Algeria: Learning to smile

Students take part in a protest to denounce an offer by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run in elections next month but not to serve a full term if re-elected, in Algiers, Algeria March 5, 2019. (photo credit: RAMZI BOUDINA/REUTERS)
Students take part in a protest to denounce an offer by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run in elections next month but not to serve a full term if re-elected, in Algiers, Algeria March 5, 2019.
Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement to run for a fifth term was no surprise. Few, however, expected the mass backlash. After all, during the Arab Spring the Algerians seemed effectively silenced. So much so, in fact, that in 2014, a year after Bouteflika suffered a stroke that left him impotent and ineffective, they re-elected him. Yet now, Algerians defiantly took to the streets, refusing a picture-frame as president. After four weeks of protests, Bouteflika dropped his bid for a fifth term – attempting to curb the popular rise, but giving hope for a more profound change, perhaps a revolution. What can we learn from the Algerian uprising, and what have Algerians themselves learned?
The fear factor
In the twilight of winter, Algeria reminds us of the promise of the Arab Spring – and the worth of intellectual humility. Eight years have passed since Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire, kindling, in his dark despair, the hopes of millions. But not, supposedly, those of the Algerians’.
Academically, both the 2011 Arab Spring and the 2019 Algerian uprising make little sense. For decades before 2011, experts on the region had dwelled so much on the robustness of Arab authoritarianism, that the early winds of change went largely unnoticed. Then, when the dust settled and Algeria remained the only Arab “republic” not taken by the storm, we, in media and academia alike, quickly turned to its bloody 1990s civil war to explain how this supposedly post-traumatic society would not dare risk instability again, certainly not after witnessing the frightful state of most of the Arab Spring’s offspring. We emphasized the Algerians’ need for security and stability over their will for change and political autonomy.
This narrative was tempting, and, as hundreds of thousands of Algerians have now proved – false. True enough, fear always plays a role in human and political affairs, triggering the familiar triad reaction of flight-fight-freeze. But while Algerians, as others, have had their share of flight and freeze, the possibility to think – and fight fear – has never disappeared, and has now surfaced.
Whether fear has been defeated, or not, the Algerian rise has reaffirmed the politics of freedom: humans always have the choice to imagine, and pursue, a better social life. And as has often been the case, it was the courage, or recklessness, of the young generation that pioneered the move. The youth may be silenced, but is never truly silent; still, to “sing” the chants of protests requires a leap of political faith, and freedom. What could make people risk their lives to make them better, “suddenly” daring to hope?
Social movement as a learning process
Social movements neither emerge, nor evolve, in a void, but take cues from their past experiences, and those of others – as do the regimes they face. Time and place are always telling. The mass protests against Bouteflika’s fifth term started not in the streets of Algiers, but in Algeria’s periphery – and in Paris. On February 17, five days before the first demonstrations in Algeria, and months into the ongoing struggle of the “Yellow Vests” movement, the Algerian European diaspora gathered in Place de la République in Paris to say “no more” to Bouteflika.
Should we then connect the dots to color the Algerian rise yellow? Only if we recognize the line is neither straight, nor unidirectional, but twisted and dialectical. While inspired by the democratic dynamics in France, the protesters did not copy-paste the Yellow Vests. They critically insisted on not succumbing to violence, the Yellow Vests’ marque-de-fabrique, likewise learning from Algeria’s past descent into it – in both the revolutionary and civil wars. The symbol of smile captures this purposeful shift. The FLN revolutionary struggle was tainted by its horrid violence, the fighters’ favorite method of execution being the “Kabylian smile”: cutting their victims’ throats, pulling their tongues out and leaving them to bleed to death. Today, Algerians speak of a “smile revolution,” peaceful and humoristic.
The Algerian learning process does not end here. Notably, Algerians have largely abstained from reiterating the Arab Spring’s hugely popular slogan – “the people want(s) to bring down the regime” – grasping, perhaps, that by the end of the day, a “regime” will be there one way or another. Instead, the protesters more concretely demanded: “Bouteflika out” and “No fifth mandate,” and, for now, it has worked. This apparent moderation, however, should not obfuscate the realization of many Algerians that getting rid of the aging Bouteflika is one thing, dismantling the longstanding Le Pouvoir (“the Power”) – an amalgam of military and unelected civilians calling the shots – quite another.
“What is a rebellious man?” asked Albert Camus, Algeria’s own, “A man who says no. But if he refuses, he does not give up: he is also a man who says yes, from his first movement.” It is now up to Algerians to choose what to say yes to.
The writer is a graduate student and a research assistant at Tel Aviv University, and a fellow at Sciences Po Paris.