Since February 22, growing numbers of Algerians have taken peacefully to the streets to signal their rejection of a fifth mandate for president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in elections scheduled for April 18. To undercut student demonstrations, the spring holiday has been advanced. Growing numbers of workers are taking part in a strike movement that has shut down businesses and transport in many parts of the country. The IUF-affiliated SNATEG, the independent union of workers at the public energy utility SONELGAZ, on March 10 called on its members to support a general strike.
The power constellation which has coalesced around Boutaflika was surprised by the sweep of the spontaneous protest movement unleashed by its own blind arrogance – as ruling powers always are. Some of its core components, including the state trade union organization, have begun to tentatively distance themselves from a phantom president whose voice has not been heard in public for years. Their goal is to ride out the crisis to preserve the essential elements of power – Boutaflikism without Boutaflika.
Algerians are demanding more than a change of face – they are calling for the end of what is widely referred to as le pouvoir, the power, a system which has symbolically appropriated the independence struggle but for decades has condemned its citizens to poverty and humiliation and denied them hope for the future.
The outcome is far from certain. The position of the army and security services has not yet been defined. The various opposition parties do not enjoy mass credibility. Democratic civil society, including the independent trade unions who for many years have been the principle reserve of democratic opposition, will have to steer the long, difficult process.
Independent trade unionists in Algeria have paid a steep price for their struggle in harassment, surveillance, arrests, fines, dismissals and jail. That they continue to struggle is a powerful reminder of the universal foundation of the labour movement: its commitment to democracy. Particularly now, at this potential turning point in their long struggle, the independent unions in Algeria need our full support.
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