I was asked in an email to round up Algerian responses to the American election. To put it into two words: massively enthusiastic. The emphasis seems to be on the fact that (1) Obama is the first black president of the United States of America (I have had conversations with elderly Algerians who seem to find this to be especially remarkable, for reasons I will elaborate on below) and that (2) Americans voted in large numbers, with the implication being that the election of Obama signals some great change in America’s disposition towards the world. Most articles are light on Obama’s policy prescriptions, and focus primarily on his symbolism.
This is judging from the official line, which has come from Bouteflika himself and from the government’s mouthpiece, El Moudjahid. A lead article declares the election of Barack Obama “Historique!” And other articles inform readers of the “American dream of Luther King and Kenney,” that Americans yearn for profound social and political change, and that President Bouteflika has been quick to congratulate America’s first black president.
El Watan declared Obama’s victory “a strong signal to the world.” Obama, it is written, will perhaps bring order to the “maison Amerique” and the Bush presidency will be forgotten. Another El Watan article describes the jubilation seen in many American cities, especially among African Americans and young people. This particular article emphasizes Obama’s historic position as the first black president, offering an overview of the election generally.
El Khabar was one of the few Algerian papers’ whose website did not feature Obama’s big win as the head story on its website (it probably holds this feature when compared to other newspapers on the continent; it focused more on the constitutional amendments being proposed and what they would mean for Ouyahia, read about it here and in crummy English here). Nevertheless, it is writing in no uncertain terms of the man’s victory: “He crushed all expectations, and was declared president even before the votes were counted in several western states [ . . . ] becoming the first black man to take the seat of president of the United States”. Early reports from El Khabar mentioned concerns about problems on the order of those seen in Florida during the 2000 election.” Another piece features an interview with a foreign affairs expert who says that American foreign policy will change in “unit, tone and style of speech but not in its substance.”
Ech-Chorouk featured multiple articles on the election. The emphasis seems to be ““ثمن سنوات بركات theman senouaat, barakat! [eight years, enough!]” A caption beneath a picture of Obama reads “Victory in America … and the world is optimistic!!!” (Yes, with three whole exclamation points.) One article explains that Obama’s win “reflects the extent of that American voters believe Obama is the standard barer of change, not because he is black of skin, but he is a young man whose program of change is primarily internal, explaining the large turnout at the polls, particularly among young people.” It goes on to write that because American society favors whites over blacks, “throughout the campaign Obama declined to cast himself as a ‘black candidate,’ meaning that if he was defeated it would be because of the color of his skin.” Another article — featuring a photograph of Obama sporting a cowboy hat — as in the other papers, emphasizes Obama’s blackness, noting the absence of the “Bradely effect” and describing the ascension of a black man to the nation’s highest post as a starting point for “radical change” in America. It is one of the few Algerian articles I have seen that mentions McCain and Palin, describing American university students as having “stood agape at Sarah Palin’s lack of experience,” and frequently identifies the Republican pair with Bush’s “with us or against us” foreign policy. It concludes with the possibility of a “closed book” on racism and talk of black and white. The first comment on that story is typically Algerian in its directness: “White or black does not matter, what is important is how he deals with issues of concern to us as Muslims and Arabs.” Other comments are mixed, some congratulating the Democratic Party, others cautiously noting that while Obama’s African origins could make him more sensitive, he could be a “wolf in a sheep’s clothing.”
Liberte writes that because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the financial crisis, that “disillusionment may be great and fast coming for everyone because the complexity of things is such that only miracles can save the day.” Its editorial writes glowingly: “There is no question about forgetting the tragedy of the Indians, slavery and imperialist wars. But this should not obscure the fact: that it is the struggle of its citizens, its minorities, its elites, the zealously growing idea of liberty, the principle of law handed down from generation to generation, advances America. This nation without history, as they say, has the premier democratic heritage.” Dilem’s cartoon features an American flag with a black star among a field of white ones.
My conversations with elderly Algerians, mentioned earlier, yielded mixed sentiments. An older female relative, a member of the FLN and war veteran, responded to the election in the following way: “Black or white, he is American, yes?” Others were more impressed, if this is an appropriate word. Many of them are genuinely surprised, especially those who have spent time in France or elsewhere in Europe. Many of them wanted to believe that Obama’s religion is the same as their own, which is of course false, which they conceded with sighs “it does not make sense for a Muslim to be president of such a country.” Friends, of the millennial generation seemed to fall into two sets: those who regard Obama as the Arabs’ new and greatest friend and those who see him as another American president with all the proclivities, prejudices and biases of the others. For those in the latter category, if he does not share these biases, he will soon develop them.
My general assessment of what Obama holds for US-Algerian relations: nothing new, except less overt distaste on the part of the Algerian population, before he offers the inevitable disappointment that all glossy new leaders do. He will not change the nature of a relationship that works for all parties concerned (not counting the Algerians outside the pouvoir, but such people do not usually factor at all into American understandings of Algeria).
[ I enthusiastically await an opportunity to look at Obama’s views on Mauritania. My prediction is that they are as misinformed as the Bush administration’s have been, though I am confident that Obama could find the country on a map. I am less confident that he has as of yet composed anything of note on the situation there. If readers find any statements by President-elect Obama or his advisors on this, please email them to me! ]