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From the Field

Algeria’s Hirak: When a Social Movement Puts Citizenship Under the Microscope

The popular mobilization that rose up in Algeria in 2019 was not only a revolt against living conditions that had become unacceptable. It was also a movement that turned the country’s streets into a stage for the organized construction of collective and political life by citizens seeking to revisit their history and assert their independence.

Since February 22, 2019, Algeria has been living to the rhythm of unprecedented mobilizations. Millions of Algerians took to the streets to oppose President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to run for a fifth term, and to demand a radical change of regime. The result has been an inflation of analyses aimed more at defining the phenomenon—insurrection, crisis, revolt, Hirak, [1], revolution—(Hammouche 2019; Ferhani 2019) than at reflecting on the conditions of its emergence (Aziri 2019; Mohamed Aziz 2019). Some readings explain the timing of the mobilizations in terms of the political opportunity offered by the electoral calendar in an authoritarian context; others emphasize the role of new technologies in the structuring of the networks that articulate the movement; others still explain the mobilizations in terms of the deterioration of public finances and corruption that have apparently fueled popular grievances; finally, others insist on the contribution of young people and focus on describing the advent of a political generation freed from the traumas of the past and who are the bearers of democratic renewal.

We wish to complement these analyses by examining the citizen experiences that are made possible by these mobilizations. Our objective is not so much to make an inventory of the conditions necessary for the emergence of the movement as to understand how citizen figures are formed and become visible, as they produce the public space that enables their emergence. Citizenship is thus captured by the semiotic practices of the actors involved—the ways in which they shape the categories of their public engagements, define the contours of their communities, and define what is meant by the common good.

More specifically, we will show that these mobilizations proceeded from a certain “care of the self” (souci de soi; Foucault 1984) that manifests itself in the deployment of an urban civility. The public performances of Algerian citizens, through self-control and restraint, help to refute an official discourse that condemned the demonstrations as “Syrian chaos.” Citizens also drew on a common pool of struggles for dignity, in order to break with the figures of corruption that the regime has come to embody (Hachemaoui 2011). The national story then became the medium of a process of political subjectivation that accompanied the publicization of public space (Terzi and Tonnelat 2016).

This reflection is based on material collected online: slogans and placards, videos of citizen forums, and interviews given by protesters to journalists. We also make use of data collected during field surveys conducted between 2012 and 2016, as part of research into riots in Algeria.

A history of struggles that informs the present

The mobilizations of recent years are part of a long Algerian history of struggle for dignity. This struggle began after World War II with the national liberation movement, which was intended to put an end to the French colonial yoke and make Algerians political subjects in their own right, and continued after independence as left-wing or far-left activists opposed to the single-party regime were forced underground (Metref 2017; Redjala 1988).

In the 1970s, Algiers became the preferred place of exile for revolutionaries. Nelson Mandela’s ANC, Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Eldridge Cleaver’s Black Panthers found refuge and assistance there. Algeria supported peoples’ right to self-determination and called on the countries of the Global South to take their destiny into their own hands (Deffarge and Troeller 1972).

The 1980s saw the emergence of a Berber Cultural Movement (Mouvement Culturel Berbère, or MCB) that demanded official recognition of an Amazigh identity, which had been denigrated by the proponents of Arab nationalism (Temlali 2016). Feminist movements are began to grow in importance, driven by opposition to the new Family Code, which was accused of confining Algerian women to the status of minors for life (Belhouari-Musette 2006).

Despite the civil war of the 1990s, the struggles never ceased—so much so that President Bouteflika’s first term in office was marked by major mobilizations in Kabylia in the spring of 2001, after the death of a young man on national gendarmerie premises. These mobilizations led to a platform of demands calling for the respect of individual freedoms and greater democracy (Temlali 2003).

When it has come to framing demands and defining courses of action, the demonstrators of recent years have drawn extensively on this common pool of struggles: sometimes to echo them, sometimes to learn lessons from them. This is particularly evident in the way in which symbols of the national story have been reappropriated, from patriotic songs to heroic figures of independence, to the national flag as a signifier of an unwavering attachment to the homeland.

“One hero, the people” (“Un seul héros, le peuple”)—the bold slogan of the former national liberation movement—was once again seen on placards. The portraits of Larbi Ben’Mhidi or Ali la Pointe, mythical revolutionaries, were brandished as signs of rediscovered glory (Figure 1). Their photos contrasted with the current presidential portrait, which has become synonymous with a cult of personality.

Figure 1

© Djamila Ould Khettab, Algiers, March 2019. The authors and the editorial board have chosen to blur all faces present in the photos featured so as not to expose any of the demonstrators.

While demonstrators are following in the footsteps of the national liberation movement, with encouragements to get back on the path of a struggle for dignity, other past conflicts have oriented the strategic choices made and forms of action adopted.

For example, calls for calm, restraint, and a sense of responsibility are marked by the experience of riots in October 1988 (Aït-Aoudia 2015). Citizens justify these calls both by the need to guard against repression and by a desire to avoid giving the regime the opportunity of benefiting from a degradation of the situation, as it has done in the past. Missibssa, a 20-year-old finance student, explained to French national radio station France Inter that “the entire Algerian population is categorical on this point: it wants these demonstrations to remain peaceful […]. We do not want these demonstrations to be taken over by anyone who might resort to hatred or vandalism” (Cavaillès 2019).

With this in mind, groups called the Brassards Verts (Green Armbands) and the Gilets Orange (Orange Vests) formed, following calls on social networks, to help supervise marches, warn of risks of stampedes, and provide first-aid assistance to demonstrators if necessary. Toufik Amrane, a journalist and photojournalist, launched the Orange Vests initiative after clashes broke out on April 12, 2019, between protesters and police near the Tunnel des Facultés (University Tunnel) in Algiers. He explained that he contacted journalist friends before being joined by volunteers, including a number of students and doctors (Nadir 2019). The objective was then to maintain the peaceful nature of the marches, by forming “rows, a sort of buffer between the police and the demonstrators, to create a distance between the two groups” (Alioui 2019).

By learning lessons from history in this way, the marchers reinterpreted the scope of what is possible. They strove to avoid the mistakes of the past and draw the references necessary from the national story in order to create an identity that is a source of dignity and civility.

Figure 2. “Marching is good for your health; demonstrating is good for your dignity”

© Jidal, Algiers, March 2019.

“Care of the self” and the relationship with the world

If self-control and the restraint of passions are, as Norbert Elias put it, correlative to the “process of civilization” (Elias 1991), it follows that the peaceful nature of these mobilizations and the strict supervision of marches have made it possible to send an unequivocal message to the world that “we too are civilized people” (Figure 3).

Figure 3. “France: Yellow Vests demo get seriously out of hand.

‘Follow the example of civilized societies!’”

© Dilem, Liberté, March 18, 2019.

Civility also manifests itself in acts designed to keep urban space clean and tidy or beautify the fabric of the city. The Green Armbands and Orange Vests have organized street-cleaning operations, busily collecting trash after marches, and repainted city walls, for example (Figure 4; Ghellab 2019; Saadoun 2019).

Figure 4. Brassards Verts (Green Armbands) and Gilets Orange (Orange Vests)

© Jidal, Algiers, March 2019 and © Toufik Amrane, March 2019.
On the right-hand photograph, the words “Peaceful, peaceful, civilized march” can be read.

In contrast to an official discourse that raises the spectre of Syrian chaos or seeks to portray young people as a horde that threatens public order (Belghiche 2019), marchers have responded with caustic humor, tried to fraternize with police [2] in order to gain allies among them, and generally shown at each of their marches that citizenship can be a celebration.

Entering and occupying urban space in this way is therefore an opportunity to forge a positive and valorizing image of “self,” which rejects consignment to negative or disparaging categories and marks a clear break with the images of terrorist barbarism that tragic events in the regional and international news have helped to spread. Moncef, a young Algerian citizen interviewed by the online news site TSA (Tout sur l’Algérie), said: “The government is trying to make people believe that we are savages, that we don’t know how to express ourselves or demonstrate in a peaceful and organized way. We are proving that the opposite is true.” His friend Abir added: “We want to send out an image of a civilized people, that knows what is good for its country” (Saadoun 2019).

The way in which certain slogans have taken up the signs and symbols of globalized consumer products testifies both to the weapons of resistance offered by humor and to the desire to invest in a shared culture which, beyond Algeria, makes it possible to establish a common semiotic world. For example, images of packets of Marlboro cigarettes are altered to read “Mal barré [lit. “Off to a bad start”]: your system seriously harms our health” (Figure 5); another placard states that “Only Chanel can make No. 5” (in reference to the president’s bid for a fifth term); the characteristic syntax of Yoda in Star Wars is reworked in the people’s favor (Figure 5); and Dr. Emmett Brown from Back to the Future warns Marty McFly of the risks of disrupting the space–time continuum associated with President Bouteflika extending his current fourth term (Figure 6).

Figure 5. “A fifth term you shall not obtain. With the people the force is”;

“Off to a bad start: your system seriously harms our health”

© Ziri Gunfood Oulmane, Algiers, March 2019.

Figure 6. “Great Scott, Marty! If Boutef extends his fourth term,

it will unravel the very fabric of the space–time continuum”

© Ziri Gunfood Oulmane, Algiers, March 2019.

If public performances represent opportunities for presentations and valorizing self-representations, it is also because they allow for the distancing of archetypes of servility that the regime has ultimately trivialized, such as the well-known figure of the chiyatt—or “brusher”—who flatters the powerful by stroking their egos the right way and singing their praises, all the better to claim favors from them; or the more recent figure of the “cachir-eater”. Cachir is an Algerian pâté or sausage (similar to bologna) that was the filling of sandwiches offered to members of the public who came to Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s campaign meeting. The cachir-eater is decried as someone that is in a clientelistic relationship with the regime and who accepts a posture of vassalage (Figure 7). This posture is all the more undignified as campaign rallies were marked by reverential rituals involving the official portrait of the president, who was notably not physically present at the meetings.

In these circumstances, Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid to run for a fifth term of office is felt as a humiliation. The images of the meeting in question, broadcast on national television, resulted in a moral shock, a visceral reaction of indignation and anger in the face of a situation deemed morally untenable (Jasper 1998). Official portraits of the president were torn off the facades of the assemblées populaires communales (APCs) [3] of Khenchela and Annaba. [4].

Figure 7. Grandiose demonstrations: thousands of Algerians protest against a fifth term.

‘How did they manage it without cachir?!!’

© Hicheme le Hic, El Watan, February 23, 2019.

The collective appropriation of urban space thus demonstrates a form of “care of the self” that “places the question of truth—the truth of what one is and what one is capable of doing—at the heart of the constitution of the moral subject” (Foucault 1984, p. 94). It is accompanied by a process of subjectivation whereby protesters show themselves as they wish to be seen, reject consignment to categories of incivility, chaos or barbarism, and appropriate valorizing references of their collective identity (such as the struggles of the national liberation movement), so as to break with figures and signs of vassalage (e.g. the cult of the presidential portrait or the figure of the cachir-eater). In this way, they define themselves as ethical and political subjects able once again to take their collective destiny in hand.

This undertaking to redefine terms opens up the range of possibilities as it makes it possible to re‑evaluate the capacity for action of the people mobilized within their world. To follow in the footsteps of the glorious figures of the Algerian War of Independence is to instill in oneself the duty to act, and to feel the power to be able to do so. Ultimately, it is to revive hope in the possibility of improving the relationship between the state and society, the deterioration of which had until this point been reflected in increases in the numbers of riots and applications for illegal immigration.

“I never want to leave you again, my Algeria”

In what is now a classic text, Albert Hirschman (1970) argues that individuals can respond in one of two ways to a deteriorating relationship: they can either leave it (exit) or voice their grievances. The option chosen depends on the opportunity cost of each, the level of attachment to the organization in question (loyalty), and the degree of hope of redressing the situation. [5]

In the context of research carried out into urban riots in Algeria (Derradji forthcoming), we have shown that the individuals who took part in these riots experienced a devaluation of their status. In spite of the various reasons for their actions—lack of housing, unemployment, abuse of power, corruption of state officials, difficulty in accessing public services—they unanimously expressed a feeling of denial of their citizenship. The concept of hogra, in particular, was used by the “rioters” to describe their relationship with the public authorities. In the Algerian vernacular, this term refers to both an abuse of power and the contempt that individuals in positions of dominance and power can exhibit.

For Adel, a young “rioter” aged 28, rioting is a voice. It is the means to “send a message and tell the authorities that we exist.” If he and others have to fight to exist, it is because recognition is the basis of equality in dignity, which allows equitable access to the material and symbolic resources of the state. If this equality does not seem to be guaranteed; if the norms and obligations that frame the citizen’s relationship with the public authorities are violated or subject to the discretionary power of state agents; if certain categories of individuals enjoy privileged access to the material or symbolic resources of the state, while others are excluded; then the public authorities end up constructing dual categories of citizenship in day-to-day interactions with individuals.

Another young “rioter,” Abdou, has been relegated in this way to the “edges of citizenship” (Jenson 2007, p. 24). He justifies his anger by reminding us of an important point: “I have a national ID card just like everyone else.”

In her work on Algerian harragas—that is, candidates for irregular immigration—Farida Souiah (2012) shows how they are often referred to as “ultimate proof of the dysfunctional situations affecting the country” (p. 105). She further emphasizes that this form of migration (el harga) is an exit in Hirschman’s sense: “an active strategy designed to cope with a difficult situation in which misery and hogra prevent them from envisioning a future” (p. 119). This option also ends up supplanting the use of protest (voice), because those who choose it no longer believe in the possibility of improving their situation in Algeria.

The mobilizations of recent years have been accompanied by slogans such as “For the first time, I don’t want to leave you, my Algeria” or “Rana hna!” (“We are here!”) (Figure 8). The public performances of Algerian citizens, by introducing new ways of demonstrating and manifesting themselves (voice) and by reiterating their attachment to the political community, allow for the creation of a political subject capable of acting upon its world and helping to renew belief in the possibility of a better future—one that brings with it social opportunities and political dignity. The present thus embraces rediscovered past glory and updated future expectations in the same vision.

Figure 8. “For the first time, I don’t want to leave you, my Algeria”; “We are here”

© Algérie Debout, 2019 and © “Rana hna” collective, 2019.

The feeling of taking back control of collective destiny ends up freeing up energies. Citizen initiatives have proliferated throughout Algeria and tell of the collective need to take action. Debates and citizens’ assemblies, for example, have been organized by various groups and collectives in order to discuss the Algeria of tomorrow (Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 9. Tweet of the Day

“Today in Algiers, open to all: debate with feminist associations, debate with NABNI, and constitutional law lectures (among other events). In Oran, a friend tells me she has a ‘neighborhood committee’ this afternoon. Hello, post-February 22 Algeria!”

© Jidal, March 2019.

Figure 10

© NABNI, March 2019.

While the slogans through which the demonstrators express themselves convey discourses that are part of the register of the social bond that unites (even if it does not uniformize) and that pacifies (even if it does not mask divergences), the citizen interactions that develop within public forums (both physically and in the media) offer them another means of manifesting themselves (i.e. voice). In this regard, by publicizing problematic situations experienced individually or locally, these experimental means of interaction highlight the divisions and inequalities that run through the social world (Terzi and Tonnelat 2016; Dewey 2010; Mead 2006). The preservation of public space then depends on how these relationships are negotiated, to allow for the expression of dissensus, without compromising participation in the political community.

The merits and limits of a transformative civic experience

The mobilizations of the last two years have done much more than break down the wall of fear, as some analysts of the Algerian political scene like to point out (Lepage 2019). They have led to a real renewal of enthusiasm for politics.

First, because they proceed from a salutary “care of the self” (Foucault 1984), the public performances of Algerian citizens, through self-control and restraint, help to deconstruct an official discourse that condemned the demonstrations as descending into “Syrian chaos.” Moreover, they draw upon a common pool of struggles for dignity, in order to break with debasing figures of vassalage and fashion valorizing self-representations that contribute to the formation of the political subject.

And, second, because they allow, as underlined by Hannah Arendt, the journey from a private existence entirely occupied with the vital activities of production and reproduction to a public existence concerned with discussing and building a common world. The sense of pride that Algerian citizens say they have regained, alongside the happiness they express at being together, remind us of the emancipating nature of political action (Arendt 1995).

Preserving and protecting these achievements, however, remains a constant challenge. While the appropriation of public spaces provides the impetus for “motility” (Djelloul and Mezoued 2019; Kaufmann and Jemelin 2004)—if not the “affordances” (Joseph 1997) that generate confidence in the ability to redefine oneself and act collectively—the (de)liberation of voices (within arenas for public speaking) highlights the challenges involved in articulating the pluralism of a society that is just (re)learning to get to know itself (again). In other words, through different forms and means of expression, an awareness of the makeup of the public and its diverse sociological qualities emerges. It is at this time that multiple assertions of identity subsequently arise, leaving the ways in which people coexist within a revitalized common political space largely undetermined.


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To cite this article:

Islam Amine Derradji & Amel Gherbi & translated by Oliver Waine, “Algeria’s Hirak: When a Social Movement Puts Citizenship Under the Microscope”, Metropolitics, 26 March 2021. URL :

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