Quick Thoughts: Thomas Serres on Algeria’s Protests

Quick Thoughts: Thomas Serres on Algeria’s Protests

[Algeria has in recent weeks been gripped by a growing wave of popular demonstrations, which are reaching a crescendo as the closing date for nominations for the 18 April presidential elections approaches. Central in this equation is the prospective candidacy of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, incapacitated for several years and demonstrably incapable of leading the country or its government. To learn more about the context and prospects of the Algerian protest movement Jadaliyya turned to Thomas Serres of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming L'Algérie face à la catastrophe suspendue. Gérer la crise et blâmer le peuple sous Bouteflika (1999-2014) (Algeria and the Suspended Disaster. Managing the Crisis and Blaming the People under Bouteflika (1999-2014)]

Jadaliyya (J): What is the background to the current round of protests in Algeria, and should they be understood in the context of the presidential elections or as part of a broader agenda with more comprehensive demands?

Thomas Serres (TS): These protests are at the crossroads of long-term discontent resulting from structural injustice and cyclical tensions linked to the presidential elections scheduled for 18 April 2019.

There is constant socio-economic unrest in Algeria. The society is very active and yet very fragmented. To overcome this fragmentation and make their claims heard in the public space, many social movements have tried to organize themselves and to mobilize in a peaceful manner. They also make limited demands and invoke national unity in order to gain popular support. 

During the past five years, some of these movements have been quite successful, especially those coming from the south of Algeria whose agendas focus on unemployment or opposition to fracking. Hundreds of associations, autonomous trade unions, human rights activists and YouTubers regularly denounce the status quo, and depict a catastrophic present (i.e. the daily sufferings of the population). Activists, journalists, and artists echo the widespread feeling of hogra (best translated as systemic injustice and contempt, denial of the right to live in dignity). They depict a situation that is quite simply unbearable.

The upcoming presidential election has been a catalyst for this popular discontent. The current mobilization sends a clear message: enough is enough. ‘Ashrun sena barakat (Twenty Years is Enough!) as one sign seen at the protests stated. In 2014, during the last presidential elections, the ambiance was already on edge and one could sense a mix of fear, fatigue, and disgust. Nothing has changed. Spokespersons of the regime display supreme contempt for the people. Their discourses are either redundant or absurd. Those who accept to take part in the elections as challengers are largely portrayed as complicit, if not complete jokers.

The April elections could appear as a form of political farce if the current political paralysis was not a reason for the socio-economic hardships experienced by people on a daily basis. Meanwhile, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is incapable of speech, is portrayed as the man who is going to save the nation from the prospect of another civil war. The elections have become a Kafkaesque mise-en-scène, an absurd distortion of a democratic process resulting in pervasive social anxiety. In short, there is only so much people can take. From this perspective, while the discourse of protesters has targeted the Bouteflikas (Abdelaziz and his brother, Saïd), it is also the broader system of domination that is under attack.

J: Are these protests spontaneous expressions of opposition to a further term for President Bouteflika that will eventually pass, or are they evolving into an organised campaign with a structure, leadership, and durability?

TS: The protests are generally spontaneous, for two reasons: first, Algeria has its own nationalist tradition and political temporality, which explains its relative disconnection from the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011. Algeria did experience a popular uprising in January 2011, but the fear of chaos, the financial resources ensured by high hydrocarbon prices, the political fragmentation, and the relative legitimacy of Bouteflika (compared to Tunisia’s Ben 'Ali or Egypt’s Mubarak) helped the regime navigate the crisis. The current protests are also free from any kind of foreign influence (which would be unacceptable given the shared nationalist narrative), though they are supported by the Algerian diaspora in Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

The second factor that explains the spontaneity of these protests is the widely shared rejection of formal politics. Political parties, linked to the regime or to opposition forces, are discredited because of their fragmentation, their incoherent discourses and their participation in clientelist networks. For this reason, social, political, and economic movements in Algeria have branded themselves as autonomous for more than a decade. They might include some political figures who support their cause, but they are not directed by any political organization. Therefore, the current movement is a grassroots one. It has benefited from spectacular mobilization on internet, but also from already existing forms of organization in universities and even among football fans. Moreover, this spontaneous mobilization displays remarkable organization, pacifism and civility (they are cleaning the streets after the protests) that counter the negative representations of the masses promoted for the last 20 years.

Activist networks that have been mobilized for several decades, even during the civil war of the 1990s, are finally seeing the fruits of their relentless actions to keep criticism alive in the public space. Youth organizations, human rights defenders, and social movements have all contributed to making this possible. This also rewards the efforts of newspapers such as El Watan and El Khabar that have been critical of the regime despite the many obstacles they faced.

J: What is the position of established actors in Algeria, such as the FLN, the military, and opposition parties, and to what extent are the current protests being used to settle intra-elite rivalries?

TS: Factions of the regime in the political arena are deeply implicated with the presidency. The two main parties that have the support of the regime have backed the Bouteflika for more than a decade without ever questioning his decisions. They have portrayed him as a savior, despite the fact that he is obviously unfit to govern. The same holds true for the TAJ (Tajamoua Amel El-Djazair) and the MPA (Mouvement Populaire Algérien), which represent Islamist and Berberist tendencies within the regime and are effectively political appendices of it. The historically nationalist trade union, the UGTA, has also been compromised by its leadership and notably its General Secretary Abdelmajid Sidi-Saïd, who is a close ally of the presidency.

Algeria’s business elites have been more divided. Many are organically linked to the presidency, because, as in the case of Ali Haddad, the leader of the main business owners’ association, they have benefited from their position as regime cronies. Because their wealth results from their activities in construction or foreign trade, these affairistes need political protection. Others, who constitute a minority, have pushed for a political opening that has often been coupled with a demand for neoliberal restructuring. This is, for example, the case of Issad Rebrab, who has echoed criticism of Bouteflika in his newspaper Liberté.

The real question is what is going to happen with the security forces. First, they are divided among the police, the intelligence services, the gendarmerie and the army, which each play a different role. Technically, the protests should be managed primarily by the police, which is central to any non-lethal policing of unruly bodies. Under Bouteflika, the Algerian police became essential to normalizing the management of social and political unrest after the civil war. Yet, the police has been under significant pressure over the past few years, and for example, faced a major movement of protest by its own forces in 2014. More recently, its long-standing chief, retired General-Major Abdelghani Hamel, was sacked following a drug trafficking affair that involved some of his collaborators.

The other central issue is the reaction of the army. Legally speaking, the army doesn't have a political function beyond the protection of the nation, even if it is also authorized to fight domestic subversion. In theory, the army should stay out of the current political struggles. Its Chief of Staff, Ahmed Gaid-Salah, is a close ally of the presidency, but military officers can easily separate their own fate from that of the Bouteflikas, as was the case in Egypt in 2011. At the same time, following the Algerian political tradition, some protesters are openly calling for intervention by the army, referencing its historical identification with the people.

J: What is your prognosis regarding these events?

TS: I don't have a specific prognosis since anything can happen. This is a revolutionary movement and an extremely powerful line of flight. These movements can be destructive or vain. They can end in chaos or nothingness. Yet, one must look at what has already happened: Algerians are in the streets, chanting peacefully, expressing their rejection of a system of domination that has nothing to offer but a status quo marked by absurdity, cronyism, bureaucratic contempt, and the ghosts of the civil war.

For those born in the late 1980s or the 1990s, which is the majority of the population, this system has been in place their entire adult life, which commenced after the conclusion of the civil war. They grew up with the promise that any rebellion would lead to a new form of bloody fitna (chaos). They have constantly faced paternalist discourses from state officials that depict the people as immature. They have heard the diagnosis of experts who analyze the mind of an allegedly “schizophrenic nation.”

Algeria under Bouteflika is certainly less physically violent than Egypt under Sisi or Syria under Bashar. But the symbolic violence is acute and suffocating, and is aggravated by socio-economic violence. Together, these forces have shaped the society that is now rising up against the status quo.  

We are witnessing a revolutionary movement that is responding to the symbolic violence of the system. Its language has been remarkably clear and eloquent. Students, activists, syndicalists, journalists, and football fans are saying that they have had enough. Echoing the country's revolutionary legacy, they speak in the name of the Algerian people. They recreate the Algerian people as a class, as the key actor in an ongoing struggle against domination and injustice.  Facing the symbolic violence of the regime, they insist that they are not violent and unruly, but peaceful and civilized. They are demonstrating that they are politically conscious and responsible. They are fed up with the absurdity of their so-called representative system. The symbolic revolution has already happened.

From here, the movement can take many paths. It could actually end the existing status quo and terminate the absurdity of the current political system. The main question is whether political elites will be capable of meeting these expectations. Can the latter present a united front and represent the will of the people, even for a short period of time?

J: Where does this leave President Bouteflika and eventual alternatives?

TS: Bouteflika’s past personas, as a revolutionary figure and then a politician who brought peace, are dead. For a long time, he was somehow considered to be an alternative to "Le Pouvoir" (The Power). He was smarter than others, he was more official, better known internationally, he allowed for the reinsertion of the country in the historical continuum of peace and development. But this narrative stopped functioning in 2013. 

Now what is left is just Bouteflika's physical body, which incites shame and mockery, and his picture (le cadre), which continues to adorn walls and provokes hatred. Holding presidential elections in 2014 was already a gamble. Five years later, the absence of a genuine political alternative is dramatic for the regime. They are now speaking about Ramtane Lamamra, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, as a successor if Bouteflika doesn't present his candidacy this Sunday. This is another spectacular example of the lack of political imagination: Lamamra is a pure product of the Algerian technocracy. He is an alumnus of the ENA (National School of Administration) and trained in diplomacy, much like other key civilian figures of the regime (for example campaign director Abdelmalek Sellal and Prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia). Electing somebody like Lamamra would merely serve to preserve the prevailing equilibrium. But at least, one could argue, he remains among the living. 

The main issue is the lack of credible political alternatives in the opposition. Opposition parties could agree on common platforms and limit their divisions, which shatter the political field. But this will probably take time. For this reason, one can imagine that the regime’s candidate (Bouteflika, Lamamra or someone else) might be able to win the upcoming presidential election. The other alternative is for the army to intervene (ie a coup) and the formation of an interim national union government. This would allow for the reconfiguration of the political field and the preparation of competitive elections in the next six to twelve months. But we all know the risks that accompany any militarization of the political struggle. Again, what is certain is that Bouteflika, the president, is dead and the Algerian people has shown itself to be alive and thriving. The rest of the story will be determined by those who are currently fighting for dignity in the streets.