“The State is an ostrich”

Gulagh seg Tizi Ouzou

Armi d Akdadu

Ur hekim-en ddeggi aken ellan.

Anerez wala aneknu

Axir da3wessu Anda

tsqwiden chifan.

Del gherva tura deg qeru

Guglagh r ne nfu

Waa laquba gger ilfan.¹

— Si Mohand

El Watan ran an article on the “culture of rioting,” that has become common place in Algeria. Its emphasis is primarily urban: over the last ten years, riots have taken place in all the major areas, especially the medium and small sized ones, almost always involving young men broken into factions or pushing back against the police or gendarmes. El Watan lists the riots over “bread, football, gas, and electricity” caused by “social injustice, corruption, hogra, nepotism, cronyism, non-management [not mismanagement, “la non-gestion”] and non-governance,” pointing to “inter-neighborhood violence in Bab el-Oued, inter-communal clashes in Berriane and Illizi and tribal conflicts in Djefla, Laghouat and Bejaia.” Venturing to explain this violence it quotes anotherAlgerian social scientist who connects it to “the failure of State patronage,” a lack of fair distribution of the benefits of clienteleism, and “the political crisis, which refuses the institutionalization of social conflict, the autonomous expression of claims and the political representation of society” forcing those excluded from and faceless within the system to violence.

A decade of national reconciliation has produced a society where young men riot by night and by day plot escape routs out of Algeria, via suicide or sea; where callus leadership, best described as geriatric and indifferent, guards its own position before that of the youth at large whose aimlessness and despair is attributed not to the failures of the leadership class but to their lack of patriotism and nationalist fervor for a State that meet their every request with a shrug and every demand with a baton. This was Algeria in 1989, and it is Algeria in 2009. Full of fortitude is the Algerian who can bring himself to utter a word like “progress.”

This week has seen days of rioting between youth and police in Diar Ech-Chems, a neighborhood in Algiers. The violence has shocked many in the capital, as rioting has mostly taken place in medium-sized cities until recently. The youth have taken to hurling bricks, Molotov cocktails and rocks at riot police. As these things often due, it began with a demonstration of 15oo families living in the ramshackle semi-finished housing complexes — that is, the realization of president Bouteflika’s promise for 6 million new housing units — chanting “كرهنا الوعود الكاذبة” (We hate false promises!”). El Khabar writes that those protesting claimed to have attempted to register their complaints with their housing situation, including living twelve people living in an apartment, a lack of prayer spaces, exposed electrical wiring — “deadly to the touch” — and leaky water pipes, but were ignored by authorities. Thus, they took to the streets hoping that they would attract the attention of the media and the authorities’ sense of shame. Instead, police (and then riot police) attempted to disperse their demonstration, resorting to tear gas, sending many to the hospital. By the time women and the elderly were handled, the young men took back to the streets in reprisal, and by the next day 100 demonstrators were struggling against 400 riot police. When municipal leaders finally ventured to address the people, the impression was not relief. Instead, residents who protested, and whose shanty homes were disrupted by the security forces (these are the ones who did not get put up in the already crumbling housing projects), fumed that “the mayor has forgotten his promises during the campaign which was to help us maintain our tin houses, but now that he is in office he just wants to defend the law as it is.” It is a familiar story.

Without question, Algeria has been beset with youth violence for many years. The 1980s saw such violence, at first disorganized but still political, in the first half, culminating in the slaughter carrying on from 5 October, 1988 (the 21st anniversary of which recently passed). The problems that produced the uprising of 5 October also produced the base of the FIS, the mass Berberist movement, and the armed violence of the 1990s. The origins of that tension are multiple: the mass urbanization of the early post-independence period; the tremendous birthrate of the newly urbanized; the maladjustment of the new city-dwellers and their offspring; the killing of civil society by the FLN State and the lopsided “liberalization,” of the economy producing an arrogant and parasitic military and party elite, whilst precluding any method for social or political expression for the masses; the monopolization of political power by the elderly; the production of an elite out of touch with the social or religious morality of the population and predominantly concerned its own preservation rather than the republican or revolutionary egalitarianism that ordinary Algerians saw fundamental elements of their polity; and so on.

Urbanization in Algeria, unlike in many other Arab states, meant the imposition of a new elite and a new set of political norms. At independence, the cities were emptied of Europeans, who were replaced with villagers and the recently pastoral. The new political class and urban population were both heavily rural in their origin. Hugh Roberts has shown how this affected mass political behavior: the newly urban had expectations about political morality and social justice that were very often distinct from what is possible in a community of many hundreds of thousands or millions. People in the cities were generally disinterested in the one-party process, in part because the new urban political class was disconnected from the population, who found it difficult to extend political solidarity to men they had trouble identifying with. In rural areas, which in a variety of ways were given a stronger political voice than the cities (because the new party and military elites were very heavily drawn from the country-side and were given heavy state investment programs, because it was understood that if these areas felt marginalized they would rebel in riotous violence), political participation was generally higher than in the cities: this was especially the case when multiple candidates ran for office on the one party rolls. The process of selection and campaigning was more intimate there, it more easily blended with local political traditions (especially in the clan and tribal context in the Aures, Sahara and western mountains). Roberts shows that in the cities, people adapted elements of those traditions, especially local ideals of representative government in the djema’a (communal assembly), and applied them to the urban political circumstance. Chief among these was the most basic way of selecting one’s representative to the djema’a: the evaluation of his manliness, his integrity, his intention to and capability of forcing the powerful to answer for the people. Additionally, command of the Arabic language (or Berber, depending on various factors) and strong religious credentials also helped to establish one as a desirable dhamen, he who answers. These characteristics combine to make one a rajul el-kheir, a man of good or wedj en-nass, the face of the people. Responsiveness and a sense of regard for the people make a leader, be he imposed or elected, more acceptable.

From here, Roberts writes that Boumediene’s popularity, both in the country side and the city, is due to these expectations. Chadhli’s failure was to not meet any of these, and to hardly make the attempt. Recalling the protests of 1988, he quotes two slogans in particular: Boumediene ‘ardja’alina, Halima taklemfina! and ma bghina zebda wala filfel, bghina za’im fahel! (Boumediene come back to us, Halima (Chadhli’s wife) has ended up dominating us! and We do not want butter or pepper, we want a leader we can respect!)Boumediene met many contemporary expectations held by the urban poor and his political program reflected a direct understanding of the danger of ignoring both the moral expectations of leadership (personal morality) and the material ones (which is evidenced in his economic polities towards the countryside, which received disproportionate investment in all spheres, though agriculture was disfavored relative to industrial projects, though this was the trend overall). And the massive investments in education from independence through recent times also reflect a desire by the State to show its regard for the people, that it was seeking to empower them.

When Boumediene took power, he cast himself as the opposite of Ben Bella. Where Ben Bella was Francophone and spoke Arabic with great effort, Boumediene spoke in easy Classical Arabic, claimed to have memorized the Qur’an at an early age, studied at al-Azhar; where Ben Bella was obsessed with grand speeches and romantic and ambiguous varieties of “socialism,” (which led many to debate his commitment to Islam) Boumediene was terse, direct and contemptuous of men with “prophetic” pretensions (he was camera shy and made few public appearances at first; this changed later for political reasons, rather than egoism), and his religious views were not in question; where Ben Bella was a Third Worldist cosmopolitan, Boumediene was a fervent, some said fanatical, nationalist. He painted Ben Bella as a conniving and “diabolical dictator,” looking to set the political class into confusion for his own political benefit, at the expense of national stability. He, often indirectly in his rhetoric, declared himself an “authentic” representative of the Algerian people and the revolution. That he had colluded with Ben Bella against the GPRA and the eastern rebels was kept in the footnotes.

While Boumediene was not necessarily loved by Algerians, it is hard to argue that he did not have their respect at the end of his life, or that a great many Algerians who lived under him look back on his time with nostalgia and relatively high regard. Boumediene was not comparable to most Arab dictators in his repressiveness or overall style of rule. Algerian political culture, in the pre-colonial and colonial periods, is highly focused on representative institutions. If there are democratic roots in Algerian society they are not inclusive, for the most part, of Athenian-style democracy. Politics in the Algerian countryside is distinct from those in the Arab east in that Algeria’s was vastly weakened by the colonial experience, and that the Algerian mentality, especially at independence, has been marked by a lack of social trust between actors that is not found even in societies such as Syria or Iraq. This mefiance is the direct result of the leveling of the traditional social and political hierarchies during the colonial period. Consequently, as Quandt (1969) has written, Algerians place a high value on egalitarianism: because, for the most part, Algerians — politicians and new comers to the cities — have come to the fore in a new political environment and their honor is established not by tribal networks or by blood ties but by their own merits and wits. Political distrust leads to a hostility to the exhortation of individuals. Thus, as Quandt observed, it is incorrect to describe Algerian political culture as “individualistic,” in the Western sense, but rather as in the sense of emphasizing individual honor (Quandt, 1969, 269-271). The “sense of honor” has been described and elaborated on by multiple writers, most of the drawing on the famous essay by Bordieu (1966). Though it may be over emphasized, it remains a potent force in influencing and animating the relationships between political and social groups in Algeria and among Algerians abroad.

This has made it difficult for any individual ruler to establish durable or lasting hegemony over the political system or any of its institutions. The chaos of the Ben Bella presidency (1963-1965) and the 1980’s was the result of clans based around strong individual personalities — not regionalism. That no Algerian president has come to power or left power with out heavy elite deliberation or military coup (prefaced by such deliberation), is telling on several levels. Boumediene cannot be compared to such strong and total dictators as Bourguiba or Qadhafi or Assad or Saddam. His hegemony came late in his rule. Roberts leaves out, for instance, that Boumediene face formidable and powerful opposition from urban people from 1965-1969, from students, the Left and the bourgeoisie in general. His style of rule at first relied on “collegiality,” consensus among competing factions and personalities at the highest levels. This failed because Boumediene refused to impose solutions on his ministers and subordinates. The result was inaction and restlessness within the military, especially leftists therein who attempted a coup (i.e. Zbiri and Zerdani), which was averted but forced Boumediene to force a semblance of ideological unity within the elite. This is distinct, though, from the pre-1965 culture which was heavily focused on the maintenance of Ben Bella’s personage, a leadership less transcendent than one emanating from the excessive use of boulitique, a tactic in Algerian elite politics, which Quandt identifies as (quoting an Algerian) “I try to get you to do something stupid so that I can take your place.” (Quandt, 1969; 266) That Boumediene and others in his clique saw Ben Bella as attempting goad them into conflict with one another in hopes of neutralizing them for his own survival is critical to understanding why Boumediene’s style of rule was politically successful. Keeping elite conflicts mostly behind the scenes and out of the public eye, respecting the “honor” of multiple actors (but not elevating himself above suppression and even, some allege, assassination and execution), thus keeping them from resorting to outright opposition. All of this while co-opting opposition movements based on ideologies.

Still, though Boumediene avoided the cult of personality and demagogy, his aloofness led to suspicion and a need to present his worth to the population. He used the Arab defeat in the 1967 War to place himself as the most militant of the militants, originating the notion of a War of Attrition with Israel and challenging the credibility of Nasser himself, to the great pleasure of many Algerians, and setting out on a series of social, cultural and economic “revolutions” in Algeria, many of which were only successful in the short term, if at all. The most important of these were national conscription, which socialized Algerians all over the country and gave poor men access to greater social mobility through service. This, and the [failed] Arabization policy, were intended to better the lot of the masses, an homage to the Maoist tendency in Algerian socialism and organizational thinking. It is from 1967 onwards that one can speak of a powerful public personality in Boumediene, and this is partly because of his discomfort in public and his concern that loudmouthed leadership, which he identified with men like Ben Bella, would inevitably lead to political instability, as Algerians tend away from such arrogant tendencies. This becomes ironic if one considers his foreign policy, which aimed to create a “new world order,” by way of a Third World front transforming international politics.

His solution for the left, and the especially Islamic (the ‘ulema and those oriented toward the Muslim Brothers) was to have the party and State eat them, ending all associations not facilitated by the State, religious, political or otherwise. This was his solution for opposition in general, fearing that such organizations would destabilize the country, become foreign pawns, and organize violence. As the rural religious and social organizations were concerned this was well founded, as they had rebelled often under Ben Bella in Kabylia and the Aures, and even after organized resistance was put down banditry and rioting continued among those who had been farmers or were farmers and no longer found prestige or full bellies there, considering themselves “unemployed” and without prospects. Old men near Khenchela and Biskra still describe the economic and educational programs Boumediene set out as “a peasants paradise,” and his death a “national tragedy”. For those with political aspirations or who value independent civil society, these developments were broadly problematic. And those interested in political and social continuity will question the wisdom of institutionalizing the clan politics that Boumediene in the first place condemned, for it caused the political vacuum that followed his death and many of the disastrous elite conflicts that continue to prove damaging to Algerian politics, even today. Clans persisted within State institutions, especially the military with its politicized officer corps and factionalism within the FLN, which was perhaps to be expected in a party made up of desperate personalities and ideologies loosely connected through common goals. Conflicts were more often suppressed or pushed to the side than actually resolved.

Additionally, it allowed for opposition to develop into a place where the standard for legitimacy is broad non-participation in the political system. Thus, in a country where political legitimacy is linked to representation (not mere inclusion), if a man does not represent who he is supposed to, guarding their honor and asserting their voice, his “people” have no representation what so ever and the whole political enterprise is, in their eyes, rendered illegitimate. Those who thunder outside of the government enjoy the monopoly of political legitimacy where the discontented are concerned. This tradition, though found in all democratically minded political cultures, comes from rural politics (especially where, for instance the FFS or Berberist view is concerned), and it is observed wherever one sees men who claim to be of “the opposition” begin to see voter turn out decline when they run for election for a second term or the disengagement of Islamists in politics, despite the prominence of the MSP and Abdelaziz Belkhadem (who represents the so-called “Islamic wing” of the FLN) in the government.

Some identify this with a Salafi opposition to worldly politics, but such a tendency did not stop such people from militating for an Islamic society on earth in the hopeful days before 1992; and it is reenforced by the fact that perhaps the most popular mass movements in Algeria since independents, the FIS and the Berber cause (which have both been predominantly urban, reflecting the alienation felt by the people of the cities), are both identity movements that seek to reorder Algerian society and culture according to new rules or consciousnesses, whole sale, because the existing one is so illegitimate, so without right of rule, that a new political establishment ought to be set up.

This is not the result of Salafism or Berber ethnic chauvinism. It is a reflection of the representative and consultative tradition in Algerian politics, which has been actively and shamlessly ignored for the better part of the last thirty years. Thus Hocine Ait Ahmed’s enduring prestige, whose party routinely boycotts the political process as a matter of policy and strategy, procedes exactly from his non-participation in the State’s activities. The Berberist party that routinely participates in the State’s processes, the RCD headed by Said Said, faces popular skepticism in many quarters, and Sadi’s abstention from the April 2009 election was likely grounded in two places: 1) a desire to register opposition to Boutelfika’s third term from his backers in the military hard-line, and 2) to restore some of his tarnished legitimacy, sapped through collusion with the State over many years. Additionally, Louisa Hanoune’s decline in popularity over the last decade, as her party has gained more and more seats in parliament and more press coverage, may be partially attributed to this distrust of participation in State processes in terms of its separation from the people. To participate is to recognize and identify with an institution: few Algerians chose to vote in either parliamentary or presidential elections seeking to express the opposite of that feeling by rejecting its entreaties.

That we nowadays see young men tearing up their environments and their countrymen is to show that what reigns dominant over the Algerians does so very precariously. That the “hypothetical rule of law” El Watan bitingly denounces is very likely just that, and is as transitory as the other periods of order in Algerian history. What the rioters are saying is that they find no voice within the political system, which they hardly recognize as having much to do with them anyhow, and demanding that it engage them on their own terms. The development of the Algerian State, however, has grown ever more in the direct of the unresponsive and rigid one that the early elite sought to avoid. What Algerians are left with is a “national reconciliation process” that has neither reconciled any contradictions, political or economic, nor resolved any of the fundamental problems that have made the relationship between the mass of the people and the State so painful and so destructive. Broken promises, elite impunity and fundamental dishonesty within the political class reveal, as Amel Boubekeur writes²: “the less the state engages in dialogue with the street, the more the street will resort to violence and abandon the tools of voting and peaceful demonstrations.” But even more: the more the State fails to meet the basic demands coming from the street — such as the fundamental respect for the rights and dignity of citizens, livable housing, decent education and a sense that someone within the structure regards the people with something other than contempt — the less it is likely that Algeria will see even medium term social and political stability, especially after Bouteflika passes out of office. Algeria’s chief problem is not Islamism or any other ideology. Rather, it is a political elite whose primary interest is its own power, at any price.

1. “I swore in Tizi Ouzou, up to Afkadou, that no one would impose his law on me. I would rather break, never bending, than be damned than live in a country where leaders are pimps. When exile presents itself, I’d rather leave, than live in my country humiliated by these swine.”

2. Boubekeur, in this blogger’s opinion over plays the importance of the State’s dis-allowance of a symposium in memory of the 1988 uprising and massacre, as the people presently in the streets are militating mostly on common concerns, such as corruption in medical services (in Souq Ahras, for instance) and the miserable state of the housing projects, as well as official dismissal of these complaints.


3 thoughts on ““The State is an ostrich”

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