The Face of the People: As the Regime Describes Itself

The above paintings can be seen in the central museum in Algiers; these are two of the more famous in a series of paintings made to highlight the Algerian national struggle after independence. Both recall the stylistic inspiration of socialist realist art, to which many Algerians were exposed during the War of Independence and afterwards, visiting or studying in the Eastern Bloc or in China. Similar paintings can be found elsewhere; if some statues in some parts of the country look as if they might have been made in North Korea or communist China it is probably because they are gifts from either country. The two painting above depict a nationalist militant rallying the troops and the peasants to the struggle and the ALN (the proto-military of the war-time FLN) exhibiting the Muslim character of the Revolution. In the first it is important to note that the flag is directly above the mudjahid and that the faces are mostly indistinguishable from one another. Notice the soldiers keeping watch in the background.

For doctrinal reasons related to religion and folk culture, there is a tendency to shy away from personality cults — few living presidents enjoyed the deification of a Mao or Stalin or Saddam or even Mubarak. Bouteflika has perhaps the most extensive personality cult of any sitting Algerian president. Those turned into fixtures in official art are mostly dead; Mostepha Ben Boulaid (see mural at left) and the Emir Abd el-Qadir benefit the most from this. Of presidents, Boumediene’s “cult” is most extensive, though does not match any eastern Arab dictator. He has a town named for him in Guelma, there are several statues in his likeness in town or city squares and schools bear his name. Yet there are few billboards for him and there are more statues honoring Abdel-Qadir than for Boumediene. Boudiaf’s name is also prominent in public space. It is difficult to find or think of streets named for Chadhli Bendjedid, or even Ahmed Ben Bella, for reasons that might be obvious. In much of the early independence-era revolutionary art  there is Cuban influence as well.

Below are illustrations of two mudjahidine from a military magazine.

In each image the main difference is in posture and mustache. In each case, the illustrator uses the same facial template for each man in the image.

The mudjahidine represented on the Makam esh-Shahid in Algiers (there are uniformed fellows of the ALN, above, and burnous-clad maquisards, below) evidence Soviet and Cuban influences (the structure on the whole represents bottom-up revolution). These men are practically anonymous; their faces are indistinguishable from other men depicted in official, revolutionary art in Algeria. Their poses reference similar stances in Soviet sculpture as well. One figure recalls the Statue of Liberty (above), as well. The monument was built in 1982.

The emphasis of many murals is the revolutionary masses or the guerilla, often together. These look not unlike many Chinese or Soviet paintings with triumphant crowds and peasant or even female standard bearers — minus the deified leader in the background. The idea is to depict the Revolution as a people’s war, avoiding the appearance of making any one living leader an idol or cult figure; recall the disdain with which Ben Bella’s critics (and some of Bouteflika’s) denounced him for his attempts at a cult of personality and self-importance. This also may reflect the Arab-Islamic element in Algerian political identity. Such images emphasize egalitarianism and austerity and manliness; major themes in Algerian political culture. Land is nationalized through common earth tones; green (the color of Islam and one of three on the Algerian flag) is emphasized as opposed to browns. In the mural above, Ben Boulaid’s clothing melds into the terrain, emphasizing his “belonging” to the bled. That the people belong to the land is a central theme in revolutionary imagery and the masses are often portrayed as literally springing forth from the hills —  min djabalinareflecting one of the key objectives of Algerian nationalism, taking back the land from a settler occupation and giving it back to the dispossessed.

Yet one finds murals and placards with images of Bouteflika, surrounded by adoring peasants in traditional clothes in some rural areas and at political rallies. Nowadays political propaganda relies more on massive photographs and computer graphics than paintings. Official designs commemorating the Revolution often feature strong, progressive figures such as the 1997 stamp (commemorating 19 March, 1962, the end of the War) and the one below celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Revolution. The woman holds the boy’s arm up as he holds a torch (as the soldier on the Makam esh-Shahid shown above) and the soldier follows behind them; the emphasis is on the children (civilians) in white, while the soldier (representing the moudjahidine and the army) supports them from behind; below مصالحة بناء تواصل – “Continue building reconciliation” is written in bold. The youths represent national progress (note that they appear to be marching forward, holding a torch, lighting the way) through reconciliation supported by the military (or perhaps the revolutionary heritage) and Islam (note the angle of the line between the green and white halves of the flag and that the soldier camouflages into the green half; it appears like a turning wheel). What this has to do with contemporary reality is elusive and the image, like all political art, says more about the way the regime would like Algerians to see it than what it actually is or does.

Notice that in all of this the “party” is virtually absent; both during the one-party era and the post-1989 period the FLN and other parties were of minimal importance. The FLN was the state’s party, not the other way around as in the communist countries. It did not control the state’s doctrine or policy program as in a Ba’thist regime. Its role was to carry on the Revolution and carry out state policy. The emphasis in propaganda is people-Revolution-military; all of these make up the Algerian state, according to official representations of the nationalist struggle. Because the reality of post-independence politics has led to deep divisions  between the leadership class and the people, as well as as the military, the personality cult of the last two years has relied on the projection of an image of a personable, civilian peace-maker in the image of Bouteflika. His personality cult speaks to the self-image of the regime and to what it has hoped to accomplish.

During presidential campaigns, public referendums on the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation and the “third mandate”/third term amendment the propaganda was virtually indistinguishable. Massive Mediterranean blue banners and enormous photographs of the president, often with doves, with soft slogans written in white. The idea is to restore confidence and public trust in leadership. He assumes a grandfatherly appearance, smiling, waving with slogans appealing to the population as “Children of Mohamed”. After years of war and harsh military rule, Bouteflika’s personality-cult has been designed to soften the face of authority for a skeptical and cynical public. His claim to fame is “peace” and “reconciliation” while his campaign emblem evolved from actual paintings or photographs of doves to a stylized computer graphic of one. He is presented as the president of peace, stability and normalcy. This contrasts, for instance, with Kim Jung Il’s personality cult in North Korea, where the leader is portrayed as a stoic figure against large scenes of large waves and uncertain wildernesses thereby emphasizing his necessity and competence in an erratic world. As in other Arab dictatorships, Bouteflika is portrayed as the agent of stability itself, his whole aura pacifying and normalizing a divided and traumatized society. Simultaneously it portrays an air of calm, as if to pronounce the safety of a new and consolidated era.

Though his personality is stern, his public processions deliberately put him the vicinity of children and popular figures, such as football clubs. Pictures released for the newspapers show the president dancing, kissing babies (and everyone else, too) and playing football and other games. It is a public persona without precedent. This is partly generational. In the early years of independence the population was young and so were its leaders. Ben Bella and Boumediene put themselves next to the workers and peasants as co-equals, these were men who claimed to come out of the masses without a hierarchical, parental relationship. Today the population is young but its leaders are old. Bouteflika’s appearance is too geriatric to be remedied by hair dye (he hasn’t got any hair) or makeup — as Tunisia’s or Egypt’s attempt to do — and the aesthetics of authority in Algeria permit grey hair or bald heads, wrinkles and facial hair. But one thing a leader cannot do is to appear to be out of touch with the population at large. He may not share the average young person’s struggle, but he at least makes an attempt to graft himself to their escape mechanisms. So he offers national honors to Zinedine Zidane; poses prominently and repeatedly with the World Cup-worthy national football team and so on. He appears, facilitating good times and providing a sense of peace and stability as a kindly grandfather might for children in troubled family. Unlike other Arab leaders, Bouteflika is not depicted as a virtuoso in the professions and in culture; the leading state newspapers do not refer to Bouteflika as the country’s preeminent pharmacist or lawyer or military strategist or footballer or teacher or author or poet or chef or painter or intellectual as has been the case in some other dictatorships.

This relates to the second part of his personality cult: the man who made Algeria matter again. He has made Algeria a major mediator in Africa; the country has hosted Arab summits, had its cities made capitals of Arab and Islamic culture and sent its team to the World Cup. For Bouteflika, this is like re-living the 1970s, when Algeria was respected a leader in the developing world. For the people, the regime hopes, this boosts morale and patriotism — and Bouteflika is known for deriding the lack of nationalist enthusiasm among young people in public. Bouteflika makes a lot of the fact that he once served as Minister of Youth and Sports; and his supporters were quick to attribute Algeria’s World Cup qualification to his leadership (without explanation). Large infrastructure projects, like the national highway, metro and grand mosque look to ensure that whatever improvements in the quality of come from them (whenever they are finished) are attributed to the president. And in international politics, the country is treated as a major regional power on the continent, even by the United States, when it comes to terrorism and conflict mediation. In a world like that, there is no shame in dressing well.

All this takes place in an environment where the government’s engagement with civil society and youth is superficial at best. Violent protest against poor living conditions and police brutality flare up frequently; as Amel Boubekeur wrote late last year, the government breaks up pro-Gaza demonstrations and tear gases fed-up slum dwellers but allows football hooligans to rampage at will. The doughy senior citizen on the six-story high banners once told  a crowd of grieving mothers to “forget about” their missing (“disappeared”) children. Algerians, as a whole, grasp that patriotism exists separately from adulation of political leaders and many are unmoved by the government’s rather shameless efforts to force superficial expressions of loyalty or to stigmatize emigrants as “unpatriotic” (which the regime has done for some time). Official politics has become stagnant, though the deaths of regime pillars have opened windows of opportunities for some new figures. For the average person whatever intrigues happen at the top will likely lead to the same disenfranchisement as those before. How the people will respond to the evolving consensus between the ruling clans remains to be seen. But between now and then there will be enough blue paper to go around for everyone.


4 thoughts on “The Face of the People: As the Regime Describes Itself

  1. Nice reading into all these depictions.
    I must say that I feel discomfort, if not shame, whenever I see Bouteflika’s portrait in HB airport, and elsewhere in Algeria. And I felt the same when everyone started singing “Bouteflika, Bouteflika” during his dinner with the Algerian football NT. And that dove cliché, what a joke!

    The absence of personality cult was a specificity I liked in the Algerian regime as compared to the other Arab states. Today, I find it ironic that this excessive cult is personified in the former moudjahid (moudjahidine decided that colonel was the highest possible rank as a way to avoid personality cult) and Boumediene’s spiritual son and heir (Boumediene declared that he wanted to create strong institutions which wouldn’t depend on specific men).

    PS: It’s funny that you made the obvious/logical link between the blue colour and the Mediterranean sea, when many Algerian journalists considered it as a copy of Obama’s campaign.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s