Year 2 of the Algerian Revolution

Algeria, Sacred Country or Secular Land?

The “Hirak” has stirred up all the bones of contention accumulated between the country’s population and its rulers since independence was won. A spirit of fraternity has at long last burst through the stifling dictatorship of the “unity of the people.” Improvising a pagan festivity against the powers that be, borne forth on a symbolic imagery, the protesting crowds have revived in this Mediterranean land the carnivalesque as a way of making history.

“The supporters”

Rarely has the Algerian ruling class been so fiercely mocked, insulted, jeered—Gaid Salah, “the potbelly,” “Tebboune al-coke.” First the one, then the other, they have embodied what are termed in political circles “the symbols of the system”, the former as chief of staff, ’“accompanying” as he put it, from his office in the Ministry of Defence, Hirak since its inception until his fatal heart attack and not without having performed the mission he had taken upon himself against the “will of the people”: filling the “constitutional vacuum¨” left by the forced resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika; the latter because there he sits, poorly elected yet elected nonetheless, President of the Republic.

These juridical and institutional acrobatics are proof once again of the system’s resilience, its capacity to remain afloat, but at bottom the tyrants remain unsurprisingly true to type. They are merely the perpetuation of the comedy of power handed back and forth between them and the long interlude of “Bouteflikism” was only made possible by what came before. It is impossible to understand what Hirak has become without invoking the years of civil war (1991–2002)1 which preceded and made possible the reign of “Boutaflikism.” It was merely the consequence of two wars, an internal civil war concealing a destructive, economic war due to the arrival of the market economy which enabled the massive transfer of public funds, the common weal—including the land of the agrarian revolution, the collective farms—to private business interests.

Algerian society underwent the historical experience of an outrageous yet muted violence, passing from a planned economy to rentier liberalism. The State born of independence was destroyed, every form of autonomous social organisation was outlawed, the working class was crushed under massive unemployment, inequality grew worse and millions were plunged into that hell known as the “informal” economy, cruelly humiliating because it is par excellence the place where no rights exist. It is a world where the harrag (illegal migrant) is the absolute martyr; his tomb is the sea, an almost unreal death without a country. Unreal like Algeria itself, trapped behind a facade of unanimity which has made it terra incognita, where it is forbidden to think, forbidden to mend its wounds. A country where it is forbidden to speak of its miseries, which at the end of the day, makes contradictory debate an impossibility.

It is all these slapdash burials that have brought the men and women of Algeria out into the streets to overturn this reign of the dead and establish at last the reign of the living.

This is the background that determined the emergence of this new player that has been dubbed by consensus and especially for lack of a better name Hirak, englobing all the resentment that has been building up at least since independence to the present day. How else to call what is impalpable other than the “Movement”, driven from the depths of society and whose inventiveness has surprised us all?

From unanimity to its opposite

The invention of this movement has a history:

we may posit that a considerable amount of popular inventiveness has made itself felt in Algeria since the eighties, of which the “Berber Spring” (1980-81) was the first manifestation to be perceptible worldwide, the first social movement that could not be hidden from foreign eyes. However, not only did it continually, at every turning and every initiative come up against “the vertigo of openness” (the idea that internal problems should be settled internally) but also the impossibility, cognitive rather than ideological or political, of repudiating the cardinal value of unanimity.2

The late Fanny Colonna, sociologist, outstanding scholar, wrote these words in 1996. Today they are just as valid, for that impossibility of breaking with the myth of unanimity is still in force.

An impossibility which reminds us that when we have been born and have grown up under the dictatorship of unity, understood as the foundation of a nation and its power structure, we cannot get rid of it with a wave of the hand. “From the Algiers Charter of 1964 to the Charter for Peace and Reconciliation of 2006 via the National Charter of 1978, the unity of the people is a dogma which still has its usefulness,” wrote legal expert Khaled Satour in a remarkably clear-headed article for his blog (Contredit) entitled “Hirak: l’encombrante unite du peuple.”

And indeed, it would prove very useful. For there lies the great paradox of this moment in history: the more Hirak obliged the system to reveal itself, the more the movement was obscured, “Fridayed,” what has been termed here the “mainstream narrative” has taken on the task of accompanying Hirak in order to prevent its plurality from being examined, the different social forces involved, the ideologies, the competing projects, the muted struggles within it, muted but not blind. This countrywide theatre of light and shadow has been locked into a cliché: “a single hero; the people,” one and indivisible, together as one against the “system.”

The first to give the lie to this cliché were the photographers, excited by what one of them, Samir Sid, called “the Disneyland of photography”. “Together as one?” No way! They are millions, each brandishing an identity, a community of identities, old and new, where everything is a sign, a message, from their hairdo to their hand-written placards, from the colour of their headbands to that of their flags.

From the brothers Republic to the Revolution of smiles

On 22 February the first photo, in black and white (see illustration of this article), was of the kind that left its mark. It told of the arrival of a new player on the political stage. This was the insurrection of citizens afflicted with melancholia. Without them, Hirak would never have happened. Its political weapons are revolutionary in the sense that they are totally new, they are the shield of selmiya, a pacifism able to forestall the fratricidal warfare which dwells within us, a pacifism borne on the arms of fraternity, a fraternity which can throw a safety cordon around the streets and through a remarkable, unflagging self-organisation, disarm the police, impose a new public order, opening up the Forbidden City. Utopia is now the “Republic of brothers,” erected from below, from the streets, and whose target is the monarchy of gangs: “This is a Republic, not a monarchy”. They are calling for the rule of fairness rather than the rule of law, not so much an ideology as an ethic.

« The Algiers ballerina» Melissa Ziad, 9 March 2019
« The Algiers ballerina» Melissa Ziad, 9 March 2019

Very soon, on March first, a second photo, in colour, made itself felt: “model and dancer,” a girl, in jeans and a black biker jacket, spotted by a professional photographer on the networks, posing for a photo session on one pink foot, arm raised skyward against a background of fans: “This pic went around the world,” according to the news channel France 24. “An Algerian ballerina who is barely 17, immortalised by a photo dancing smack in the middle of a street protest in Algiers”. The everlasting flower (immortelle in French) is a perfect metaphor to globalise and simplify the message: in Algeria, this is a “revolution of smiles.” The young woman who took the picture hopes (OU the young woman in the photograph hopes the protest movement will pull Algeria upwards.

Should Algeria be looked at from below or from above? That is what Hirak is all about. Another question for now and for the future: with or without the women? If another famous picture of “the four feminists” made them visible on 29 March 2019, it also made visible the mainstream response: this is no time to divide...” the people,” indifference has no gender. Let us march together and simplify the world: “Youth has arrived and been given a mission, it is up to it to invent ‘a new Republic’” an image redolent of demography rather than sociology.

Of course there is nothing to prevent taking a photo of it but the mainstream will choose its own: “the students” who, since 26 February 2019 have come on stage with a march of their own, known as the “Tuesday March.” “The autonomous and democratic Algerian student movement has become a major political player” is the caption by an academic in the columns of El Watan; “An historical subject in the political and social struggles initiated by the people’s historical movement ... to change the political system ... and for the advent of a civil state and the rule of law, in a free, democratic and social Algeria.”

What does it matter if the figure of Sheik Abdelhamid Ben Badis takes pride of place in this picture, attesting the participation of a “new actor”, yet another one, the Badissiya Novembriya, a nebulous far-right body obsessed with issues of identity and claiming to represent the purity of November 19543, as well as the sheik’s religious values—“Algeria is Muslim and a first cousin to Arabs”—and who divides the world between “Arabs” and Zouaves”4 (i.e., the Kabyle people, suspected of being “de Gaulle’s offspring”). And what did it matter that the students stopped showing up on Tuesdays because of exams, their parents would keep up the good work for them, on the streets and at home.

Student March and Sheikh Ben Badis, 28 May 2019
Student March and Sheikh Ben Badis, 28 May 2019

“Let’em all clear off!”

From the missing image to the accessory one, as the year went by the mainstream would construct its narrative in its own image, comforting its conformism all the way to the last picture on that poster which claims to be speaking for Hirak: “Our demands are political, they are not social”.

This erasure, this evacuation of the social question may be seen as the signature of this narrative which, since Hirak began, has been striving to impose its hegemony.

According to this narrative, Hirak’s only mission is to establish a “civil, non-military State” (a concept which is vague enough to be shared by Islamists and democrats alike) thanks to a “transitional phase” which is just as fuzzy, but which cannot even be imagined without the collaboration of the “system” on which “the people” must continue to “bring pressure to bear” by its street protests, provided that “everything which divides us during this delicate stage be put aside. Because what interests us is to continue with the same determination, union and pacifism”5 while “the world looks on.”

In “the streets, ‘a people’ against ‘a system’. A paralysing image by virtue of the power of its mystifying hold over the street crowds’ deep desire for agencies but in its passive form: in Algerian Arabic, ‘Itnahaw gâa’, ‘let ’em all clear out’. While every other mode of action is caricatured with stigmatising figures such as the ‘blue finger’ (the sign of polling station ‘betrayal’) or ‘combat bootlickers’ aimed at any attempt to innovate, including writer Kamel Daoud, cast in the role of Doctor Faustus, of whom the image asks, like Margaret, the woman he confesses he loves: ‘Then tell me, what do you make of religion?’

How can we not wonder about what is to be made, in a country where to expose oneself is always dangerous and where Hirak was born—which is not insignificant—what is to be made of an anonymous appeal circulated on the social networks? How not to wonder what the social forces are that occupy the centre stage thus and persist in raking up the unexpected in hopes of making history in the death-dealing prison of unanimity, from the same matrix of power they pretend to be combatting?

“Our demands are political, not social”, 11 January 2020
“Our demands are political, not social”, 11 January 2020
Khalid Slimani

The sacred and the illusory

‘The experience of history teaches us, Khaled Satour analyses in the article quoted above, “that when a major protest claims to speak “in the name of the people as a whole”, this is merely the label which the more or less privileged classes have chosen for themselves. In Algeria, this is likely to be the middle classes, attracted by the charms of Western-style liberal democracy but still too weak to achieve their aims, and who have been expressing themselves since 22 February under the name of Hirak.”

These middle classes are most likely the main beneficiaries of the Algerian model of development, which they have largely contributed to building. Today their interests are under threat and they are consequently wavering between Hirak and the “system.” A balancing act fuelled more by images than by reason:

for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence ... truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.6

The middle classes have come to confuse spectacle “that autonomous movement of the nonliving” as Guy Debord phrased it, with swarming humanity and its quarrels over the oil revenue and its dependants. They try to stand the world on its head when it is marching on its feet. “They have not understood”, an old activist says mockingly,’ that the power structure no longer needs them, no longer needs their mediation because today, contrary to the fifties everybody in Algeria can read and write”. Never have Algerian men and women read so much, debated so much, questioned so much: how to get rid of this dictatorship? What to put in its place? What is a nation? Who are the people? What does the Constitution say? And Algerian men and women ... what is it they want?

14-point student platform
14-point student platform

Different projects are in competition. But perhaps people aren’t looking for shepherds but for an alternative to this 21st century and which could begin by getting rid of this calamitous watchword “a single hero, the people” fostered during the war of national liberation to silence the fratricidal war for power raging from Tripoli to Algiers, to create the single-party system with its single language, single religion and single roots, to confiscate the legacy of all the struggles, all the martyrs, all the popular resistance and declare them resolved to the point of forgetting to bury the dead when honour would have demanded it and when they still haunt us today. How to get out of this bloody unity and its witch-hunt for “traitors” and heretics to be hung (with each group their own)?

The positive side of Hirak is perhaps to have desacralised the domain of politics nationwide, taking it out of the mosques, asserting that it belonged to the secular domain and that at bottom Algeria is a huge football stadium where rival teams face off with the task of scaring one another. Through shouts, dance and trance, through the invention of a common language—the people’s own Arabic—let each sport his or her own colours, identified and identifiable, let each come out into the open. Let them say where he or she is speaking from in a spirit of fraternity which is the opposite of unity and let the match begin. Where neither victory nor defeat are permanent and on condition nevertheless, since history is forever, that it be kept in mind that the powers of the powerful have a limit, which is the referee of time and money. And from there we will at last be able to proclaim—including for “women”, since their right to be pious has been recognized—“What the devil, to each their god!”

1Karima Lazali, Le trauma colonial, Coucou, Alger, 2019.

2Fanny Colonna, “Radiographie d’une société en mouvement”, in Monde arabe Maghreb-Machrek, no 154, October-December 1996.

3EDITOR’S NOTE: Date of the first call to the Algerian people by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the beginning of the Algerian War of Independance.

4TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Zouave was the title given to certain light infantry regiments in the French Army, normally serving in French North Africa between 1831 and 1962.

5EDITOR’S NOTE: Statement made by sollicitor and human rights activist Mostefa Bouchachi, 18 April 2019.

6Ludwig Feueurbach, quote placed as a heading for Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle.