The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue
Field Notes

This Street Is Ours. We Are This Street.

Marching in Algeria

At a time when the word "socialism" has reentered public discourse perhaps a more frequent appearance of "revolution" is to be expected. It was still surprising to see the New York Times headline a March 24 report "'It's Time to Break the Chains.' Algerians seek a Revolution." The word seems appropriate, however, though it cannot be said what the weekly growing demonstrations in Algiers will finally produce. Certainly a better symbol for a power structure slated for removal than 82-year-old President Bouteflika, paralyzed since a stroke in 2013, would be hard to find. The Times describes Bouteflika as installed by the army after it "brutally crushed an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s." It is right about the brutality but neglected to mention—despite its insistence that "The Truth is Worth It"—the decisive electoral victories won by the Islamic Salvation Front in 1990 and 1991; the insurgency followed the nullification of the latter election by military action. That the army and the National Liberation Front—returned to power by the military—have joined in praising the demonstrators for their "sense of civic responsibility" gives a sense of the power of the popular movement. The following report from Algiers offers a brief account of the current state of play.

—Paul Mattick

The day after a gigantic human tidal wave invaded Algiers, we all let ourselves go with a feeling of elation and lightness, touched with a certain disquiet about what was to follow. The immense quality of this mobilization is not so much that this popular earthquake had its epicenter and its fracture zone at the very heart of the system, but above all, perhaps, what the very existence of the movement said, its manner of being, the evolution of its behaviors: not only what it expressed but the way it expressed it.

First of all, its spontaneity and its autonomy. It rose up from all sides, like the earth cracking open, embracing all the wilayas (administrative districts), from north to south, from east to west, without any secret preparations or concocted slogans, out of the control of all the political organizations and civil society groups, though they had diagnosed the country's ill-being. The lid stifling so many desires for justice and liberty, so many frustrations, which covered up so many humiliations, historical lies, suppressed struggles, victims, and the pillage of the national wealth, blew up with the whole pot. The rulers' contempt, al-hogra, had become unbearable and young people were ready to die at sea, taking their chances by boat. A slogan said it all: "With your contempt for us, you have under-estimated us." The Old Mole had dug its mines under the feet of the rulers.

Then there is its self-organization, its marching order, all the wheels setting themselves spontaneously in motion with a sort of underlying collective intelligence. The crowd, massive, so compact it is hard to force one's way through, where anything can happen, exhibited a stupefying calm, a sort of sweetness, vigilant at every moment, taking particular care of its image. Of the Facebook generation, it knows the value of image. On this occasion Algerians refuted their reputation for excitability and impatience: "Silmiya, silmiya" (peaceful, from the root sim, peace, as in salaam or Islam) became a watchword. Even the young people who climbed on the trees and electric pylons were called down. Security committees constituted themselves. And when a man with his back to a wall said in a soft voice, "Everyone to Mouradia!" (the quarter containing the presidential palace) everyone knew him for a provocateur. Everyone was conscious of the attempt to set fire to the Bardo Museum, the museum of antiquities, and the attack on the art school (where the plaque commemorating the assassination of the director of the École des Beaux-Arts, Ahmed Asselah, and his son Rabah in 1994 had been ripped off), in the course of the demonstration on March 8. Dogs off the leash had set a trap for the cops on that occasion, stabbing several of them—this was not, for sure, the work of the demonstrators. In the same way, on this day sacks filled with stones had been placed along the route of march by "mysterious" hands; luckily, they were discovered. Here people recognized the weapons of state power.

The march became a vigilant but festive meeting-place: groups of friends often came together by neighborhood (signs carried neighborhood names: Birkhadem, Bouzaréah, Draria), improvising placards on pieces of cardboard or plywood, or, quite the opposite, printing them on sophisticated supports. They concocted costumes out of the national colors, crests, helmets, dressed themselves in flags. They converged, in good order, on the center of town. Everything was decentralized, starting from the inner depths of the city: it was the joyful creativity of the lower-class neighborhoods.

And then there was the astonishing break with daily behavior that flowed from it, the 180-degree turn from normal attitudes. Instead of a difficult, often sullen street, dominated by macho behavior, where women are too often harassed—there has been a long and painful struggle over the law criminalizing violence against women and the concept of harassment in public places, held by the Islamists to be contrary to "Islamic law": a lawmaker of the Algerian Green Alliance went so far as to declare that "We can't criminalize a man who is excited by a woman"—we saw women, veiled or not, in abaya or jeans, together reappropriating the street for themselves without fear. Family law, which made women minor for life, has been amended but not abrogated. The struggle continues. But in this previously unexperienced situation the "youths" responded with deference and courtesy, to such an extent that a young woman wondered, "Are these the same guys?" No out of place remarks or intrusive pickup attempts, but rigorously respectful attention.

There was a lot of anger, of visceral detestation carried by the immense energy of a very young crowd. And at the same time great sweetness, an extreme gentleness among people enjoying a strange and moving coexistence.

The relationship to public space was transformed: anyone who lives in Algeria knows to what extent the deficiencies of public services affect the cleanliness of the cities, creating a neglected environment where garbage accumulates and everyone more or less deals with it in their own way, as if responding to the dispossession of public space with disinterest in the state of the city, a foreign and potentially hostile territory, separated from personal space, which is perfectly maintained. Suddenly, when more than a million people found themselves massed in the avenues, litter disappeared: young people came with large bags to meticulously collect papers, bottles, packaging of all sorts filling the gutters. It was a way of saying, "This street is ours, we are this street."

Finally, there was the humor, derision, mordant irony of the posters and banners—no longer the "polite despair" of the last black decade but a spirit of reconquest. People came out of themselves, extracted themselves from facebook, from the obsessive conflicts of the screen, where friendship is often fictional and easy, and detestation and hate easily instrumentalized. Here national and Berber flags were side-by-side, multiple colors of the same country, proving that diversity and unity are complementary. Tahia Djazair (Long live Algeria!) and Enoua weguy th'Imazhighen (We are Berbers!) were chanted simultaneously, doubtless to the great displeasure of ideologues of every stripe. The slogans fused, the languages mingled with total respect for each other; there were no accusations of "separatism" or "Islamo-baathism." In the same way, the instrumentalization of Islam for political ends, so much feared, was totally excluded from the marches.

Everything gave evidence of a political intelligence, of a capacity to subvert behavior and mentalities to a degree so massive and widely shared as to make it impossible to turn back. The stadium chants of the supporters of the Algerian soccer team, the Mouloudia, clearly expressed the social opposition of the people, insulting state power.

The people are in the street. The state vacillates. . . . Everything is on the table, the best and worst.

It would take a lot to predict what is going to happen next.

Algiers, March 16, 2019

Translated from:


Georges Rivière

Georges Rivière is a member of CRAS31: Centre de Recherches pour l'Alternative Sociale.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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