The actions have condemned the killing by government paramilitary forces of some 80 people involved in the mobilizations and called for the removal of police from the Berber region. Berbers, an oppressed nationality, make up about 30 percent of the population of the country and have been fighting against national oppression and for language rights for decades. After six weeks of protests the movement has gained support throughout the population and forced the government to offer some modest concessions.
The protests exploded after the April 18 death in police custody of high school student Guermah Massinissa. A feature of the actions has also been demands on the government to address deteriorating economic conditions in a country where unemployment is 30 percent and working people are bearing the burden of Algeria’s $30 billion debt to the imperialist banks. Half of the country’s population is 18 years old or younger.
The march in the capital of Algiers of some 300,000 people, many of them farmers and women from the region, was called by the Socialist Forces Front, the larger of the two main opposition parties in Algeria.
This was the largest protest in Algiers since 1992 when the French government prodded the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) to annul the results of the national elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front. Citing the danger of "Islamic fundamentalism" a military junta took over the government. During the civil war that has ensued more than 100,000 people have been killed.
The march in the capital took place on the heels of 10 days of widespread demonstrations, including one of hundreds of thousands in Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylia, called by a coordinating committee representing the leadership councils of villages, towns, and cities.
Ten thousand women chanting, "Don’t touch our children," carrying long black cloths to symbolize mourning, and holding up photos of Algerians killed by the government, marched May 24 in Tizi Ouzou. They were led by the mother and grandmother of the high school student killed in police custody. Another large march of women took place June 3 in Béjaïa, the second largest city in Kabylia, organized by a provisional committee of Béjaïa women.
At the Bouzareah University campus in Algiers a student demonstration was brutally repressed May 29 by order of the university rector. The students regrouped and broke through police barricades.
Several thousand doctors and other medical personnel wearing their white coats marched May 30, stopping for a moment of silence at the morgue to commemorate those killed at the hands of the gendarmes. Their march was attacked by the cops’ antibarricade truck and sprayed with high-pressure water. Doctors told the reporter for the French daily Le Figaro that emergency rooms had been swamped with injured youth. "Many of the victims were shot in the back," said one surgeon. After the doctors’ protest, government forces lobbed tear gas grenades into a hospital.
The conflict is widespread, with daily clashes occurring not only in cities, but in towns and villages of Kabylia. On May 31 in the town of Tadmait, during a huge funeral procession for 29-year-old Mohamed Hamidechi, gendarmes shouted obscenities at women in the march. When young people responded with a hail of stones, the gendarmes charged them, killing one and injuring 10, all shot in the back. In the clash one gendarme was killed with an ax.
Similar conflicts broke out on the same day in Draa Ben Khedda and the main village of Tirmitine municipality. All stores were shut in Ain El Hammam, where five demonstrators were injured. In Boghni, demonstrators occupied unassigned public housing. In the town of Amizour, 5,000 people who marched from a high school skirmished with police. Organizers called for Berbers to "maintain citizen mobilization until the end of the struggle for which the young people of Kabylia had fallen."
Some 30,000 people, chanting "No pardon" and demanding that the Berber language Tamizight be made an official national language marched in Souk El Tenine June 3 in response to a call by the coordinating body of neighborhood committees for a one-day general strike. All activity except public health and transportation services was shut down. Five people have been injured there in recent attacks by gendarmes.
On May 29 a group of Arab intellectuals declared that "all of Algeria has affirmed its solidarity with Kabylia and has embraced the demands for dignity, respect of the rights of citizens, civil liberties, and the rule of law." The coordinating body of local leaderships is calling for a march in Algiers against Bouteflika. The date will be set at a June 4 meeting of the group, which is also planning a mass meeting at a stadium in Tizi Ouzou June 7.
Restrictions on press and free speech
Journalists organized a "day without the press" and a march and sit-in of several thousand to protest government attacks. The action also condemned changes in the penal code adopted by the Algerian national assembly May 16. The measure imposes stiff penalties for "defamation" of the government by the press and for "subversive" sermons by imams in the mosques.
Some delegates of bourgeois parties in the national assembly opposed the free speech restriction. The Socialist Forces Front (FFS) boycotted the vote, while the other main opposition party, the Regroupment for Culture and Democracy (RCD) voted against the measure. The RCD is closely allied with the Berber Cultural Movement and participated in the coalition government until recently. It withdrew as antigovernment protests spread, threatening its credibility. Other opposition parties whose delegates voted against the repressive law include those from two Islamist parties, Society for Peace Movement and En Nahda; and the Workers Party, which is associated with the Fourth International.
The FFS, whose president Hocine Aït Ahmed resides in Switzerland, is a social democratic party and an affiliate of the Socialist International. Ahmed was among those who formed the party in 1963 and sought unsuccessfully to foment a rebellion against the workers and farmers government led by Ahmed Ben Bella. The Ben Bella government responded to the FFS attack and a simultaneous military aggression by the pro-imperialist Moroccan monarchy by mobilizing workers and farmers and continuing nationalizations of industry and initiation of a land reform. The FFS-led "revolt" quickly fizzled.
In addition to bourgeois opposition forces striving to capitalize on the widespread outrage over the recent police killings and deteriorating economic conditions, several imperialist governments have voiced "concern" over the repressive actions of the government. This partly stems from the fact that despite the overthrow of the workers and farmers government in 1965 the FLN avoided outright subservience to imperialism and charted a foreign policy course that aligned the country with a number of anti-imperialist struggles. While maintaining relations with Washington, Paris, and other major powers, and keeping the country open for foreign exploitation, the FLN has not had the coziest of relations with imperialist governments.
When the protests began, President Bouteflika initially took the tact of publicly ignoring them and then called for an "independent" inquiry, a proposal protesters have rejected. Bouteflika then threatened to punish instigators of what government officials refer to as the "riots."
In face of extended demonstrations, the government has now retreated slightly and tried to appear more conciliatory. Bouteflika postponed the graduate exams until September, something which the students, who have been active in the protests, have been demanding. He also said the role of the Berber language, Tamazight, would be reconsidered in the next revision of the constitution. The government also withdrew more than 600 gendarmes "in an effort to reestablish a relationship of confidence with the population." However, the head of the national police said it was to relieve those who were "physically and psychologically exhausted"--itself a registration of the effectiveness of the protests. The government sent military reinforcement and helicopters to Tizi Ouzou. Bouteflika reshuffled his cabinet and expressed "deepest regrets for the tragic consequences" of the "events." The National Gendarme command announced June 1 it had jailed two auxiliary gendarmes for using weapons illegally, and another was arrested for injuring a civilian.
The struggle against repression in Kabylia has provided an important break from the demobilizing impact of the civil war, allowing tens of thousands to come into action. The June 2 Financial Times noted the "popular challenge this time comes from a non-Islamist opposition, adding to the pressure of the Islamist insurgency, and leaving the regime at a loss for containment measures."
A month ago the Bouteflika regime initiated a program to stimulate the economy following five years of "stabilization" measures, such as cuts in social services, privatization of public enterprises, and other steps to keep up with foreign debt payments at the expense of workers and farmers. The government proposals are meeting opposition. The head of the national oil workers union pointed out the planned expenditures "don’t create jobs, but only fund equipment purchases." Algeria’s oil reserves, much of which are sulfur-free, are estimated to be more than 9 billion barrels. The country ranks seventh in the world in natural gas reserves.
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