Cranking up the pressure
The days when the Algerian government could buy a fragile social peace using billion-dollar revenues from oil and gas exports are over for the moment. This is because in view of the global market slump in crude oil and natural gas prices, Algeria's national budget and currency reserves have almost halved since 2014.
High unemployment, rising inflation, the devaluation of the Algerian dinar, not to mention bottlenecks in the supply of imported basic foodstuffs are now presenting large sections of the population with serious problems. After all, the state no longer has the means to offset the structural faults of the Algerian economy through investments and other transfer payments.
While Ahmed Ouyahia, Prime Minister and leader of the governing party "Rassemblement National Democratique" (RND), refers to the strained national budget in a bid to allay fears, resorting to cheap populist propaganda against African immigrants to draw attention away from his own transgressions, working people in Algeria are running out of patience. For two years now, independent trade unions have been mobilising against the government's labour and social policies, although limiting themselves initially to cautious protests and warning strikes. But since November 2017, innumerable independent professional associations in public service are on an increasingly confrontational course with the government.
In addition to the public airline Air Algerie, local transport operators and the postal service, state-owned electricity and gas companies have also recently been affected by warning strikes and protests. Even retired army veterans took to the streets in January to underline their demand for an inflation-adjusted pension.
An outcry of indignation
But at the heart of the sustained wave of strikes is the health and education system. Back in November, the independent workers' association "Collectif Autonome Medecins Residents Algeriens" (CAMRA) initiated weekly sit-ins at several hospitals across the country and even declared an open-ended strike in early January.
This was CAMRA's response to the violent dispersal by the police of a demonstration involving hundreds of doctors, pharmacists and medical students outside the Mostapha-Basha University Clinic on 3 January. After the incident, images and videos of blood-soaked demonstrators rapidly spread through social networks and local media, resulting in an outcry of indignation.
Other independent trade unions, but also human rights organisations such as the Algerian branch of Amnesty International, which sharply denounced the police brutality and drew attention to the constitutional right to demonstrate, expressed their solidarity with the health workers, thereby further fuelling their rebellion.
On course for confrontation
Although a court in Algiers declared the January strike illegal, CAMRA is doggedly opposing the judgement. While the health ministry continues to categorically reject the health workers' demands and says it will only return to the negotiating table once the strike has been brought to an end, the protests are continuing to escalate.
Despite a general ban on demonstrations in Algiers in force since 2001, hundreds of health service staff gathered on 12 February in front of the Grande Poste in the heart of the capital. Just one week later, several thousand people followed CAMRA's calls to demonstrate and joined strident marches through Blida, Setif and Oran. Rallies were also once again held in Constantine in late February.
Against low pay and poor facilities
Whereas strikers in other sectors are mostly demanding higher wages and are thereby responding to the massive inflation-adjusted loss in purchasing power for large sections of the population, the medical professionals are first and foremost protesting against poor working conditions, inadequate and often defective facilities in public hospitals as well as the abolition of the civil service, a compulsory one-to-five-year service for graduates in remote regions of the country.
Although this is a measure aimed at addressing the lack of doctors in rural areas, the medics' demands for its abolition highlight fundamental problems in the public health system. After all, they are not only complaining about the inadequate accommodation and transport infrastructure for those absolving this civil service, but also about defective equipment in medical establishments. CAMRA is now flanking its protests with a publicity campaign releasing photos and videos from public hospitals as a way of documenting the miserable conditions in many facilities and thereby cranking up the pressure on the government.
And while this government maintains its unyielding stance, the protests continue – in the education sector too: since last November, the independent workers' association "Conseil National Autonome du Personnel Enseignant du Secteur Ternaire de l'Education" (Cnapeste) has been mobilising within Algeria's schools and demanding higher wages and a reform of pension rules, including those related to the process granting teachers official civil servant status.
Government refusal to compromise
Cnapeste began an open-ended strike in late January, which was also declared unlawful by the judiciary. Education Minister Nouria Benghabrit says that in Blida, 581 striking teachers have already been suspended. Further disciplinary measures are currently in preparation says the minister, whose department is openly threatening the sacking of up to 19,000 teaching staff, according to the Algerian daily El Watan.
While parent representatives have regularly protested against the strike since December and are calling on the union to stop waging their labour battle at the expense of their children, another five independent trade unions from the education sector declared they would also be continuing their strike following a fruitless meeting with Benghabrit.
Meanwhile, shortly after the general public sector strike on 14 February, Prime Minister Ouyahia declared he would no longer tolerate the "continuation of this anarchy" in the education and health systems and would put an end to the protests. The parliamentary party groups of the four governing parties, among them the RND, had previously urged the government to remain firm and take a tough stance against the strikes.
While the government continues to adopt an unrelenting approach in its dealings with the independent trade unions, at least Prime Minister Ouyahia's privatisation plans are off the table for now. As late as December, the PM had reached agreement with the state-controlled trade union association "Union Generale des Travailleurs Algeriens" (UGTA) and the employers' association over an opening up of public companies for private capital, but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika intervened, flatly rejected Ouyahia's privatisation plans and publicly rebuked the head of his government.
Meanwhile, there are no indications that the independent trades unions are about to end their protests. And it remains to be seen if the government can bring itself to adopt a more conciliatory approach with the doggedly autonomous workers' associations, or whether it will again resort to increased repression as it did in the 1990s.
Sofian Philip Naceur
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated by Nina Coon