From uneven and combined development to revolution: the roots of Algeria’s crisis

Issue: 166

Gianni Del Panta

On 2 April 2019, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to resign.1 In scarcely more than one month, a massive popular movement that had emerged for the first time on 22 February managed to get rid of the ageing and ill dictator who had ruled the country since 1999. The movement had shown how “the entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership of their own destiny” can rapidly turn the apparently impossible into the inevitable.2

As recently argued by Joseph Choonara, the Algerian revolution has to be considered as part of a new global cycle of revolt that has seen mass protest from Chile and Colombia to France, Sudan and Lebanon.3 In these recent struggles, the role of workers as a collective force has not always been central—for instance, in Hong Kong and in Iraq. In Algeria, however, it has been critical. Workers’ activity both prepared the way for the mass movement of 2019 and drove it to victory over Bouteflika. An impressive wave of workers’ protests and strikes between 2013 and 2019 posed a serious threat to Bouteflika’s rule, and crucially helped to foster a diffuse “culture of protest”. During this period, workers pioneered forms of contestation—from square occupation to street politics—that subsequently became part of the 22 February 2019 hirak (“movement”). Then, with the launching of a five-day general strike on 10 March, workers collectively joined the revolution, tilting the balance of power in favour of the opposition and forcing the military to remove Bouteflika.

In both the pre-2019 period and the course of the revolutionary uprising itself, four main social groups were decisive in the accumulation of radical stamina: firstly, public sector workers; secondly, the industrial proletariat in gigantic factories; thirdly, the lower classes of the south; and, fourthly, workers operating in the strategic oil and gas activities. In this article, I will argue that the mobilisation of these different sectors of society should be understood with the aid of the insights offered by the theory of Uneven and Combined Development (UCD). The theory of UCD was conceptualised by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in a very different period. Nevertheless, I argue that we can use the theory to describe key features of Algerian society if we free it from the particular context in which it was first formulated. Doing this also gives us an opportunity to reassess the relevance of the strategy of permanent revolution in today’s Global South. This will shed light on the current state of the Algerian revolution, which is ongoing but which has not yet achieved a redistribution of power in favour of the workers and lower classes.

Leon Trotsky in Algiers

Trotsky’s original formulation of the theory of UCD describes the coming together and reciprocal interaction of different modes of production. Archaic and modern forms of economic activity and organisation are drawn together and fuse, transforming social formations into more than a mere sum of their parts.4 The engine of this process is competition. Because less developed countries suffer geopolitical and economic competition from the core capitalist states, they are forced to introduce the latest achievements in technological and industrial terms in an attempt to “catch up” with the more developed ones. The leaps that result from this mean that the transformation of the poorer countries doesn’t reflect any linear model of development.5 In Trotsky’s Russia, this meant that some parts of heavy industry were as advanced, or more advanced, as those in the West, despite the country remaining overwhelmingly rural and feudal. Amid the backwardness of a largely peasant society, Russia’s cities saw a concentration of labour in factories without equivalence elsewhere in the industrialised world.6 This created a tension-prone society in which the blending and melding together of the ancient and modern—not only economically, but also politically and socially—rendered the political situation particularly unstable. Through developing the theory of UCD, Trotsky rejected an evolutionist perspective, according to which modes of production succeed one another automatically in a pre-ordained pattern. Instead, he envisaged the possibility that the bourgeois, democratic and the proletarian, socialist revolutions might fuse together in what he called the strategy of “permanent revolution”.7

However, this idea of permanent revolution might seem obsolete in a world in which bourgeois revolutions—revolutions that create the basis for fully-fledged capitalism—have already been accomplished everywhere.8 It might be therefore expected that contemporary revolutions have to be socialist if they happen at all. However, as we have seen repeatedly, this is not the case. Most of today’s revolutionary uprisings in the Global South do not immediately present themselves as socialist revolutions, but as class-based revolts aimed at winning civil and political rights. In their early phases, they tend to be bourgeois, democratic revolutions in a world already dominated by capitalism. Making sense of this contradiction requires that we rescue the theory of UCD from the historically-specific context that it was first formulated within. Two aspects of the theory are particularly important in this regard.

First, while Trotsky refers to the combination of different modes of production, combined development does not necessarily involve pre-capitalist and capitalist social formations.9 As Anne Alexander recently argued in her analysis of the revolutions in Sudan and Algeria, “development that combines different phases of capitalism…create[s] a readily combustible mix”.10 UCD can also be thought of as the concurrent presence of different phases of capitalist development—for instance, state capitalism, rent-based accumulation strategies, neoliberal policies and so on.

Second, while the theory of UCD has often been understood as referring only to the way in which underdeveloped countries attempt to “catch up” with the development of advanced countries, this is not the only way in which uneven and combined development can take place. The endeavour to deflect external pressures coming from the core capitalist states can also cause less developed countries to not undertake modernising efforts, or to suspend them when they have already begun. By doing this, the ruling elites of the Global South hope to become integrated into regional and international networks under the leadership of global capital. By serving the interests of imperialist powers and providing an internal environment favourable to the profit-making of transnational capital, peripheral countries can bypass any real attempt to reach the ranks of advanced capitalist states and instead survive as de-industrialised raw material providers whose natural resources and previous existing industrial fabric are parasitically exploited by foreign companies.

While new attempts to “catch up” with the most developed states cannot be ruled out, the failure of many countries of the Global South to become competitive centres of capital accumulation—after all, South Korea and China are the exception rather than the rule—means that uneven and combined developmnent has not been overcome, but persists.11 Moreover, the alternation of various different phases of capitalist development—such as state capitalism and neoliberalism—do not simply follow one another in a linear way. Rather, they coexist and interact, creating an amalgam that makes the outbreak of revolutionary uprisings more likely. The structural trigger of these mass movements is the persistent failure of peripheral countries to emerge as autonomous and independent centres of capitalist accumulation—often in combination with the denial of the most elementary political and civil rights to their citizens.

The emergence of revolution therefore poses huge questions about the development of countries in the Global South. The achievement of real economic and military independence for the countries from core capitalist states and the introduction of real democratic institutions and procedures is continually frustrated. Due to the effects of uneven and combined development, leading fractions of the capitalist class tend to be rent-seeking, unproductive, parasitic and dependent for their profits on the state rather than on the working of the market. For these reasons, the capitalist class is extremely resistant to granting even minimal guarantees of civil rights or allowing fair elections of representative governments, since these would potentially jeopardise its capacity to reproduce itself as a class.

The obstacles to the transformation of the superstructure of the state, and the blending together of its political and social souls of the revolution, has fuelled continuous mobilisations of Algeria’s hirak.12 However, street politics cannot last forever. Either the lower classes, under the leadership of the workers, create the political forms needed to take power and win social emancipation or a new militarised dictatorship will probably emerge. The situation in Algeria thus underlines that the strategy of permanent revolution remains highly relevant in today’s Global South.

Phases of capitalist development in Algeria

When Algeria achieved independence from France in 1962 after an 8-year-war of national liberation, its economy was broken. Independence was followed by a massive flight of capital and administrative elites. Out of necessity, workers and peasants resumed production on their own, starting the so-called autogestion (self-management) experiment. In March 1963, the government of President Ahmed Ben Bella backed the movement, unleashing the fierce opposition of propertied classes and liberal forces.

But this phase was short-lived. It was ended by Houari Boumédiène’s bloodless military intervention in 1965. In the wake of the coup, Algeria adopted a strategy of accelerated development characterised by heavy industrialisation, a centrally planned economy, nationalisation policies, tight control over foreign capital, agrarian reform and a highly-financed welfare state. Algeria had been transformed by the period of French domination into a resource-extracting hinterland for the metropole and an importer of manufactured consumer goods. This led to an inconsistent process of industrialisation and prevented the development of an indigenous capitalist class.13 State capitalism emerged as a strategy to break the chains of dependence from core capitalist states and transform Algeria into a competitive centre of capitalist accumulation. This model was based on unbalanced sectoral growth in which top priority was given to capital-intensive industries such as steel, heavy machinery, iron metallurgy, organic and inorganic chemistry and electricity. Factories were vertically-integrated, so that state companies controlled the production, distribution and sale of their products. These activities were concentrated in the industrial citadels of Rouïba, Mostaganem, Arzew and the Skikda-Constantine-Annaba triangle.14

It was expected that huge manufacturing investments in vertically-integrated, state-owned factories, financed by oil and gas rents, would stimulate all the other sectors of the economy. This strategy superficially appeared to work in the 1970s, and Algeria’s economy expanded at impressive pace. But the two real drivers of this growth were an astonishing state spending programme and the two global oil shocks that caused unprecedentedly high hydrocarbon prices. Thus, industrialisation in Algeria was never really a success story—it failed to establish the sort of solid industrial base that might have transformed the country into a competitive export-oriented manufacturing economy.15 Nevertheless, state capitalism did greatly affect the class structure of Algerian society. Non-agricultural employment increased dramatically under Boumédiène, with the most rapid growth in heavy industry.16 In a similar way, the numerical weight of white-collar workers in state bureaucracy increased significantly, inaugurating a trend that would become even more important in the 1980s.

When Boumédiène suddenly passed away in December 1978 and Chadli Bendjedid took power, the contradictions of Algerian state capitalism were already obvious—hydrocarbons accounted for 98 percent of export earnings; all state enterprises (except Sonatrach, the national oil and gas company) had negative operating surpluses every year between 1968 and 1977; state debt was skyrocketing; and profits were mainly concentrated in the private sector. From the early 1980s onwards, the long-term project of using oil revenues as the basis for a process of accelerated economic development was abandoned, leading to a gradual shift from energy-based industrialisation towards an allocative rentier economy through which specific classes and groups were passively co-opted by the regime. Private sector initiative was encouraged and state-owned enterprises restructured and decentralised, although privatisation remained taboo. At the same time, the number of workers employed in administration, education and healthcare grew by an astonishing 207 percent between 1977 and 1987, increasing from 385,000 to 1,180,000.17

This economic model began to break down when oil prices violently dropped in 1985-86. Mass protests in October 1988 were severely repressed by the regime. After the crushing of the movement, the regime surprisingly inaugurated a period of political opening with the aim of regaining legitimacy. However, this was subsequently closed down by the 1992 military coup that was launched to prevent an Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), from taking power when it seemed poised to win a majority in Parliament. A cruel and long-lasting civil war resulted.

Economic liberalisation continued in this period and culminated in the signing of a structural adjustment plan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1994. This marked the start of an unprecedented process of de-industrialisation. By 2015, manufacturing production had fallen to about half of what it had been in 1989. Manufacturing value-added to GDP decreased from 14 percent in 1985 to about 5 percent in 2010. The textile, leather, shoes, wood and paper industries almost completely disappeared.

Three main factors contributed in this collapse in manufacturing. First, government investment in industry plummeted from an average of nearly 60 percent in the 1970s to less than 5 percent in the 1990s, and disappeared completely from the second half of the 2000s onwards.18 Second, privatisation of state-owned enterprises, with a few remarkable exceptions (most importantly the El Hadjar’s iron and steel complex), was much weaker in Algeria than elsewhere in the Middle East, meaning that many factories were simply closed down.19 Third and finally, the Algerian market has been penetrated by Chinese products over the last two decades or so. In 2017, for instance, Beijing was by far the greatest exporter to the country, easily overtaking France and Italy. With manufactured goods making up half of Chinese exports, huge pressure was put on Algerian industry, forcing factories out of the market in various sectors.

The process of de-industrialisation in Algeria went hand in hand with a reduction of manufacturing employment, which declined from 16.4 percent in 1987 to less than 9 percent in 2010.20 Nevertheless, workers’ resistance to government attempts to close down workplaces meant that some of the gigantic vertically-integrated factories established during Boumédiène’s state capitalism survived. In such huge complexes, such as the National Company of Industrial Vehicles (SNVI) plant in Rouïba, a long-lasting tradition of labour militancy developed in the 1970s and 1980s, surviving underground in the following decades and spectacularly re-emerging once again in 2016.

The combination of different phases of capitalist development in Algeria unleashed an important structural contradiction: the reduction, in percentage terms, of state employees and the worsening of their workplace, economic and social conditions after the end of the civil war. As already seen, the number of white-collar workers in the bureaucracy grew steadily under the presidencies of both Boumédiène and Bendjedid. In 1987, for instance, almost two-thirds of Algerians who had a formal job were employed in the public sector (although not all were white collar). However, less than 50 percent of the economically active Algerian population worked in the public sector by 2010 and just 40 percent in 2014.21 About four out of five public sector workers were employed in public administration, education or health services—sectors that were heavily affected by the reduction of funds allocated by central and local authorities, by the government’s freezing of public wage increases in the 2011-16 period and by the November 2016 pension reform that scrapped the option to retire after 25 years of work and increased the retirement age from 55 to 60 years.22

The coming together of these two phenomena—de-industrialisation and the increasing inability of the public sector to provide employment to the hundreds of thousands who enter the labour market every year—caused an explosion in casualised work. Non-permanent job positions skyrocketed from 6.2 percent in 1992 to 35.4 percent in 2014, and there was a rapid growth of the informal sector—a grey area between legal and illegal activities in which an increasing number of Algerians tried to earn a living. In 2013, more than one in three workers was employed in the informal sector.23

Informal employment was particularly widespread in the south of the country, traditionally the least developed area. Despite the heavy reliance of the Algerian regime on hydrocarbons, which accounted for 97 percent of its total exports in 2014, it had socially, politically and economically neglected the desert areas of the south from which it extracted oil and natural gas. The sharp drop in oil prices since mid-2014, which fell from the $80-110 per barrel range in 2011-13 to just $40-60 in 2015-17, placed the government in a difficult position. This was exacerbated by the dwindling of Algeria’s proven energy resources—gas exports dropped by a half between 2007 and 2018. The state sought to increase production through the use of unconventional and controversial techniques such as fracking, which was almost always carried out in collaboration with US, British, French and Italian multinationals.24 As we shall see, this decision created the condition for the outbreak of an impressive anti-shale gas uprising in December 2014. This exemplifies the deep political instability that results when unevenness relative to core capitalist states, as well as internal unevenness between the different regions of Algeria, fuses together with combined development. Weak industrial and economic development coexisted in the very same area as some of the most advanced technologies were being introduced by European and US oil and gas companies.25

The four wings of the protest movement

Algeria missed out on the 2010-11 Arab revolutions, but the extraordinary social and political ferment of the region became the starting point of a new cycle of protests in the country. Out of this process, revolutionary energies were gradually accumulated. In contrast to Egypt in the 2000s, however, where an unprecedented wave of workers’ strikes and a democratic movement took root, the “political” wing of the protest movement was much weaker in Algeria in the pre-revolutionary period. Both the National Democratic Coordination for Change (CNCD), launched in January 2011, and the two movements that challenged Bouteflika’s attempts to run for a fourth and fifth term of office—Barakat (Enough) in 2014 and Mouwatana (Citizenship) in 2019—failed to gain momentum.26

Most of the revolutionary ferment has to be considered the product of social mobilisations, which skyrocketed from 2013. Four main actors were crucial in this regard. Each of them epitomises the contradictions of the coming together of different phases of capitalist development for a country that was not able to break the chain of dependence. It is therefore interesting to look at these four different subjects in detail and consider the way in which they mobilised.

Public sector workers

The first actor was public sector workers. As we have seen, state sectors had expanded tremendously during Boumédiène’s state capitalism and Bendjedid’s liberalisation. In exchange for passivity and political quiescence, workers enjoyed relatively decent salaries, social benefits, access to universal welfare and limited pressure to be productive. But this changed violently from the 1990s onwards. State-dominated sectors suffered from cuts to budgets, decreasing real terms salaries, rapid growth of temporary positions and limited replacement of retired workers. Once the incremental effect of the assault on state workers’ salaries and conditions became clear it was countered by a huge number of protests and strikes.

An important turning point in this wave of agitations was the mass strike held in the health sector in 2010. Building on the success of this mobilisation, more protests were staged in 2011 and 2013, leading to a huge open-ended strike in November 2014.27 Later, trainee doctors struck for more than eight consecutive months—from late 2017 till the following summer—against their precarious social and economic conditions. This attracted solidarity from other health workers and led to a three-day national general strike in all hospitals in January 2018.

The combativity of the trainee doctors was also mirrored by public sector workers elsewhere: a long wave of strikes affected Air Algérie in 2013, 2015 and at least twice in 2018; workers on Algiers’s subway struck for almost a month and a half starting from late November 2012, and then again for five days over payment conditions in March 2014; railway workers at the National Rail Transportation Company (SNTF) protested twice in 2014 and staged a nine-day strike in May 2016, demanding a 100 percent salary increase for days worked on Fridays and public holidays; and nearly 3,000 public transport workers in Algiers rose up in fury against mismanagement by local and national authorities and proclaimed an open-ended strike in December 2015.

Temporary teachers were also active, staging what has perhaps become the most well known protest of the whole pre-2019 period: a 250 kilometre long “march of dignity” in March-April 2016. This built upon a long series of previous protests, such as the extraordinary seven-week strike of state workers in southern regions in April 2013 and the month-long teachers’ stayaway in March 2014. The 2016 march was mobilised in response to the government’s refusal to automatically integrate about 28,000 temporary teachers into permanent positions, as had happened a few years before, forcing them instead to compete in a national exam. The march started in Béjaïa and headed towards Algiers, but was blocked after eight days by the police in Boudouaou, not far from the capital.28 In the following days, the permanent sit-in built by temporary teachers was violently attacked and evicted. Although the dispute ended in a compromise, it was critical in providing inspiration for a new model of contestation: street protests.29 The 2017 Labour Day, for instance, was celebrated in Béjaïa by more than 10,000 workers who marched through the city, and huge demonstrations were staged by trainee doctors in Constantine and Oran in 2018. Through these sorts of actions, the working class movement paved the way for the outbreak of the revolutionary uprising on 22 February 2019.

One of the most interesting aspects of the mobilisations of public sector workers is the crucial role played by independent trade unions. We can better understand this development if we don’t limit the theory of combined and uneven development to the economic sphere. Instead, we need to look to the way in which uneven and combined development leads to, as argued by Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu, “social conflicts both within the ruling class and between the ruling and subordinate classes.” For instance, the political opening between October 1988 and January 1992 led to the approval of a new industrial relation law in June 1990, which ended the monopoly of the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) on workers’ representation and allowed for the formation of independent unions. These independent unions mushroomed in the following years, especially in the health and education sectors. The victory of the military-led coalition against Islamists in the 1990s civil war led to the emergence of a new authoritarianism and the regime tried to disband the independent trade unions. Yet, due to strong resistance from below, these attempts were never successful, providing workers with mobilising structures for their protests. The mere existence of independent unions, moreover, put pressure on the UGTA. This was the case in the postal sector in January 2013. In an attempt to fend off the creation of an independent postworkers’ union, the UGTA attempted a show of militancy and launched a two-day strike. But at the end of the second day, workers refused to go back to work, prolonging the strike for another 13 days and exposing the opportunistic behaviour of the UGTA. The dispute ended once the government fully accepted workers’ requests, ranging from wage increases to the full stabilisation of precarious workers after a maximum of three years. A new independent union was established after this victory, and this led to a new mobilisation in August 2013. In the course of the strike action, workers occupied the square of the Grande Poste in the centre of Algiers—which subsequently became one of the focal points of the 22 February movement—and symbolically renamed it Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square), in a clear attempt to link their struggle to the centre of the Egyptian revolution, Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Lower classes in the South

The second new actor that appeared on the Algerian political scene in the last years of Bouteflika’s rule was the lower classes of the south. The south had typically been stereotyped as politically docile and culturally backward, but this was challenged in 2013 when the unemployed movement CNDDC (the French acronym for the National Committee for the Defence of the Unemployed) was officially formed in the southern province of Ouargla. CNDDC mobilised more than 8,000 demonstrators from several southern cities against underdevelopment and unemployment in what has become known as Millioniya—literally, a million-person march—on 14 March 2013.30 In the wake of the protest, sit-ins and marches of unemployed youth were also staged in many other southern towns, such as Touggourt, El Oued, Hassi Messaoud and Reggane.

After the national assembly passed a law that allowed for the use of unconventional techniques to drill oil, the new militant character of the lower classes of the south emerged in a sustained anti-fracking uprising. The movement lasted for five months, from December 2014 onwards, and led to the permanent occupation of one of the central squares in Ouargla.31 The high point of the movement was in In Salah, where more than 15,000 people (out of a population of about 30,000 inhabitants) mobilised.32 The engines of the protests were informal workers, students and the unemployed, who suffered from the tremendous contradiction of living in a region with very few opportunities even though its huge oil and gas reserves provides the bulk of Algeria’s wealth. Their anger was exacerbated by two further factors. On one hand, fracking was understood as a serious threat to the only thing that makes life possible in the desert—water supplies. On the other hand, once the name of the partners that would begin the first pilot shale gas project were announced—the consortium was formed by Sonatrach, the Portuguese Partex and the French Total—the general public could see that authorities in Algiers were selling off the country to foreign multinationals.33 The huge mobilisation of the lower classes of the south won the temporary halt of the fracking activities, and a renewed campaign started in July 2017.

Industrial workers

The third crucial component of the protest movement was industrial workers. As underlined before, the process of de-industrialisation in Algeria was contradictory, and some of the major industrial citadels created during Boumédiène’s state capitalism managed to survive it.

In the huge state-owned SNVI factory in Rouïba that produces industrial vehicles a particularly important industrial dispute emerged in November 2016. Although the incredible concentration of workers in this area during the 1970s and 1980s no longer exists, about 100 productive units still employed around 32,000 workers. The SNVI, with some 7,000 employees, was and remains the crucial element in this local industrial complex. Protests there had been anticipated by two violent confrontations between workers and riot police in January 2010 and December 2015. In November 2016, a strike broke out for eight days, directed against the government’s pension reform and the mismanagement of the factory. However, in contrast to the educational and health sectors, workers at the SNVI plant did not mobilise through independent trade unions: instead, they were able to use the structure of the UGTA. While many of the UGTA’s regional and local sections were completely co-opted by the regime, the union had remained partially active in Rouïba. The pressure emanating from mid-ranking trade unionists and rank-and-file militants eventually forced the UGTA to call for a strike, leading to a direct confrontation between workers and the state. The strike ended under pressure from the UGTA central bureau after factory’s management agreed to consider workers’ demands. Nevertheless, tension remained high in the factory for weeks, re-emerging once again in May 2017 when more than 500 workers marched in Rouïba.34

Another important industrial dispute took place at Eniem, the state-owned enterprise that produces home appliances in Oued Aissi, close to Tizi Ouzou. After a first protest in June 2011, the 2,300 workers of the factory struck for 27 consecutive days in January and February 2013, obtaining a substantial salary increase and the collective resignation of the local and state-friendly union affiliated to the UGTA. Just as impressive was the series of strikes in 2010–13 that engulfed the gigantic El Hadjar’s factory in the Annaba’s province, the largest iron and steel complex of the whole African continent. The state-owned enterprise was privatised in 2001, when the multinational steel company ISPAT (now part of Lakshmi Mittal’s ArcelorMittal) bought a 70 percent share.35 After nine years, the workforce had already been reduced by half—from 12,000 to 6,000—and the remaining workers suffered from a severe deterioration in their pay and conditions. In the wake of 2010-13 mobilisations, moreover, 5,000 workers decided to abandon the UGTA and form an independent trade union, which immediately called a new mobilization in December 2013. This move, which contrasted with the development in Rouïba, calls to mind a very similar (yet failed) attempt by thousands of workers in the Mahalla al-Kubra’s textile factory in Egypt just a few years before the outbreak of the 2011 revolution.36

Oil and gas workers

The fourth and final element of the protest movement consisted of workers in the huge oil and gas sector, which accounts for about 97 percent of Algeria’s exports, two-thirds of government spending and a third of the country’s GDP. As in many countries, oil and gas activities in Algeria are characterised by astonishing amounts of wealth being produced by a tiny number of workers. Less than 1 percent of the Algerian labour force (once managers and foreign workers are excluded) worked in this sector in 2017. This means workers in the hydrocarbon sector have a disproportionally high bargaining power. During periods of political turmoil, protests and strikes by oil and gas workers can halt the national economy and unleash a systemic crisis—as shown by the 1979 Iranian Revolution.37 Because of this, states that rely massively on oil and gas rents tend to grant relatively better social and economic conditions to hydrocarbon workers in order to buy them off. This strategy helped the Algerian regime to avoid significant disputes in the oil and gas sectors for many years. But when hydrocarbon prices plummeted on the international markets, and the amount of proven energy reserves fell, the government implemented austerity measures that affected the living conditions and salaries of workers in this section of the economy. This sparked a long series of protests in Sonatrach-controlled facilities, which led to at least three hunger strikes in 2013, 2016 and 2018. One of these also affected the critical oilfield of Hassi R’Mel. Tension was even higher at the state-owned gas and electricity company (SONELGAZ). In January 2017, for instance, the president of the independent National Autonomous Electricity and Gas Trade Union (SNATEG) trade union Raouf Mellal was sentenced to six months in prison—an act of pure revenge for previously staged protests. At the end of the following March, nine prominent figures in the same union were arrested in Tizi Ouzou, decapitating the organisation. In spite of this ruthless wave of repression, workers staged a new strike in July 2017. At least 40 workers were arrested by the Algerian police in a recurrent cycle of mobilisation, repression and new mobilisation.38

From protest to revolution

In reaction to Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, students, disenfranchised youth and informal workers from popular neighbourhoods took to the streets of all Algerian main cities en masse on 22 February, giving birth to the hirak. In a country in which almost 70 percent of the population is aged below 30, the nomination to the presidency of a man in his 80s, who had assumed the presidency two decades earlier, was emblematic of a corrupt and gerontocratic system. In the two weeks between Bouteflika’s official announcement that he would stand for another term on 10 February and the outbreak of the revolutionary uprising, the signals of the coming storm continued to multiply: marches were staged in Tizi Ouzou and Algiers on 10 and 11 February; Sonatrach’s workers struck for a few hours in Hassi R’Mel on 15 February; thousands of people marched in Kherrata the day after; and finally, in what became an iconic image, a gigantic Bouteflika portrait was torn down by infuriated protesters in Khenchela on 19 February. Trying to capitalise on such a profound popular malaise, the liberal Mouwatana movement called for protests on 24 February. However, it was pre-empted by the entrance of the masses into the political arena two days before the planned protest—powerfully demonstrating that these forces cannot simply be summoned up at will.

The 2019 Algerian revolutionary uprising can be split into two main phases. The first period ran from the outbreak of mass protests until 9 March. The second took place during the last three weeks of the uprising, culminating in Bouteflika’s fall on 2 April. The critical turning point was the call for a five-day general strike from 10 March onwards.39 This was the moment in which the “economic” and “political” wings of the protest movement, which had been largely developed on parallel lines up to that point, fused into a single, generalised insurrection—what Rosa Luxemburg characterised as the “mass strike”.40

In the first weeks of the revolutionary uprising, workers participated more as individuals than as a class. None of the four social groups that I described above were at the forefront of the marches on 22 February. With the partial exclusion of the two-day strike in the education sector on 26 and 27 February, which in any case had already been called two weeks before and made no mention at all of Bouteflika’s fifth term, workplaces were not seriously affected by the revolutionary ferment that was taking root in the whole country. However, this should not lead us to conclude that the uprising, even in the course of its first two weeks, was not indirectly shaped by the labour movement. Rather, the extraordinarily powerful 2013–19 wave of workers’ protests reverberated in the revolutionary upheaval in two ways. Firstly, workers’ long open-ended strikes in the preceding period, which often ended up with the government’s full capitulation, contributed to a “culture of protest”—they showed that collective actions could be successful and inspired others to challenge the regime. Secondly, in sharp contrast to what had been the most common strategy toward extracting concessions from the government in the 2000s—that is, rioting—the labour movement introduced peaceful occupations of squares and marches into the repertoire of protest in Algeria, and these became key components of the hirak.

The rhythm of the first phase of the uprising was set by weekly mass demonstrations staged every Friday (when hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes possibly even over a million, marched throughout the country) and students’ protests that took place every Tuesday. The strength of the movement led to the gradual formation of a broad cross-class convergence against Bouteflika, attracting middle-class professionals (journalists, judges, and above all lawyers, who were one of the crucial engines of the uprising). The movement even drew support from some capitalists, such as Issad Rebrab, the owner of Algeria’s biggest private firm Cevital. For liberal pundits and post-Marxists, these developments might seem to contradict class-based social theories, but really they only contradicted its vulgar formulations. As Trotsky argued, “a revolution breaks out when all the antagonisms of a society have reached their highest tension”, and this means that, at least in the early phases of a revolution, middle class and politically marginalised members of the propertied classes can be tempted to seek change.41

The explosion of the 22 February movement generated centrifugal forces in pro-government organisations, opening up conflicts among ruling groups and dramatically diminishing the social and political bases of the regime. Parties of the so-called “presidential alliance” suffered internal defections. The powerful national organisation of the Moudjahidine officially backed the hirak on 5 March, and half-hearted opposition parties ranging from Louisa Hanoune’s Parti des Travailleurs (Workers’ Party) to the Islamist Mouvement de la Societé pour la Paix (Movement of Society for Peace, formerly known as Hamas) declined to present candidates for the upcoming presidential elections.

After more than two weeks of ongoing mass protests, the Algerian regime appeared weak and incapable of striking back. Except for vague promises from Bouteflika about running a short fifth presidential mandate and holding new elections in which he would not take part, nothing had really changed. It was the late entrance of the labour movement into the protests that crucially shifted the balance of power. A desire had developed among the independent trade unions to collectively join the hirak, while a mood was growing inside the UGTA to challenge the position of unconditional support for Bouteflika put forward by its leader Abdelmadjid Sidi-Saïd. A five-day general strike began on 10 March and the impact was massive. Production came to a complete halt in the key industrial complexes such as the SNVI factory in Rouïba, the Eniem plant in Oued Aissi and the giant steel and iron works in El Hadjar, and the ports of Béjaïa and Skikda were shut down. Buses, trams and subway trains did not run at all in any of the main Algerian cities, while walkouts at the railway national company made it hard to travel from one city to another. Public offices were shut down almost everywhere, as well as shops in Tizi Ouzou, Béjaïa, Tlemcen, Constantine and Algiers. Universities and schools had been closed by the government in advance, which hoped that bringing forward the spring break would immunise the sector from the revolutionary atmosphere. Instead, without classes to attend, professors and students started staging daily demonstrations. Other workplaces that had remained less affected by the pre-2019 waves of protest were now on the move: the Mazouz’s car assembly factory in Dar El Beïda close to Algiers went on strike, as did workers at the phone companies such as Mobilis and Algérie Télécom. But what was perhaps most challenging for the regime were the strikes in the extractive sectors, such as the stoppages at SONELGAZ in Annaba, Relizane and Algiers, and above all the walkout of Sonatrach’s oil and gas workers in Hassi Messaoud, In Amenas, Hassi R’Mel and Hessi Berkine.

As soon as the general strike entered its second day, Bouteflika, who had just returned to Algeria after receiving medical treatment in Switzerland, announced that he would not run for a fifth presidential mandate and postponed the 18 April elections. Nevertheless, Bouteflika’s refusal to step down immediately and the resulting extension of his presidential mandate provoked further protests.

Even once the working class had entered the scene as an organised force, the most significant events remained the impressive demonstrations staged by students on Tuesdays and by the wider movement on Fridays. However, these protests were no longer isolated events, but instead became the highest points of an uprising that under the pressure of workers assumed the semblance of a daily revolution. The great success of the general strike boosted the confidence of the labour movement, which increasingly organised and participated in street protests. On 13 March, for instance, 10,000 teachers marched in Annaba and a similar number rallied in Constantine, while professors and students in Béjaïa were joined by dockers, public employees and SONELGAZ’s workers. State workers took to the street en masse in all the many cities of Algeria on 19 March and once again two days later. Postal workers marched in Tizi Ouzou on 24 March. Due to its persistent support for the government, the UGTA became one of the main targets of the protests. Over 2,000 workers at the SNVI plant staged an angry street demonstration on 17 March, challenging the union leadership and demanding an immediate extraordinary congress of the union. The local section of the UGTA in Annaba backed the protest movement, and the provincial UGTA in Tizi Ouzou went so far as to call for a general strike. On 23 March, a huge rally took place in front of the UGTA national headquarters demanding the end of Sidi-Saïd’s leadership.

Massive new protests and strikes took place on 26 March, shutting down all public offices and the ports in Arzew and Béjaïa. Newly nominated prime minister Noureddine Bedoui was still unable to form a government after nearly two weeks. The armed forces understood that the wave of strikes and protests was not about to ebb and decided to take the initiative. On 26 March, army chief of staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah explicitly floated the idea of using article 102 of the constitution to remove the president as “unfit to rule”. This was was strongly resisted by the Bouteflika clan, led by the president’s brother Saïd, but these pleas were ignored. On 2 April, Bouteflika entered the history books. The military staged a “soft coup”, sacrificing the president in the hope of de-mobilising the masses.


It is not easy to find other recent revolutionary moments in which the role of the labour movement has been as central as it has been in Algeria. Workers were critical to mobilising against Bouteflika’s rule in the pre-2019 period and to jamming the economy with their strikes in the weeks of the revolutionary uprising. However, for the time being, they have been unable to achieve significant improvements in their living conditions, let alone to take control of production or conquer state power. Whether and to what extent this remains the case will determine the fate of the revolution in Algeria.

After Bouteflika’s removal, the armed forces took power and led the transition.42 The strategy of the military was multi-pronged: buying time and waiting for the summer season, in which the very high temperatures would weaken the protest movement; trying to satiate more moderate parts of the hirak by arresting high-ranking politicians, tycoons, and Bouteflika’s relatives; and finally holding presidential elections, which would supposedly mark the endpoint of the transition. However, the scheduled plan did not appease the masses, who made clear their frustration with the real kingmaker of Algerian politics—general-turned-dictator Salah—and firmly rejected the military-led transition.43 It was in this context that the military was forced to postpone the presidential competition from 4 July to 12 December 2019. Elections were eventually held, but an active boycott was called, with protests held outside polling stations. Despite incredibly low turnouts, Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected and sworn in as president.

At the time of writing, the hirak is entering its second year, and is continuing to stage massive demonstrations in all the main Algerian cities every Friday. The vitality of the movement represents the greatest strength of the still-ongoing revolution. One of the reasons for that lies in the firm resistance of ruling and propertied classes to granting even minimal procedural democracy. The impossibility of the revolution smoothly achieving its political and democratic goals continues to push it forward. Nevertheless, there are three problems that face the movement and block the emergence of a socialist revolution in Algeria.

The first problem is the stability of the structures of the state. In contrast to what is often argued, revolutionaries cannot simply take over and remake the state apparatus; they have to smash it.44 Failure to do so means that the movement is ultimately repressed or finds itself at the head of a machine that it does not control.

The second problem is the labour movement’s inability to move from defensive to offensive struggles. The number of economic strikes has been relatively modest since Bouteflika’s fall. A three-day general strike in November 2019 was by far the most important struggle in the course of the transition, but it was called in response to the upcoming presidential elections and didn’t raise the broader range of economic and social issues. To make a real impact, workers have to start creating the political forms for their own social emancipation, for instance by setting up workplace committees. But this seems only likely to happen if there are new waves of strikes in which economic demands and democratic aspirations fuse together.

The third problem is the lack of a robust revolutionary left with solid roots within the labour movement. The intellectual environment is currently unfavourable for revolutionaries. The epochal shift from collectively-oriented social and economic values to more individually-oriented attitudes, the long-lasting and negative legacy of Stalinism, the betrayals of Communist organisations and the emphasis on horizontal, anti-hierarchical and leaderless movements are all elements of the political situation in many parts of the world today. The task of revolutionaries, nevertheless, is to build and organise in spite of this. This means that Algerian revolutionary forces must avoid the temptation to form broad coalitions with liberal parties in which they can play, at best, the part of the left wing in the struggle for political rights. Rather, the revolutionary left has to form a united front with social democratic forces and the trade unions, aiming to win over the most advanced sectors of the labour movement. Revolutions are windows of opportunity that remain open only for a while. There is still time to grasp that opportunity in Algeria.

Gianni Del Panta is an Italian socialist and frequent contributor to Middle East Solidarity.


1 Thanks to Anne Alexander, Joseph Choonara and John Rose for their comments on earlier drafts.

2 Trotsky, 1932, p4.

3 Choonara, 2020.

4 Anievas and Nişancioğlu, 2015, p49.

5 Trotsky, 1932, p5.

6 Smith, 1983, p9.

7 Callinicos, 1982, pp99–102.

8 Davidson, 2018, p74.

9 Davidson, 2006, p212.

10 Alexander, 2019, p22.

11 Alexander and Naguib, 2018, p102.

12 Choonara, 2011.

13 Del Panta, 2017a, p1092.

14 Bennoune, 1988, pp114–161; Alexander, 2002, p321.

15 Alexander, 2002, p320.

16 Bennoune, 1988, p143.

17 Dillman, 2000, p18.

18 Del Panta, 2017a, p1094.

19 For data, see Hanieh, 2013, p50.

20 Del Panta, 2017a, p1093.

21 ONS, 2014, p40.

22 IMF, 2018, p19.

23 ONS, 2014, p31.

24 Hamouchene and Roubah, 2016, p672.

25 Alexander, 2019, p22.

26 Belakhdar, 2019, p424.

27 Chelghoum et al., 2016, p11.

28 Del Panta, 2017b, pp17–18.

29 After the so-called Black Spring in 2001, when the regime’s brutal repression of a long series of demonstrations staged by Kabylia-based Amazigh activists cost the lives of 126 people, marches in Algiers were permanently forbidden, also casting strong limitations against street politics in general. The “Berber” question has represented a constant problem for Algerian authorities over the last decades, re-emerging once again during the 2019 revolution when the use of Amazigh flags was strongly condemned and repressed by the regime.

30 Belakhdar, 2019, p427.

31 Hamouchene and Roubah, 2016, p678.

32 Belakhdar, 2019, p427.

33 Hamouchene and Roubah, 2016, p678; Alexander, 2019, p22.

34 Del Panta, 2017b, p16.

35 The Algerian state had re-bought the majority of the enterprise in 2016 and subsequently developed a 51-49 percent agreement with an Emirati group.

36 Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, p118.

37 Jafari, 2013.

38 Del Panta, 2017b, p18.

39 Alexander, 2019, p28.

40 Luxemburg, 1906.

41 Trotsky, 1932, p58.

42 Hamouchene, 2019.

43 Salah suddenly passed away in December 2019.

44 Alexander, 2019, p28.


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