More than a dozen of Algeria’s most influential trade unions have turned down an invitation by the newly appointed prime minister to hold talks aimed at forming a new government and ending a crisis triggered by unprecedented protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year rule.
The discussions, which were set to begin on Monday, are part of the ruling National Liberation Front’s (FLN) efforts to form a new “technocratic government” that Bouteflika said would support a “national conference” to approve a new constitution and an election date.
The 82-year-old leader had bowed to demonstrators last week by reversing a decision to stand for a fifth term, but he postponed polls due in April until the implementation of political reforms.
But representatives of the 13 unions, which operate in sectors such as education and healthcare, refused to attend Monday’s meeting with Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, saying on Sunday that the talks were “in contradiction to our position and that of the Algerian people”.
“We consider that the conditions necessary for the success of such a dialogue have not yet been met,” said the National Union of Public Health Practitioners (SNPSP) in a statement.
Despite the government’s effort to appease protesters, demonstrations continued for a fourth consecutive Friday as hundreds of thousands of people marched through Algeria’s capital calling for an end to the ailing leader’s rule.
But defying the demands, Bouteflika on Monday insisted on his plan to step down only after the national conference approved a new charter.
In a letter read out on Ennahar television, Bouteflika said the forum, which would be held shortly, would take “decisive decisions”.
‘No problem without a solution’
His comments came hours after Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the army’s chief of staff and the deputy defence minister, said the military would play a role in finding a solution to the ongoing crisis.
“The army will remain a fortified fortress for the country,” Salah said on state TV.
“We should be responsible for finding solutions as soon as possible. There is no problem without [a] solution.”
In a separate development, former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who stepped down last week, called on the government to respect the Algerian people’s demands.
“As just as all the peaceful demands of our people are to be saluted, we must respond to them as soon as possible,” Ouyahia said in a statement to his Democratic National Rally (RND) party on Monday.
Vowing to pursue Algeria’s best interests, the former prime minister called on all parties, including protesters and the government, to compromise in “order to [convince citizens] of the credibility of the transition process”.
Boualem Amoura, secretary-general of the Union of Autonomous Workers in Education and Training (SATEF), told TSA news website that his group would not hold “discussions with the system”.
“Last Tuesday, we [teachers] walked by the thousands in cities across the country to demand the departure of this system and today, it invites us to discuss,” Amoura was quoted as saying on Sunday.
“We will not hold discussions with the system … The people demand the departure of this system and we are with them.”
The government’s attempt to reach out to civil society actors such as trade unions is one event among many that signalled a change in the country’s power dynamics, said Isabelle Werenfels, a research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“What is symbolically important is that in the past, they [trade unions] were not or were hardly received by the government,” said Werenfels. “Their strikes and their demands were seldom acknowledged … While now, they are being sought so something has changed in the ‘balance of power’.”
“I think there’s quite a lot of pressure on the movement because people from all sides are trying to coopt them, to get them to join the national conference,” said Werenfels.
“So far, we’ve seen a lot of resistance to that.”
The announcement that trade unions would not take part in Monday’s meeting comes on the back of several defections by members of the ruling FLN and the main workers’ union, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTT), whose secretary-general, Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, is a supporter of Bouteflika.