Algeria: The beauty and courage of rebellion

Beginning as a protest against a fifth presidential term for the half dead, 82 year old Abdelaziz Bouteflika (in power since 1999) on the 22nd of February, the algerian protests have swelled into a mass rebellion against against an authoritarian, rentier capitalism that seemed to have been frozen in time. If Bouteflika seems to have been sidelined for now, the risk of an Egyptian or Tunisian style “transition” is on the horizon. The weekly protests however promise so much more.

We share below a testimonial from algeria published with lundi matin.

“The Street belongs to us. The street is us.”

(lundi matin #184, 27/03/2019)

In the aftermath of the gigantic human tide that invaded Algiers, we all let ourselves be carried by a feeling of joy and lightness, tinged with some concern about the future. The immense quality of these mobilisations which clean the country of the shame of the third and the fourth mandate is not so much that this popular earthquake has its epicenter and its zone of fracture at the very heart of the system, but especially perhaps what the movement says by its very existence, its way of being, the change in behaviors; not only what it formulates, but the way it formulates it.

[This text was originally published on the website of the Centre de Recherches pour l’Alternative Sociale]

It is first of all its spontaneity and its autonomy. It sprang up everywhere, like from a fissured ground, blazing all the willayas, from north to south, from east to west, without occult preparation or a concocted slogan, without the knowledge of all the political organisations and groups of civil society, who had, however, diagnosed the country’s ill-being. The lid that stifled so many desires of justice and freedom, frustrations, which masked so many humiliations, historical lies, repressed battles, victims, and looting of the national heritage, exploded with the whole pot. The contempt, the hogra, had become unbearable and the young were ready to die at sea on makeshift boats. A slogan said: “By despising us, you have underestimated us”. It said everything.

The “old mole” had dug its galleries under the feet of the rulers.

It is also its self-organization, its order of march, all the cogs and wheels turning spontaneously through a form of underlying collective intelligence. The crowd, massive, compact, where it is difficult to clear a path, where anything can happen, shows a stupendous calm, a kind of sweetness, a vigilance at all times, a particular concern of its image. It knows the importance of this, this facebook generation. The Algerian here puts the lie to her/his reputation of nervousness and impatience, s/he breaks this representation: “silmiya, silmiya” becomes a leitmotif “peaceful, peaceful” (root “slm”, peace as in salam or Islam). Even young people who climb trees or electric pylons are summoned to come down. Committees of vigilance are constituted. And when a man, leaning against a wall, says softly “All to El Mouradia” (the district of the presidential palace), everyone knows that it is a provocateur. Everyone has in mind the attempted fire at the Bardo Museum, at the Museum of Antiquities or the attack on the School of Fine Arts (the plaque commemorating the assassination of the director of Fine Arts, Ahmed Asselah and his son Rabah, in 1994, was even torn off), on the margins of the March 8 demonstration. The dogs, lost, had laid a trap for the police, stabbing several of them. It was not, of course, protesters. Likewise, bags filled with stones had been laid out along the path of the demonstration by “mysterious” hands, and were fortunately discovered. Vigilance. We know, here, the weapons of power.

The demonstration becomes a vigilant but festive meeting place: groups of friends have often gathered by neighborhood (placards bear the names of neighborhoods, Birkhadem, Bouzareah, Draria), tinkering improvised signs on pieces of cardboard, plywood, or on the contrary, printed on sophisticated material, laminated. They concocted disguises in national colours, crests, helmets, dressed in flags. They converge, in order, towards the city center. Everything is decentralized and starts from the depths of the city: it is the joyful creativity of the popular districts …

It is again the astonishing change of daily behavior that results from it, the 180° turn of current attitudes. A difficult, often gloomy street dominated by machismo and where women are too often harassed (there has been a long and painful confrontation around the law criminalising violence against women and the introduction of the notion of harassment in public places, judged to be contrary to “the law of Islam” by the Islamists: “we can not criminalize a man who has been excited by a woman”, said even a member of the Algeria Green Alliance “) meets a street where women veiled or not, in abaya or jeans, together, reclaim the street without fear. The repeal of the family code, which makes women minors for life, has been amended but not repealed. The struggle continues. But in this unprecedented situation the “young people” respond with deference, courtesy, so much so that a young woman asks herself: “Are they the same? “. No misplaced remarks or intrusive flirting, but a rigorous, respectful attention. There is great anger. A visceral hatred carried by the immense energy of the very young crowd. And there is at the same time a great gentleness, an extreme kindness of people. Strange and moving coexistence.

It is the relationship to the public space that is transfigured: anyone who lives in Algeria knows how much the deficiencies of public services affects the cleanliness of cities, creates a neglected environment where garbage accumulates and that everyone tries in her/his own way, more or less, to keep things proper: as if the dispossession of political space had to be matched by a lack of interest for the state of the city, foreign and potentially hostile territory, separated from the intimate, by contrast, perfectly maintained. Suddenly, while more than a million people are crowded onto the avenues, nothing is left behind: young people carry large bags to meticulously collect papers, cans, various packages that litter the gutters. A way of saying: “This street is ours, this street is us”.

Finally, it’s the humor, the derision, the biting irony of signs and banners that is no longer the “politeness of despair” of the dark decade, but the spirit of the reconquest. Each one has come out of her/his fold, has freed her/himself from her/his obsessive facebook, from clashes on the web, where friendships are fake and easy or hate and detestation are instrumentalised. Here national and Berber flags fly side by side, multiple colors of the same country that proves that diversity and unity are complementary. “Tahia Djazaïr” (Long live Algeria) and “Enoua weguy th’Imazhighen” (We are Berbers) are chanted simultaneously, probably to the chagrin of incendiaries of all kinds. Slogans fuse, languages blend with total respect; the invectives of “separatism” or “islamo-baathism” are excluded. Just as the instrumentalisation of Islam for political ends, so much feared, is totally excluded from the demonstrations.

Everything shows a political intelligence, an ability to subvert behaviors and mentalities so massive and shared that it seems impossible to go back. The stadium chants of the supporters of the Algerian foot-ball team, Mouloudia, clearly illustrate the social protest of the people. Power is insulted.

The people are in the street. Power vascilates …

All the scenarios are on the table. The worst and the best. S/he would be very strong who can predict what tomorrow will be.

Georges Riviere, Algiers, March 16, 2019

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