The people’s movement in Algeria, eight months on

November 1, 2019, is the 65th anniversary of the War of Liberation against French colonialism. The ongoing protests in Algeria is expected to enter a new phase: civil resistance.

2019 protest in Algeria. Image credit Khirani Said via Wikimedia Commons.

Within seven weeks of its start on February 22nd, 2019, the people’s revolt (Harak) in Algeria forced the cancelation of the presidential elections scheduled for mid-April and shook the then teetering power equilibrium to its core. The militaro-oligarchic tripod, composed of the Presidency, Military High Command (MHC), Intelligence, and their respective foreign patronage and clientelist networks, which had carefully been crafted over the previous three decades, was dealt a significant blow by a peaceful but determined people’s movement. Yet despite these gains, the movement has been struggling against a three-dimensional counter-revolutionary constellation bent on aborting the potential of the movement and reproducing the system under a new guise.

On April 2nd, riding the popular wave, the MHC made its move against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, promising a power handover to appease the movement. Next, they went for the head of intelligence, Athman Tartag, bringing his security apparatus under its command and assuming total control of decision-making mechanisms in the country. In all but name, it was a coup d’état.

A wave of arrests ensued in the following weeks targeting former (prime) ministers, corrupt businessmen, political figures, and military/intelligence officers associated with the disgraced wings who might possess the capability to cause nuisance. The MHC hoped that the spectacular manner in which this settling of old accounts campaign was carried out and represented, would help to appease the people’s movement. It would demonstrate the seriousness with which the MHC approached the cleansing of “corruption” and the influence of “unconstitutional forces” within the state. Algerians, however, were not easily swayed by this performance of self-mutilation, in which the military-oligarchic cabal hacked some of its limbs to save its nervous system.

Bouteflika’s removal, and the jailing of his brother, Said, who was assumed to be the actual power behind the office for the last 6 years, automatically triggered the relevant constitutional transitional mechanisms. Most importantly, Article 102 allows for the interim head of state and interim government to organize presidential elections within a period of 90 days. Recognizing the MHC’s agenda- to use the elections (scheduled for July 4th) as a front to assure its own primacy, the Harak’s slogans on the street mutated to reflect the new stakes. The new slogans included “Yetnehaw Ga’a” (They must all be wrenched, “Makach intikhabat maa al-issabat (There won’t be any elections with these cabals), “Dawla Madaniyya, Machi Askariyya” (A Civilian, not a Military State), and “Jumhuriyya machi caserna/thakana” (This is a republic, not a barracks).

Having ensured the cancelation of the July 4th elections, the popular movement goaded the MHC into its nightmare scenario, a constitutional crisis. The MHC’s attempts to turn a political crisis into a constitutional one failed miserably. With the expiry of the 90 days period in early July, neither the interim presidency nor the interim government could claim any shred of legitimacy, even in the eyes of the most accommodating elements of the popular movement. As far as the movement was concerned, even by the standard of the ruling cabal’s constitution, the country had entered a period of de facto rule by the MHC. Although Algerians have always been aware of the centrality of the MHC to the country’s power constellation, it had always managed to shroud itself in a civilian façade to mystify its role in the country’s decision-making process. For the first time since independence, however, the MHC finds itself in a direct face-off with the people and, this time, there is nowhere for it to hide.

The MHC has turned its back on every single roadmap proposed by actors with an actual social base and presence in the movement, and have ignored all appeals for a genuine dialogue. This includes the National Coordination for Change in Algeria’s Platform for Change in Algeria in March, followed by propositions and appeals made in May and June by the National Organization of Veterans, the National Association of Ulama, the National Civil Society Conference, the Forces for a Democratic Alternative, as well as the multiple appeals and statements issued by various groups of independent national personalities.

By late June, realizing that the July 4th elections were a chimera, the MHC began a more concerted campaign of repression, this time targeting historical symbols and leaders of the movement. The counter-revolution revealed its ugly face—not only with its repressive security apparatuses on the streets, but also with its increasing assaults through the media. All audiovisual and most print media, public and private, were tamed. Not a single Algeria-based TV channel has covered the protests or the demands being made by the millions of Algerians on the streets. Social media campaigns led by an electronic army of trolls (humans and bots), operating from Algeria, Egypt, UAE and elsewhere, have worked around the clock to spread disinformation, fake news and pro-MHC propaganda. They work to stifle oppositional Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and to defame and tarnish the reputation of historical symbols and popular opposition figures, etc.

Holding the people’s unity to be a red line, the Harak humored the least radical segment within it and accompanied it on its journey to discovering the impossibility of redeeming certain elements within the MHC. It became crystal clear to anyone involved that certain generals, along with their civilian and business counterparts, were hopeless. Their long, obedient and loyal service to the putschists and criminals of the 1990s, their total submission and active complicity in the plunder of the country in the 2000s and 2010s, their complete capitulation to foreign powers with jurisdiction over their ill-gotten assets, and their “treasonous” acts in surrendering national sovereignty and subservience to imperialist and neo-colonial designs on the continent—these are only a few of the reasons that prevent MHC from now claiming the vocation of “serving the people” with any legitimacy.

Ostensibly adopting as its motto Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results—the MHC directed a simulacrum of dialogue with Algeria’s D-list of political actors closely linked to the oligarchy. It appointed an “independent” electoral commission, amending the electoral law and setting December 12th, 2019 as the date for presidential elections. Such provocations galvanized the popular movement even more, mobilizing new sections of society. By mid-October, the numbers on the street regained the levels of March and April. Slogans targeting the MHC and specifically the Army Chief of Staff (Ahmed Gaid Salah) became common currency, e.g. “Generals to the trash bin, and Algeria will be independent,” “Gaid Salah, the UAE’s shoe-shiner,” “Release our children [political prisoners] and jail Gaid’s Children.”

The Harak has exercised its power in the form of a negation to the governing power. It has aborted the two previous elections and will do likewise for that scheduled for December 12th, 2019. The movement has been masterful in maintaining its unity by defusing every single boobytrap sown by status quo forces. The Harak has consistently insisted that the only lines of division are horizontal (between governors and governed/ haves and have nots) and not vertical as the oligarchy wants Algerians to believe (Islamist/secularist, Arabophone/Berberophone, men/women etc.). It is of the utmost importance to examine the hostile context in which a people’s revolution is unfolding and the ways in which counter-revolutionary forces labor tirelessly to crush the Algerian people’s resolve.

A 3D counter-revolution

The efforts of the global-regional-local constellation of counter-revolutionary forces working to abort the people’s revolt in Algeria are practically the same as those working towards similar ends on the continent and elsewhere in the world. These efforts are inscribed in the much larger and longer project designed to empty the mid-20th century global decolonization process of its liberatory and emancipatory content, and to lay the foundations for a neocolonial/imperialist/racial-capitalist world order.

Over the last three decades, scholarship on Algeria dealing with the long decade (1988-1999) has rightly diagnosed the foundational importance of this period. However, the attempts at understating developments through the categories of failed states, civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and religious conflict—hegemonic post-Cold War framings of Global South political violence—have done more to distort the picture than to clarify it. This tendency has, intentionally or otherwise, served as a conduit for official narratives of this pivotal period in Algeria’s and world history. They have helped to reify these narratives to the detriment of more wholistic accounts that incorporate social, economic and political trends and dynamics on the local, regional, and global levels alike.

As we have argued elsewhere, approaching this foundational moment/period as an enclosure process, a form of (primitive) accumulation through dispossession, and ultimately a conjuncture that the neocolonial project capitalized on to make inroads in spaces that had been previously liberated in the process of anti-colonial struggle through a shock therapy. Such an approach allows us to better grasp the stakes involved, the influential actors on the scene, as well as affords us a finer appreciation of the root causes of the current people’s revolt and greater intelligibility of recent developments and likely future trajectories.

The past three decades and the post 2011 regional experience has taught us that while people’s uprisings terrify imperialist powers and transnational capital, the latter also sees them as conjunctures with opportunities to extract more concessions from their local military-oligarchic vassals. The power calculus and interest prioritization of imperialist actors is three-fold: deepening, preservation, or damage limitation as the worst-case scenario. It is no coincidence, for example, that the trade agreement the EU has been trying to shove down Tunisia’s throat since the 2010-11 revolt is entitled “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.”

The counter-revolutionary campaign currently underway in and on Algeria is driven by a constellation of local, regional, and inter/transnational state and corporate actors. Locally, elements within the MHC and their national business proxies, sections of the business elite who had lost their military and intelligence patrons but managed to replace them with foreign power patronage, and disgruntled sections of both that had been pushed into exile remain, despite their differences, are adamantly opposed to any genuine change. Globally, the US, Canada, and France along with the major oil, media, and tech corporations have played an especially noxious role. Regionally, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as the subcontractors of imperialism and zionism, have thrown their weight to crush any liberatory and emancipatory impulses in large parts of Africa and West Asia.

Additionally, the counter-revolution seeks to break the movement, solidify and deepen where possible its influence, or at least create “facts on the ground” that would shackle and make it impossible for a potential revolutionary government coming to power to act with any real sovereignty. The two strategies are employed concomitantly and function on the material as well as ideational planes.

The increasing military repression of the movement has been accompanied by a campaign of defamation against war of liberation martyrs such as Ali la Pointe and living heroes like Djamila Bouhired and Lakhdar Bouragaa. The latter has been in detention for the last four months for “contempt towards a constitutional body [army] and undermining the army’s morale,” an elastic charge that has been applied liberally to silence opposition to military rule. Aided by intelligence operated local troll farms and their Gulf and Egyptian counterparts, massive campaigns of disinformation aimed at creating divisions in the movement along ideological and cultural lines, promoting the MHC’s electoral agenda and ceaselessly spewing pro-military propaganda have saturated the social media sphere.  Facebook, with its regional HQ in the UAE has closed hundreds of accounts and pages belonging to political activists and opposition figures engaged in the movement. The connections between military oligarchies in the region, Gulf states and capital, social media giants and western militaries has been amply established.

Gulf and Egyptian owned satellite media along with their Algerian counterparts have neither (adequately) covered the movement nor allowed for dissident voices to be heard. There has been an equally eerie silence in Canada, the UK, the US, and France. Unlike the incessant coverage of the Hong Kong protest movement, there has been an almost radio silence on struggles in Algeria or Haiti, undoubtedly for their anti-imperialist orientations.

There has also been European complicity in the silencing of alternative voices within the Algerian media sphere. Just this past week, within the space of two days, the Paris-based European satellite provider Eutelsat, at the request of the Algerian government, pulled the plug on two independent Algerian TV channels (Al Magharibia and Hirak TV), which had been providing full coverage for the people’s movement. It is the same Eutelsat that pulled the plug on the oppositional Al-Asr TV in June 2011, hours before it was supposed to go live. Activists involved in the popular movement are convinced that such a decision could not have been taken without the complicity of the French political establishment.

The official French support for the Algerian militaro-oligarchic junta goes back decades. The support for Bouteflika remained unwavering since the beginning of his reign, and went so far that the former French president looked the world and Algerians straight in the eye in mid-June 2015, and bore false witness to Bouteflika’s good health. France backed Bouteflika’s fifth term, threw its weight behind his initial plan to bestow upon himself an additional year to his fourth term, and has since made apparent its, and the EU’s support for the MHC’s program to exit the current crisis by organizing elections that are categorically rejected by the millions on the streets.

The French oil giant Total has taken advantage of the current moment to declare its takeover of the American Anadarko portfolio in Africa, which include its assets in Algeria. A takeover that effectively gives it control of a large part of oil production in Algeria. The timing and manner in which the acquisition has been undertaken with total disregard for the country’s laws regulating such transactions are clear signs that the takeover is meant to increase French influence over decision-making processes in the country during this extremely sensitive period.

Total has not been alone in its efforts to secure influence while the focus of Algerians is elsewhere. The illegitimate minister of energy recently declared that the proposed hydrocarbons law was devised after “direct negotiations with the five oil majors,” including ExxonMobil and Chevron. The law will allow oil corporations to secure long-term concessions, expatriate proceeds, absolve them from any tax responsibilities and transfers of technology. The movement has been unanimous in opposing this proposed law and brandished the current illegitimate rulers as traitors in the protests that followed the announcement.

In addition to the new energy law there has been the budget law of 2020, which is set to reopen the door for international borrowing, and institute harsh austerity measures by lifting subsidies on electricity and diesel and subjecting consumers to international market prices. This would increase taxes on the most vulnerable classes while exempting multinational from tariffs and taxes. Added to these are the host of proposed bills that have been tabled and are being pushed through, designed to administer yet another dose of shock therapy to a people in revolt. These proposed bills are set to deepen and accelerate the liberalization process began three decades ago. In doing so, they will mortgage the country’s natural resources and further surrender the people’s sovereignty, as the price paid to their foreign protectors, in the name of creating a better investment and business climate. in the name of creating a better investment and business climate.

The proposed amendments to the code of penal procedures is set to entrench the security state by giving the “judicial police” wide powers and freeing it from the shackles (judicial warrants) of the justice system. This very judicial police had been annexed to the MoD in mid-June and has been instrumental in the campaign of repression the country has seen since then. Needless to mention the vast intestinal campaigns of terror , dressed as a “cleansing,” targeting the military’s and police’s officer class, as well as the judiciary to ensure their loyalty to the MHC.

The current illegitimate government has also put in place commissions to reform the retirement system. These commissions are charged with studying the feasibility of pushing retirement age from 60 to 65 year, reducing the pension rates from 80% to 60%, reducing the pension calculation index from 2.5 to 2.3, and stretching the calculation base of annuities to cover the last 10 years of service instead of the current 5 years. In short, the junta is prepared to continue performing and deepening its role as a conveyor belt for northbound wealth transfers, the dispossession of Algerians, and the endangerment of national security and regional stability.

Meanwhile, the wealth drain represented by international money laundering out of Algeria continues unabated. Canadian government statistics indicate that the first half of 2019 saw a 50% increase of capital transfers from Algeria to Canada, indicating the fear the people’s revolt instilled in the ruling oligarchy and the complicity of the Canadian government.  Not a surprise given that the same government continued to supply arms and ammunition to Algeria five months into the people’s revolt with the latest deals concluded in June and July of this year. Canadian capital is no exception to the rule. SNC-Lavalin’s criminal track record in Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria has recently galvanized members of Algerian community in Quebec to stage protests in front of it its headquarters.

The US has equally signaled its support for this de facto military rule and has used the current conjuncture to extract the maximum concessions possible. The last three months (August-October) have witnessed frantic US activity in Algeria. The arrival of a high level military delegation in early August, was followed by the State Department reception of the illegitimate culture minister in Washington DC and the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding on Cultural Property Protection. A move that not only signals the US’ willingness to deal with an illegitimate government, but also to push for the country’s further integration in a globalizing intellectual property regime without the consent of the Algerian people.

September was the reserve of economic interests. Representatives of Chevron were in Algiers exploring “areas of potential partnership” with the opaque National Agency for the Valorization of Resources and Hydrocarbons (ALNAFT). That same week ALNAFT signed a partnership agreement with ExxonMobil for the “evaluation of oil and gas potential” in the Sahara basin, making ExxonMobil the fourth oil corporation to have a horse in the race after the Italian ENI, the French Total, and the Norwegian Equinor. The presence of these oil giants in the country is tightly linked to the negotiations over the proposed Hydrocarbons Law as the MHC energy minister has declared.

In early October, a congressional delegation led by Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (of Massachusetts 8th Congressional District) visited Algeria to discuss “efforts to promote economic cooperation, combat terrorism, and enhance security in the region, and other areas of bilateral cooperation.” Given his hawkish track record on US imperialist aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, as well as the highly sensitive timing of the visit, Algerians view these efforts as direct interventions in the internal politics of the country. The movement’s slogans have demonstrated its unanimity in refusing and condemning all forms of foreign meddling.

Counter-revolutionary narratives

The political, economic, strategic and military aspects of the counterrevolution have been accompanied by cultural and discursive interventions as superstructural elements of the  project.  On this level, the strategy seems to be twofold: 1) To maintain the official narrative on Algeria’s recent history and mobilize the traumatic in the service of status quo power. 2) To intensify liberal proselytism painting liberal doctrine as the solution and desired telos.

In the midst of its intensification of cultural and exchange programs, the US Embassy in Algiers announced this past August its sponsoring of an Apprentice-like TV show ironically entitled I Have A Dream, featuring oligarchic figures as judges, and in which young entrepreneurs battle it out for a sum of $5000. The show is set to be aired on Echourouk TV, which has been the mouthpiece of the military chief of staff and observed a total blackout on the people’s movement since April. The channel’s current owners’ links to media circles in Tunisia under Ben Ali are equally public knowledge.

The European intervention at the level of shaping perceptions and narratives also focused on normalizing neoliberal ethos and promoting a racial colonial telos as an aspiration. ARTE, the Franco-German Television Network focusing on cultural programing, aired a program, entitled Algeria: The Big Waste explaining the historical and political causes of the country’s stagnation and potential futures. The title’s colonial undertones and its inscription in a Lockean discursive tradition of under-utilization and improvement are telling. Cloaking itself in scholarly expertise, the program opines that amongst the main causes of this stagnation are the over-involvement of the state in economic matters, an un-friendly climate for foreign investment, and a restrictive visa regime for foreigners—read white or Europeans to enter the country freely. The solutions to “The Big Waste,” it follows, are none other than: less state and more free-market, a liberalization of the investment code for foreign capital especially in the tourism sector, and the jettisoning of the principle of diplomatic reciprocity underpinning the visa regime to allow freer (European/white) movement into the country. In short, the fulfillment of Algeria’s potential, viewers are told, lies in its imitation of pre-2011 Tunisia and Morocco.

In October, ARTE aired yet another reportage entitled Algeria: Youth in Revolt, which essentially paints the movement as having ended with Bouteflika’s ouster. Ignoring the clear demands of the millions still occupying the streets week in and week out, and the popular movement’s refusal of any election under the auspices of the MHC and the current conditions, the reportage presents the MHC electoral roadmap for 12/12/2019 as a fait accompli. It ends with an outright distortion of the people’s will, claiming that the youth has high hopes for these elections. Such narratives ignore the slogans of the protestors, including the latest: “Degage Gaid Salah, hedh el’am makach el vote” (Get out Gaid Salah…There won’t be any elections this year), and their explicit refusal to see that these elections will provide a cover for the repression of the movement.

The French cultural establishment’s involvement, however, does not only focus on liberal proselytizing. Consistent with its racist and Islamophobic tenets, it continues to evoke the “Islamist threat.” A centerpiece of the military-oligarchic junta’s psychological warfare on Algerians since this 1990s, the French state, media, intellectual, artistic, and cultural circles have been accomplices in perpetuating this narrative over the last three decades. The above program, for example, does not even recognize the 1992 coup d’état as a coup. It insists, as the official narrative has always done, that the source of Algerians’ grief is other (religious) Algerians that the nation had once mistakenly chose them as representatives, not a militarized oligarchy that has dispossessed and massacred them. Similarly, another program by the same networks, entitled Algeria: the Promises of Dawn aired in early July urges vigilance of the Islamist threat lurking in the background of the popular movement, and paints the movement as misogynist based on an isolated incident largely believed to be the work of provocateurs.

The Film Festival in Cannes did not lag either in reinforcing these themes. The selections of two Franco-Algerian movies Abu Leila and Papicha, both of which deal with the 1990s and reify the official narrative of the Civil War, is hardly a coincidence. While the former enjoyed two nominations at Cannes and the award for Best European Fantastic Feature Film in Neuchâtel, Papicha received four international nominations, an award, and much more media hype. The official refusal to allow its screening in Algiers, many suspect, is a backhanded shoring up of legitimacy for the film after the negative reviews it received from non-Francophone critics describing the film’s “loosely inspired by real events” tagline as “conspicuously manipulative.”

Looking ahead …

Despite these colossal odds, the movement continues to grow and draw new sections of society into the equation. With lawyers starting to make their presence felt, the independent trade unions preparing to launch a general strike by the end of October, judges observing a general strike, and the heroic stands and statements of political prisoners such as Bouregaa re-centering the movement’s compass; the movement still lives its best days.

The 65th anniversary of the declaration of the War of Liberation against French colonialism on November 1st coincides with a Friday this year. Given the movement’s unshaken resolve and iron steadfastness, the mobilization promises to be legendary. November 1st, 2019 will be a turning point for the movement. The Harak will enter the phase of civil resistance.

The disdain and contempt have changed camps over the last several months. Aware that the plunder of the country’s resources has reached mythical proportions, conscious of the MHC’s and its head’s complicity in France’s recolonization of Mali, as well as the opening up Algeria’s airspace for French and American drones to collect intelligence, and, in the case of the latter, use Algerian military installations; Algerians’ scorn for the current rulers is only comparable to their disdain for the Harkis during colonial times. Surrendering national sovereignty to foreign governments and multinationals rather than the Algerian people in revolt have dispelled any illusions Algerians had of the treasonous character of their rulers, and the absolute necessity for their removal.

Defying historical necessity, the current MHC seems unable to grasp that Algerians will no longer, and under no circumstances acquiesce to the supremacy of the military command over civilians in political life. If the thesis of militarized colonial rule occasioned the anti-thesis of armed liberation struggle resulting in a synthesis of a militarized “post-colonial” coloniality; then the people’s movement’s exemplary peacefulness and civility is the very antithesis of this neocolonial thesis. It is time for these militaro-oligarchic cabals and their foreign backers to understand that their fight is not only with the Algerian people, but also with History.

Further Reading