Banners and placards: a cover for cracks in the Algerian movement?

    Memes, songs and slogans are driving the countrywide protests, but some people have started to differ on the language and choice of words used, exposing the fault lines among the demonstrators.

    Since the popular movement, which began on February 22 to protest former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term, Algerians have tapped into their creative and humour pools to express their demands against the current system that they wish gone.

    The residents of Bordj Bou Arréridj (BBA), a city 250 kilometres east of the capital Algiers, have become famous for their protests prompting some to name the city the “capital of the revolution”.

    “When it started, everyone felt obliged to participate,” said Mahdi, a school teacher living in BBA, who refused to share his surname. “I had the chance to be part of a group of well-educated youth who met, worked on and delivered hundreds of banners and leaflets carrying slogans which reflect the demands of the people.”

    Every week, a building under construction, now popularly referred to as the “People’s Palace”, has been draped with a five metre tifo (large displays of banners and placards by ultra groups to show support for a football team) decorated with political messages such as “Justice is the basis of all governance” and “future, wisdom and nation” in Arabic and English.

    But the language choices have drawn criticism for not featuring Tamazight, and for moving from one “colonial” language to another. Alternatively, it has also been seen as a tool of decolonisation by resisting using the French language, as well as a move which directly contrasts with Bouteflika’s isolationist policies. Some have also seen it as a cultural shift in the hegemonic power of the language of the elite from French to English.

    The focus on BBA’s protests has also cast doubt and suspicion on some of the groups behind the creation of the tifos and of people’s alliances. Tifos, a pattern arranged on banners or choreography performed by people, depicting former foreign minister Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, who some view as Islamist-affiliated and one of the figures tipped to lead the transition, and references to Abdelhamid Ben Badis, Algeria’s Islamic revivalist scholar of the 1900’s, were slammed as propaganda.

    “Many who opposed the recent tifos were driven by the trivialities of a minority of politicians who refused the constitutional solutions or had a problem with the military,” Mahdi says.

    The group behind the tifos, Ouled El Djebass, was accused of capitalising on anti-French sentiment and of supporting military head Ahmed Gaid Salah. The same accusation Gaid Salah once used against demonstrators, that of foreign hands pulling the strings, have also been levelled against the group and its alleged funders.

    According to Abdelbaqi Ghorab, a PhD student from BBA, the accusations are a “mere sign of a desire for political engagement”. “[People] are aware that the country is in dire need for change, a change that cannot be achieved without everyone taking part,” he said.

    Artistic expression as an act of protest is not new for Algerians, particularly in the football scene. The most recent case before the protests this year was in 2017 when supporters of the Aïn M’lila football club held up a banner showing the twin portraits of US President Donald Trump and the Saudi King with the caption “two sides of the same coin” following the US embassy move to Jerusalem.

    Algerian football fans have often displayed a deep sense of political awareness, using the medium of stadiums and football chants to reflect their frustrations, and as of 2019, to boost a movement, or Hirak.

    According to Maher Mezahi, an independent journalist based in Algiers, football stadiums have always been spaces of “political discourse for young Algerian men”. Fans of the USM Alger football club have been credited for starting the anti-Bouteflika movement from the stands.

    “Supporters have historically addressed issues of corruption, illegal migration and police brutality through their lyrics – at times, directly addressing heads of state.” Leading up to the 2019 presidential elections, fans of the popular football club USM Alger, – owned by influential businessman Ali Haddad, one of the oligarchs close to the Bouteflika circle and currently in detention for a number of corruption charges – published three songs that were chanted throughout mass protests: La Casa Del Mouradia (in reference to the presidential residence and a play on the title of popular Spanish TV series La Casa del Papel), Babour Louh and Y’en A Marre, which were “widely sung by protestors of all walks of life.”

    The decision of supporters of the two main clubs in Algiers to boycott the MCA-USMA derby was one of biggest boosts to the popular movement. But it is now entering a critical period, where divisive politics and polarising views threaten to discredit the movement. “When it started, it had one common goal: bringing down a dictator,” Ghorab explains. “Once that ‘common enemy’ was removed from the picture, it is normal for differences to emerge.”

    Lack of a consensual representative to begin the process of institutionalisation and negotiation risks successes being replaced by failures. The main divisions are either in support of the army’s decisions, for fear of the dissolution of state institutions, or against the army and in support of a transition period and sovereignty of the people.

    Some figures in the opposition have backed the solution that sees the shortest, safest and cheapest option adopted whilst others want to focus efforts on the appointment of official representatives capable of developing a roadmap to elicit real change.

    Gaid Salah, despite attempts to dismiss any political ambitions on his part, has refused a political solution for an exit from the political impasse. Through his press releases, the public have been addressed by Gaid Salah more times than by the country’s interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, raising questions as to who exactly is making the decisions.

    Power alternatives at the moment are non-existent and the task ahead of fixing Algeria’s dire economic and social problems will prove testing for figures developing a new type of legitimacy that draws, but is not based solely, on the country’s revolutionary history.

    Tifos and creative messaging on placards have been successful in creating a phenomenon which saw the end of Boutefklia’s 20-year presidency. Now however, the movement needs to transition from the negotiation table of the street to the negotiation table of national dialogue and elections via a true people’s representative.

    “Once a legitimate president sits in office,” Ghorab explains, “we can arbiter our differences without risking things getting out of control.”

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