The situation in Algeria – an interview with Kamel Aïssat.

We thank the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste and Antoine Larrache for their interview with Kamel Aïssat, a leading member of the Parti socialiste des travailleurs. It was published in French on 31 March

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How far along is the spread of the virus in Algeria? 

The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading through Algeria at a slower pace than in France. As of today [31 March], 716 positive cases have been recorded, with 44 dead. It should be said though that screening hardly exists, including for the people who’ve got initial symptoms, since we don’t have the resources. We’ve only got one testing centre, the Institut Pasteur in Algiers, for a territory four times bigger than France, to give you a sense of the lack of capacity. This week three hospital wings have been opened –  Ourgla, in the south; Oran, in the west; and Constantine, in the east. Concretely, around 200 tests are being done a day; only the hospitalised are tested. 

In Africa, we’ve got more-or-less the same evolution. There are hundreds of cases we’ve not registered; the majority of the infected don’t suffer complications. The first cluster was detected in the Blida département [county], fifty kilometres from Algiers. It started due to movements from France, with many Algerian households involving such migration.

The government took measures. It put the schools and universities on leave, and on the 22 March a general confinement was decreed. Blida is totally confined. In Algiers, a curfew was established between 7pm and 7am, which has been widened to nine other départements. The government has given its first official statement, which called for work to be organised differently, which is to say, it demanded that everyone stop work.

It announced financial coverage for everyone who’ll be affected by the stopping of production, of work, although it doesn’t mention that a good part of the population depends on the informal sector – vendors, artisans, day-labourers, all of them uninsured. We don’t have unemployment benefits in Algeria. 

The measures taken by the government have been to encourage confinement, but they’ve not been carried out. Take Cevital, [Issad] Rebrab’s group. Despite workers trying to strike at the Brandt complex in Sétif – they make fridges – they’ve kept up production, and management have said stopping is out of the question. Rebrab is a dollar-billionaire – he was sentenced, after the ʿiṣābah judgements, for illegal transfers and financial fraud [1]. He got six months prison time, plus six months suspended, which is still running – though he was, nevertheless, received by the Minister of Health, and announced having offered his services. 

At the start of the confinement, at the dawning of the popular consciousness of the need for distancing, the government began a fairly significant campaign of repression. The expedited trial of [lawyer and prominent Movementist] Karim Tabbou is one example. The summoning of activists to the commissariat from across the country, even when wilayas [counties] are in a state of emergency, with curfews in effect, shows the extent to which the state is using the pandemic to crush the Movement. 

What have been the links between popular reactions and the Movement? 

On 13 March, the Movement had its last march. It had fully recognised the need for social distancing, with groups of militants saying ‘we must act’. There were calls from collectives, from associations, from committees, all saying to avoid gatherings – those first efforts were started without waiting for [President Abdelmadjid] Tebboune to speak. They organised awareness-raising campaigns, and the disinfection of public places, using bleach and sprayers they’d been able to get from farmers or the local shop. 

It should be said that it’s been difficult for some parts of the Movement to stop the demonstrations, since there was a fear that its aims would be lost, that the pandemic could stop it permanently. After those difficulties there were internet debates, which led to people saying that the role of the Movement is, now, to face the pandemic.

We’ve got a dilapidated healthcare system, as destroyed by the various liberal policies that have been carried out in Algeria, particularly after 2000, when we’ve seen the entire preventative arsenal – as built since the ‘60s – disappear. The state of hospitals today is stupefying, in terms of both equipment and staffing. There’s still a social memory of the violent repression of resident doctors, against their demands for better work conditions and salaries. Hence, the Movement began to mobilise.

The government itself rapidly multiplied its calls, began confinement and social distancing, and closed all government buildings. The Movement responded positively to those calls, and in many of the areas in which there’s been some self-organisation, we’ve assisted – outside of state institutions – in awareness-raising and solidarity. 

What demands have been put forward by the PST and the Movement? 

The demands that we must put forward will take into consideration the political reality of Algeria, one characterised by the illegitimacy of a regime [pouvoir] emerging from a dubious election, as rejected by the people and a popular movement that’s now forced to pause in order to face the pandemic. Our demands should correspond with this situation. 

But confinement, which was officially decided on after the movement itself began to do it, doesn’t take the reality of workers into consideration, whether they’re precarious or with a firm, to the point when it’s no longer an actual confinement – workers have got families, they have to move around. 

It’s a selective confinement, which is more done to limit the damage at the economic level, rather than aimed at people’s consumption needs – at the immediate, urgent needs of the population.

There’s a challenge before us: We have to call fora non-selective confinement that doesn’t sacrifice the working classes [couches populaires]. Faced with the measures now in place, at this stage, we demand that the state take control of, take into requisition all sanitation organisations, all of the private food industry companies, all the enterprises that will be needed for facing this crisis. 

The second aspect is the urgent mobilisation of local and international resources, in order to give a minimum of protection to the working classes. This shouldn’t be limited to protecting doctors, nurses, or health workers in general, but should protect all of us during an imposed quarantine. We don’t have the means to protect the positive cases, and so it’ll be necessary to give them the means to protect themselves at home, and on a large scale. 

At the social level, a wage should be announced for all the precarious workers without insurance. All artisans must be paid a minimum wage, including housewives [femmes au foyer], whose work is neither recognised by law nor by society as social work. Similarly, workers must not be put on annual leave, and salaries should continue to go to everyone with a contract. No dismissals should be tolerated throughout the emergency. Workers, people at the bottom, shouldn’t have to make sacrifices. The billionaires, they’ve got money, and don’t pay enough taxes anyway – it’s them that should pay, even if that means nationalisation for the companies that don’t respect the level of social emergency. 

These demands should mention the pressing need to face this authoritarian turn, one that’s seen on a global level, in both developed countries and countries like ours. It’s the only recourse that regimes abandoned to liberalism and imperialism have to face social discontent.

We should oppose the last measures announced by the government with popular self-organisation – we should handle social solidarity, confinement, requisitions and, generally, the things that we’ll urgently need. We should give political content to our self-organisation at the democratic and social level. In organisational terms, that is the response that we must have in our neighbourhoods, our villages, and in the companies, some of which have to function during the emergency, whether they’re involved in food or the production of sanitary equipment: Hand gel, or masks. It’s imperative to provide workers with maximum protection. In places where there are more than ten workers, we should reduce the number. Like that, we’ll stop the spread of the sickness. 

What will be the economic consequences of the pandemic? 

There will be several. They’ll expose the choices that have been made by the various regimes since the 1980s – submitting our economy to the global market, transforming it into an import economy. We’re going to expose the limits of a system based, in essence, on conforming to the need for expansion of global overproduction. 

The few types of production we’ve got here are based on the importation of primary goods, or kits for automobile assembly – which will, in fact, be stopped, since we won’t be able to import either the primary goods or the kits, since the state pays in foreign currency for these imports. And, seeing the price of petrol – today it’s around $20-25 – it will be the entire economy that’s hit hard, being based on imports, on a mode of production that’ll be wrecked.

The consequences will be dramatic. There will be huge unemployment. There will be be no margin within which the current regime can respond to even the basic needs of the population, whether it’s food or anything else. There will be a temptation towards an authoritarian solution, not to say a military one.

I hope that another regime will be built after this pandemic, one with social and economic questions at the core, that will re-centre the economic and social needs of the population –  not those of the global market, of capitalism in general, which has shown its limits, its recklessness, its monstrosity. 

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[1] ʿiṣābah, or ‘gang’ – a popular description of the Bouteflika regime. As Houcine Bellaloufi explains, following Bouteflika’s resignation:

“The pouvoir réel, the Army High Command, had to fight on two fronts [after Bouteflika’s April 2019 resignation]. It concentrated the bulk of its forces on dismantling the components of the House of Bouteflika, namely the political personnel (the leaders of the state bureaucracy and the presidential coalition parties), security personnel (the principal figures of the military and police security services), and financial personnages (the principal oligarchs of the country) – the judicial machine was empowered to charge and imprison this beau monde.”

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