Abdelaziz Bouteflika was quick to congratulate Barack Obama on his electoral victory this month. Leaders in France, Russia, Germany, Kenya and elsewhere also greeted the new American president enthusiastically. In the Levant, where Americans are most heavily invested, there was a recognition that Obama is but a man, and that despite their hopes the first black American president would not significantly change course on Middle Eastern affairs, at least as far as evidence presently indicates. Algerians, themselves dealing with matters of their own presidency, watched the election from a somewhat different vantage point (though surely not necessarily exceptional).
While eastern Arabs deal with the onerous hand of direct and indirect American involvement in their regional and even domestic politics, Algerians maintain a more distant relationship with the United States. They do not share borders with Israel, and they have only indirectly engaged her in combat, meaning that while their hostility is evidenced in rhetoric and boycotts, there is no tangible reason that Palestine affects Algeria’s relationship with the United States. Though Algeria’s relations with neighboring US-friendly Morocco are tense, its status as a major energy producer for the US market have meant that hostility remains directed at Morocco and its New World patron. Thus, while Algerians, Arabs and Muslims, do wonder about president-elect Obama’s stance on Israel, they are concerned more with more practical and local concerns: the American energy market (especially in natural gas), the availability of visas to the United States, the American position on the Western Sahara (which, with the departure of Elliot Abrams, may shift slightly under an Obama administration; this assumes a stronger initiative from the new Secretary of State, and where the issue ranks on the list of priorities), and so on. At the same time Algerians, judging from chatter on the internet and conversations with Algerians, seem to fascinated by the fact that the new president is new: He approaches the world with a different language than Bush and his cohorts, he comes from America’s most disadvantaged socio-racial group, he is young, having been born in the 1960’s, and he is fresh. Barack Obama is precisely the kind of leader Algerians want for themselves, in a way different from how Germans or Levantines might desire such a leader.
At the start of the Algerian civil war, Mohamed Boudiaf declared that Algerians suffered from an identity crisis. He listed ethnic, linguistic, religious and geographical quarrels that divided Algerians, halting their progress as a nation. Since the beginning of the 1980’s, Algerians have been subjected to a series of leaders imposed on them from above, whose quality ranged from the blithering to the acceptable. Boudiaf’s assessment was that Algeria was lacking in general direction, it had no grand strategy because it didn’t understand itself.
This was true and remains true, though it is less and less so. Algerian leaders understand the country as it was founded, in its foundational context, and have failed to adapt to domestic and international changes, opting instead to plunder the country. Rather than producing a new post-independence leadership class, the ruling caste — rooted in the military hierarchy and war veterans who found niches for themselves and their “clans” in the bureaucracy — not only failed but refused to produce the infrastructure and space for the formation of a fit and ready leadership class rooted in its own time that would take the reigns of power from the revolutionary generation. The revolutionaries’ children took to the streets after the death of Houari Boumediene to protest the lack of social and economic security, respect for the fundamental dignity of the citizens, their culture and legacy. These were not people who could have fought in the War of National Liberation, but they had been raised in a country where strength of character and honor is prized above most everything. The revolutionary values they were raised with were nowhere to be found when they came of age: Revolutionaries like Ben Boulaid and Larbi Ben M’hidi were disgraced by graying and corrupt officials and military chiefs who took what they could and sent it to Switzerland, and crippled those who took them to account. They marched during the Tafsut, were gunned down during Black October, and joined the religious movements that earned the people the wrath of the state. And their children face the same problems as their parents: the leadership corridor remains narrow, its doors locked.
This is why young people (the equivalents of what in the United States would be called “Generation X” and “Millennials”), who remain the large majority of Algerians, seem to be so interested in Barack Obama not for what he will do in regards to Algeria but because he is young, and for what his being in a leadership position represents for their generation. Algerians live under a 70-something-year-old former diplomat who became president at the end of a war that had bled Algerians white, not because the people willed his rise but because he had wooed a cadre of mustaches. Despite being a civilian mustache, Bouteflika is still a mustache, simply having been favored by one faction of armed gray mustaches instead of another. That faction is demonstrably less brutal than the other, but it maintains the same problematic order that the other would have. There is no cultivation of genuine civilian leadership, and civil society is seen as more of an annoyance than a necessary component of a healthy political culture. Something on the order of 4% of Algerians are over the age of 65.A friend once asked why Arab leaders dye their hair jet black: In order to minimize the physical distinction between themselves and the vast majority of people they dominate. No Arab leader wants to become “the Cauliflower” a la Chadli.
For energetic, dark haired, Barack Obama, born in 1961, to defeat silver-haired, grumbling John McCain, born in 1936, is quite the spectacle for many Algerians. Algeria is a country where young men dare not question a mustache with revolutionary “credentials,” seemingly regardless of his post-war conduct. For many young Algerians it is quite the political feat indeed. That someone could break the monopoly of old white men in politics in the most powerful country on earth is symbolic. While Bouteflika secured his right to a third term in office, allowing al-Sharib and those in his circle to tighten their bear hug on power, young Algerians heard a leader imploring his people to “change”. The ruling clique’s argument in favor the abolition of term limits was shameless: “Why change a winning team?” was a refrain heard from supporter, including Ahmed Ouyahia, the Head of Government. While there are good cases to be made in Bouteflika’s favor, such arguments tend not to convince many Algerians (no wonder the decision was made by parliament and not by popular referendum). Algerians want general generational change. In a country where elderly politicians rage against the corrosive impact of rap music and grumble about how young people lack patriotism, while they suffer whiplash from kickbacks, it is hard to argue against change.
On 15 November, a group of Algerian journalists, thinkers and activists gathered in Geneva to discuss the prospects for political change in Algeria, concluding, predictably, that the country is in need of “radical, consensual, and non-violent” in recognition of the fact that “regime change is a popular and urgent demand.” Many Algerians share these general sentiments. They may not have a set program they want put into place, but they know that they reject the status quo and some think they could do it themselves. One often encounters Algerians who believe they know better than their leaders, but lack the will to organize, infused with cynicism and debilitating political malaise and poverty. There is no Algerian Obama because there are few leaders or citizens that would say with any level of confidence “Yes we can”. Demoralized and pessimistic Algerians have settled for general stability in the wake of a savage war. Despite grand imagery casting the President before rays of white light and surrounded by doves, Algerians do not look to Bouteflika for hope or progress. Instead, they look to foot-ballers, defiant musicians, and successful emigres for inspiration. Most Algerians do not look to the current leadership class for examples of political courage or pride. They look back to Boumediene or the War to find people they can respect. A search on YouTube for “Bouteflika” yields rap videos, rai songs, mini-documentaries, and impersonations all mocking the man. While many come to his defense, it is hard to imagine that free of rigging a referendum on the third term would have passed if put to a vote.
This is different from the way other Arabs reacted to Obama’s election because few Arab commentors recast the vote in the way Algerians have in writing and in conversation. Other regimes have wisened up to the danger of totally excluding youth from leadership, and many have young dictators now or in the running. Algeria does not. Its youngest serious candidate for succession was born in 1952. The generational divide is more accute in Algeria than other Arab states, and this made watching the election more exciting for some political minded Algerians. Relative divested from the actual politics of the election, Algerians see a leadership they would welcome for themselves but haven’t the means of getting. If there are riots within the next several months, they will be among Kabyles and young people generally against the ruling strictures. Should those occur, their anythem will more resemble yes, we can than Islam howa al-hal.