Algerian strikers stay out

January 3, 1997

MANY strike-hit universities in Algeria failed to reopen in the New Year despite triumphant claims by the authorities of a "progressive resumption of work".

Since the end of October most universities and higher education institutes stopped their activities as a result of the strike, which was supported at 95 per cent of the institutions.

The dispute has its origin in Oran, 400 kilometres west of Algiers. Exasperated by poor working conditions, teachers, professors and assistants decided to stop their courses. The dispute spread like wildfire through the country to reach almost all the academic centres, including the University of Sciences of Bab Ezzouar on the outskirts of Algiers.

The basic claim at that time was directly related to wages: most sought a pay rise of at least 10 per cent which would allow them to cope with escalating prices. A lecturer earns, on average, 12,000 dinars (Pounds 150) per month - far from guaranteeing a decent living.

The country has endured an economic crisis since 1987 and inflation has reached 30 per cent a year.

A member of the Union Generale des Travailleurs Algeriens, the main union of Algeria, said: "If this situation carries on in this way, we will fall to such a level we will become just like tramps, unable to carry out our mission," But the claims go beyond pay to include the question of housing. Since the early 1980s, the government has promised rapid access to decent housing. It has only partly met its target which has led to the fury among the people involved.

"We have been living in ugly, shabby housing estates for far too long. The authorities must help us to find decent accommodation," explains Leila Mahouche, a lecturer at the University of Constantine.

Another claim concerns the improvement of the infrastructure. Many universities remain unfinished and teachers are sometimes compelled to lecture in under-heated or under-lit rooms.

The drop in hard currency reserves has led to a reduction in imports of research equipment and consumables, especially for physics.

But the major grievance for university teachers is their feeling of being under protected from fundamentalists who have issued death threats against intellectuals seen as pro-French.

Since the re-emergence of attempts on the profession following the threats from the fundamentalist Armed Islamist Group, the GIA, which "prohibited school" in 1994, the government has reacted by authorising the recruitment of security agents to control entry to university campuses.

Teachers' unions regard this as insufficient and would prefer to rely on a military or police presence that would be more of a deterrent to Islamist armed commandos.

No real negotiation has taken place although Ahmed Ouyahia, the prime minister, has promised "a potential increase in wages by March 1997".

At the same time official propaganda accuses the strikers of "betraying the national interest in these very difficult days and circumstances".

A retired academic said: "For several years, teachers have been asked to make sacrifices for the well-being of the country. The priority was to turn out executives, engineers, doctors and this we did because we truly believed in our country. The general feeling is that our rulers have betrayed us."

There is no doubt that the quality of education has fallen. As well as the departure of scores of lecturers (see panel) must be added government errors on the language question.

Since December, Arabic has become the compulsory language of instruction, a requirement already applied in social and human sciences but which had previously not reached the exact sciences.

As a result many French-speaking academics wonder how they will be able to carry on teaching.

A professor in organic chemistry said: "It has been decided to spread the use of Arabic, by order in council, without giving us the means that could help us in this difficult task. What kind of books are we going to use?" He describes the decision as "demagogic" compared with Egyptian universities where the teaching in English of some disciplines, such as exact sciences, has never become a political issue.

The strike has to be seen in the context of Algeria's socio-economic problems. A previous education minister said: "If the government refuses to increase our wages, it is because the International Monetary Fund forbids it.

"The World Bank and the IMF want to destroy education in Algeria by forcing the government to cut the budget for education," he added.

In the meantime, political ambitions are not absent from this conflict. The democratic opposition, which favours a dialogue with the fundamentalists, wishes to exploit the strike in order to drive the regime to the wall.

A teacher belonging to the Front des Forces Socialistes said: "The authorities affirm that they are defending the supreme interest of the nation. Fine, but how do they explain the fact that they are endangering the future of a whole generation of students?

"We must not be naive: this strike is a starting point and the conflict may continue and spread to other sectors."

On the other side, the Islamist tendency tries to infiltrate the movement by means of militant Hamas teachers.

One commentator said: "Hamas is among the rare political parties occupying the scene. Its militants are always lending an ear to the claims of all sectors of activity and this situation worries the authorities."

But more than the harnessing of the strike by the fundamentalists, it is the phenomenon of infectiousness that frightens the Algerian rulers.

If another major sector goes on strike the government might have to face a serious social explosion whose consequences would be unimaginable in terms of security balance.

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