Oil & Unemployment in Sahara.
Arriving at Ouargla for the first time is shocking. The richest town of Algeria, 800 km south-east of Alger, actually looks like an abandoned desert area: its ksar (old city) is ruined, the pavements smashed, the new districts already dilapidated, balconies and façades covered by satellite dishes, its commercial centre ‘Bouteflika’ crumbling under the sweltering heat and the dust. The cinema has been closed for years, there is no park or public library, only a few palm grove provide shading. Men spend their time in a few coffee shops drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. In a few words, nothing really different from the most of Algerian middle-sized towns. Approximately 250,000 inhabitants live at the edge of the desert, in the midst of barracks and military bases defending the interests of the country. The difference here is that this region produces 70% of national oil and gas. But Ouargla’s inhabitants do not benefit (or very little) from the oil rent – except for an air-conditioned tramway that is going to crisscross the city. Oil and gas account for the 70% of the national budget and the 90% of exportations. Algeria exclusively live from this industry. Despite the sharp decline in crude oil prices, there is not the least sign of the regime being willing to diversify its economy.
In 2011 young unemployed workers of this town forcefully claimed improvements in their life conditions and a better distribution of wealth. They want their share, not only for their personal benefit but also for developing the area. By demonstrating against central authorities concentrating all the wealth generate through oil rent, Southern algerians inhabitants claimed more social justice and development. Demonstration have been followed by clashes between young unemployed workers and police forces during several days. Young workers denounced enterprises for preferring work-force from other villages rather than the local one. The government has therefore announced measures aimed at stopping the uprising by promising positions on the oil rigs to unemployed workers. In 2013, thousands of people demonstrated once more and reaffirmed their claims. Some young men gashed themselves with razor blades and sew their mouths. Some of them even pledged to self-immolate on a tanker truck in front of the wilaya (prefecture) of Ouargla. These dramatic actions show the despair and exasperation of neglected Southern Algerians. After this last radical demonstration, Algerian government decided to allocate a quota of positions directly to unemployed workers of Ouargla, in association between l’ANEM (unemployed office) and the unemployed people coordination. In spite of 23,000 jobs offered every year by oil and gas companies, unemployement is still high in the region and young people frequently find themselves obliged to accept work below their qualifications. Kaled is one of them: a few months ago, this young engineer accepted a labourer position to escape misery. With its measures and its repression, the government has been able to temporally calm down the situation, but poverty and resentment are still diffused among young people.
Nowadays the movement is still alive. It is trying to organise itself and it is not only focused on unemployed workers’ struggle: it proclaims itself as a social and political movement. Ouargla’s youth has lost its fear and a new political awareness has born thanks to the movement of unemployed workers, who dared to go beyond a simple claim for the right to work. Young people aim to evolve in their personal life, enjoy the time of their youth or simply have the possibility to imagine a future, get married and live with dignity. Aïbek says that “it is difficult to imagine a future in Algeria”. Nevertheless, the movement is hopeful, has clear ideas and aspire to unite Maghreb’s people against injustices. In a video made on the occasion of a solidarity iftar (breaking of the Ramadan fast) Aïbek adds that “this is a way for us to support other protest movements in Morrocco as well as in Tunisia, and highlight that we have just a common enemy: these regimes, which are allies of imperialism.”
Social networks are crucial to spread an alternative message and allowed Algerian movement to keep in touch with other social movements throughout Maghreb. They are also important for limiting mainstream media and regime’s attempt to bring discredit upon the movement, by accusing its members of being secessionists or terrorists. Nowadays, leading members of the movement work on oil and gas rigs but they continue their political activities in spite of regime’s repression. They are part of a new generation of militants, who seek to improve movement’s organisation in view of future struggles. As Aïbek explains, “we know that hard times are coming at political and economic level, and we want to face it.”
Recent events of Tataouine, in Southern Tunisia, has given further hope for change. Tahar wishes the unity of all movements of Maghreb, “because we have the same problems: corruption, unemployment, repression, lack of development and education…” Ismael adds that “we know that the regimes are the same, difficulties for the people are thesame and the regimes impose the same repression.”
Tahar adds that “the original goal of the movement was just to defend unemployed workers, but it turned into a social movement and this is only the beginning… even if perhaps only next generations will be the ones who will benefit from our struggle. Beyond Ouargla, the movement has spread all over the region. I think that we have to go towards less centralisation, maybe towards some kind of federalism. I want to participate in country’s improvement, and take part in the decisions on the distribution of the wealth. The struggle is long and the power won’t surrender. The first step is democracy; the second one, wealth sharing. My future depends on the future of the region.”
One of the main features of the movement of unemployed workers is the rejection of the fatalism maintained and nourished by the regime. In their struggle for dignity, they achieved to loose the fear that usually seize rising movements across the country and grasp the hope of change of young people, who prefer to have a decent life in Algeria rather than being forced to migration.
“The movement is the result of a system failure. The system bring us on the loose and we cannot remain just a social movement. It is necessary to create a political and popular movement.” Algerian government has to find solutions to face the economic crisis resulting from the decline of oil prices and meet youth’s expectations of change. In the meantime, the country faces uncertainty about its future and region’s stability is at risk.