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Algerian youth need to learn about their own history

Wednesday 26 June 2019, by Marieme Helie Lucas, siawi3

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]



Interview : Punto Critica talks with Marieme Helie Lucas

about the recent political events in Algeria and how it relates to the history of the country

Algerian youth need to learn about their own history

Recently you’ve been involved in the publishing of a book entitled Le début de l’autogestion industrielle en Algérie, by Damien Hélie (1). In the preface you wrote that ‘Unfortunately Algerian youth doesn’t know its own history. And the recent history of our country shows that young forces, turned toward social justice and freedom, demand to grow roots in the preceding struggles’. Today Algeria is in a turmoil. What could young people learn from those struggles?

There was/is no decent teaching of history in Algeria : neither under colonization, for obvious reasons, as colonized people don’t exist in the eyes of colonizing powers, we thus have no history - till they bring us ‘civilization’!; nor after independence when the myth of our glorious revolution suffocated every attempt to either do any scientific work on our history or to built activist knowledge and transmit the spirit of social struggles apart from that of national liberation.

Damien Helie’s book tells us about the situation right after independence, when ‘self management’ in the industrial sector did not give actual power to the workers; workers’ power was quickly limited by the government, through the appointment of a ‘ director’ who was appointed by the authorities and had decision power over the self management committee and the elected president of the committee. Damien Helie also points at the fact that a majority of workers themselves would actually chose to benefit from a decent salary in a state owned plant, rather than take any responsibility over the self managed plants they work in. Nothing was done, either by the government or by the Union, in terms of political education of the workers, at that time.
This speaks volume about the political situation – the very situation people are denouncing now, decades later, in the streets in Algeria.
You certainly know that we were under a one-party-system till the late 80s: this also implied that we had one newspaper (El Moudjahid), one trade union (UGTA), etc… all controlled by the government.

During the liberation struggle (1954-62), quite understandably, we had a Front that did not allow for dissident initiatives. The Algerian Communist Party learnt it the hard way: coming late into the picture (1956), it wanted to join the National Liberation Front (FLN) as a party, and went as far as setting up separate guerilla foci which were attacked by the FLN forces and had to disappear.
The total erasure of any form of organizing outside the limits of the FLN one party system persisted after independence.
Damien Helie’s book captures the very beginning of the class formation after independence. In that sense, it is very precious, as it gives insight about how the ruling class was formed, that demonstrators today try to push out. This is a history that has not been told to the youth. And I believe that, for lack of being told that they had ancestors they could learn fro who were involved in social struggles, many youth felt prey to the fundamentalist far-right in the nineties. The youth who has taken to the streets now does has not lived through the ‘dark decade’ as we call it, when the country was under the boot of armed fundamentalists. This is the right time to try and give them other food for thought.

Struggles for freedom and social justice in Algeria: how do they match together?

Struggles for liberation from colonial power and struggle for social justice inside the country after independence were totally dissociated; the official stance was: now that ‘the people’ is in power there is no need to counter the government, nor to set up unions, etc…
Clearly, the ‘new class’, as Djilas called it in the former Yugoslavia, used this time to make sure the system benefit them as a class, although in the initial phase they did not own the means of production – as would a classical definition of class have it. They did not own but they had it functioning to their benefit.
Of course, there were burning inequalities and subsequent social movements but they were crushed (sometimes very violently), whether they were regional, cultural, or actually class bound.
It took several decades before the jobless youth rebelled in 1988. They were fiercely repressed, however the government decided to loosen its grip over people. The youth rebellion is what sparked the end of the one party system and the promotion of liberal policies. But when parties, unions, newspapers and people’s organizations were all of a sudden allowed, the only really powerful political force that was already organized underground - was that of the religious-right, and none of us had been prepared to fight that battle. A number of the (new or old) parties were in total denial when it came to facing this fact – or else they were attempting to co-opt the religious right as truly representative of ‘ the people’. It did not help.

After the independence Algerian working people had to take the future of the country in their own hands. Should they do the same today? How?

They obviously are trying to do so. However, the situation is totally different now.
After independence the country was in limbo: the Europeans who constituted the quasi totality of the trained work force, the cadres and the technicians left Algeria in between the cease fire and independence (from spring to summer 62). Two millions Europeans left Algeria in about three months time… If Algerian people wanted to eat, they had to make sure the farms continue to produce food; the same with the few industries we had. Sheer survival was the key word.
Algeria managed to survive, to feed people, to open schools at the end of the summer, to pay salaries, to maintain hospitals open, etc… This is already a miracle. This is what was known as ‘ self management’: a temporary survival strategy.

During the decades after independence, Algeria industrialized rapidly enough to cover the population’s basic needs. It also nationalized oil, thus became rich. While self management in the industry died out in a few years (when it was not required as a survival strategy any more), new plants were set up that were first state-owned and labeled ‘socialist sector’; but they were later to be sold to private entrepreneurs, both nationals and foreigners; the country thus moved from official socialism to, first, state capitalism and then to private capitalism.
Now the cash-flow from oil is coming to an end soon. The population growth has exploded, the vast majority of our people are young and jobless.
Today’s circumstances cannot be compared with the situation at independence.
The question is no more to gather all people’s energy in order to survive under pretty harsh circumstances as was the case at independence, but to take over political power. As expected, those in power are not going to make that easy. And too little has been done to train competent political cadres. The enthousiam and courage of the people is there, very visibly, to initiate a real political change, but the few potential leaders do not manage to coalesce into a shared political project.
This time, we have a long road ahead of us to gain the political battle.

Has the arrest of Louisa Hanoun anything to do with this?

Louisa Hannoun is far from being the only person arrested in Algeria at the moment; repression targets activists, demonstrators, members of regional minorities, entrepreneurs, capitalists, former politicians who were part of the system, human rights activists, etc… It would be hard to put them all in one political bag ! They range from Left to Right.
There are many initiatives both inside the country and at the level of international human rights organizations to demand their liberation and a decent justice in courts, but already some activists died in jail after a prolonged hunger strike, and others died at the hands of the police.
However, this is not to be compared with an all-out mass repression as just happened in Sudan.
Of course, one cannot rule out the prospect of mass repression in future, but the army, so far, does not seem ready to obey orders of that sort.

The uprising in Sudan and the movement which brought down Bouteflika: is the ’Arab spring’ back?

I hope we will do better than the ‘Arab Springs’ did. In the end it did not benefitted the people, neither in Tunisia nor in Egypt. It brought to power conservative forces that are now hard to dislodge.
The common characteristics between what happens in Algeria today and the Arab Springs is that it is a struggle ‘against’ the existing government and ruling class; it is not a struggle ‘ for’, with a political program.
However, many groups are working very hard to build a common program, acceptable by many. Similarly, local groups, at the level of villages and cities, gather people to discuss their needs and their wishes, trying to build the solid progressive political movement we need.
This will take time, obviously. Will we have time, that is the question…

You’ve founded the website SIAWI (Secularism Is A Women’s Issue). How big is the risk of a rise of sectarianism in your country? And which role can women play to prevent that?

The risk of fundamentalist forces coming out of the wood is always very high, although very few people are acknowledging it. Nothing new: on the eve of the 1991 and 92 elections, all my friends in Algiers were in total denial about the risk of the religious-right taking over legally and ‘democratically’. Denial is still the same today.
I personally can see very well that fundamentalists are part of the demonstrations; of course, for the time being, they are pushed out of the demos by progressive people. But they started organizing their own separate demonstrations in the outskirts of Algiers, for instance. And their slogans are: ‘No to democracy’, ‘Islamic Algeria’, ‘Sharia law’, etc…
Our religious far-right i.e. the armed fundamentalist groups that decimated the country throughout the 1990s has been spared by Bouteflika under the guise of national reconciliation; they remained organized and most certainly armed to the teeth. They started an entryist strategy which bare fruits: in recent years, they made up for 30% in the National Assembly. How can one realistically hope that they will not try to take over once more?
The huge error that many left people make is to look at them as legitimate representatives of the people struggling against the system; they are a far right political movement, popular, yes, and populist too. They share much of the fascist and Nazi ideologies – just replace the word ‘race’ by ‘religion’ and you have it all: they are the superior creed, with a mythical past (not the Aryan race or the glorious past of Rome, but the Golden Age of Islam) that justifies in their eyes the physical elimination of the untermensch ( add ‘unbelievers’- i.e. ‘Kofr’ to their common list of Jews, communists, gypsies, etc…); they are pro-capitalist and want charity ( zakkat) to solve social inequalities ( which have been created by god); they put women ‘in their place’ according to the Nazi formula: ‘at Church ( replace by ‘mosque’), in the kitchen, and by the cradle’…
Feminist friends in Algiers have chosen not to mention secularism in their demands and a few weeks ago the ‘carré féministe’ has been attacked physically by men who were obviously in tune with fundamentalist ideology…

How can Italian workers, women, youth support your struggle for freedom and social justice?

The best way to support us is to clean at your doorstep first; do not support fundamentalists in your country, analyze their programs and see them for what they are, i.e. not a religious movement, but a far right political one. Give the floor to our progressive opposition, to feminist women, to unionists, etc… Fundamentalists would not be so strong had they not been supported in Europe as ‘the people’s voice’. Not all popular movements should be supported: Fascism and Nazism too were popular movements !...
It would be a terrible outcome if, like with the Arab Springs, far right political movements were the ultimate beneficiaries of the people’s revolt in Algeria. Do not let it happen. Chose who you support and don’t be fooled by the claim of fundamentalists to represent ‘ the people’.

“Les débuts de l’autogestion industrielle en Algérie”, par Damien Hélie.
Published Novembre 2018 by Pecos&Robin-Publications and by Les Editions de l’Asymétrie.