and what is the political composition of this uprising in Algiers?
BABA AYE: Yes. It takes a spark to set ablaze fire when you already have inflammable social circumstances. So the intention of the le pouvoir, the power behind the deep state in Algeria, to still put Bouteflika forward as president was more of an ignition for anger. And it’s not just youths. You’re talking of working class people. These are youth, many from a working class background. And it’s important to note that you had a series of strikes in the in the dying days of Bouteflika which played a decisive role in convincing the deep state that it was not enough for Bouteflika to say he would not seek re-election when there was a need to sacrifice him in the collective interest.
So what you have here is the trade union movement, the UJTA, where interestingly–because you had cooperation as well as repression as the strategy of the FLN over the past couple of decades. So you had the UJTA having some ties sort of with the state, which had been loosened over the past decade thereabout, but still there, which is why a lot of the strikes that you had were what you would say illegal strikes because they did not, of course, go to the due process in court. So the composition–workers, youth, professionals, middle class elements. And then you had–and which is something that is not at all unusual in moments like this–you had the sections of the ruling class crossing over to the popular sector of the masses in motion, the masses moving to change their reality.
And you now have the deep state trying to manage the situation, trying to deflect the mass revolution from below into safer waters of contrived elections for July. And that is what’s Bensalah’s rule as a symbol for the deep state, that is what it stands for. That’s is the role they are playing. So in the next couple of months, a lot depends on the working class not getting sucked into electoral institutions which the deep States is sew, trying to make it appear that the problem was strictly about Bouteflika. So a lot’s uncertain times, we are really in uncertain times, not only in Algeria, but globally. And we have lessons to learn, just as the ruling class has also drawn lessons from the first face of the Arab Spring.
And I want to say also here, the role of imperialist forces. It’s quite interesting that, despite the earlier Arab Spring and the arrows made by American imperialism in particular, and Britain, when you had the Mubarak ticket they could manage it. Macron commended Bouteflika, saying he would not contest, but not saying that it would get this far. But you can expect, behind the scenes, France, which still benefits immensely from its neocolonial ties with Algeria, to pull strings to try and ensure that the safe waters of electoralism is where this mass movement would flow into. But–and this is why it’s important to note–from the positions of a lot of people on the streets, they are rather emboldened to go forward with the struggle.
What we will now have the challenge would be what parties stand up, do we have parties that will take this issue beyond just parliamentary struggle? What does “down with the system” mean? Should it go beyond just down with Bouteflika and his immediate circle? I would think that tens of thousands, if not millions, of working class people and youth in Algeria would want to take this forward, would be ready to take the struggle. A lot depends on the leadership emerging from this and the contention between the right wing, which right now is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And look also at Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, Sudan, Egypt, you see the same trend. We had the military, or at least sections of the military, come forward as similarly friends of the people.
But the fact is that with friends such as the military, the working class people need no enemy, because the military stands to defend the status quo of the regime, of the system of the bosses. And the deep states comprises the military itself, I mean the political and the business class, which is feeling very, very emboldened now. Now, there was news about one of the richest men in Algeria attempting to bail out with lots of money in suitcases, so that shows that they are not sure that they might be able to get the situation under control, but they will do everything possible to do that. And the working class have to see beyond July 4, and seeing beyond July 4 would need carrying on with mass strikes to demand a complete overthrow of the system.
SHARMINI PERIES: Baba Aye, Bouteflika, of course, was a significant figure all these years. The anticolonial movement and the struggle against the French was somewhat embodied in Bouteflika. If you would ode to him in terms of a departing statement?
BABA AYE: Well, I would say Bouteflika is a good example of national liberation movements’ limitations. It’s interesting to know that he was quite close to Frantz Fanon. And he was part of–from the time of Ben Bella, Bourmediene, and Bendjedid, the first three presidents, they were part and parcel of the struggle, very bloody struggle against French imperialism, French colonialism. And in the 70s, they played a role in making Algiers a center for radicals and revolutionaries, from the Viet Cong to the Black Panther Party and so on and so forth. But–and this is the important bit to note–we are seeing similar situations with the ANC in South Africa. We are, subsequent to liberation, the national liberation movements’ leadership now rather becomes what the colonial masters were with indigenous kings.
And that is why it is important to place class at the center of national liberation, the social emancipation of working class people. It is not enough to have some legendary figures liberate the people. And this is what Che Guevara was pointing out when he said that he was not a liberator. The emancipation of working class people must and can only be guaranteed as the act of self-emancipation, and that is the importance of these past two months. The importance of these past two months is that you had the revolutionary pressures from below, you had a possible new society starting from demands for freedom, for peace, for bread, from basics to going beyond this.
So I will say that talking of what’s possible for Bouteflika, it is also important to point out that I said Bouteflika is like the legend of Aristide, where you had a figure that was himself as good as half dead being representative for a broad pantheon of forces behind the scenes who benefit from the system economically and politically. So I would say farewell to national liberation that situates itself within the capitalist paradigm of development, even where and when it espouses socialist rhetoric, as the front for the National Liberation Front did in its early days and decades. And part of that is you can see that it did not take much for it to shrink to the new liberal paradigm when the Washington Consensus was dominant. So I’ll say farewell to national liberation sans social emancipation of the working class people. What we need now is–well, it might sound like a cliche, but not exactly–I would say we need the revolution in permanence.
SHARMINI PERIES: I’ve been speaking with Baba Aye. He is editor of the Socialist Worker in Nigeria, as well as he’s an editor with the Review of African Political Economy. I thank you so much for joining us today, Baba.
BABA AYE: Thank you very much, Sharmini. My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.