What is universal about the Algerian national ‘Hirak’?

The peaceful nature of the massive protests against Algeria's undemocratic regime signals the universal reclamation of the people's right to perform who they are and who they want to be.

Solidarity protest with Algerians in Columbus, Ohio (Photo: Paul and Cathy Becker via Flickr CC Licensed).

“Revolution is an intense and dense reclamation of universal, not identitarian, human rights,” wrote the Tunisian philosopher Fethi Meskini in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution in 2011. This does not mean that national identity is necessarily incompatible with universality. On the contrary, the national, taken beyond the confines of nationalism as an ideology, is that through which the universal can manifest itself. By universal, I mean what is shared or sharable with humanity across, not above, difference. An irreducibly normative multiplicity marks the human experience, and it is across this multiplicity that the shared horizon of the universal lies (al-mushtarak al-inssani). Yet, the universal does not reduce multiplicity into oneness, but opens the one to the multiple. Following this understanding, a healthy national identity is a mode of expressing potentially universal concerns. The problem, therefore, as Meskini tells us, does not lie in identity per se, understood as a specific politics of belonging that structures the collective life of a people, nor in the phenomenon of belonging as such. Rather, it lies in the degree to which identitarian concerns are used by the modern nation-state to determine our subjectivity.

The use and abuse of these identitarian concerns by the nation-state is one of the reasons behind the ongoing national Hirak or “movement” in Algeria. The peaceful force of the massive protests marks a new beginning for Algeria. It signals the universal reclamation of the people’s right to perform who they are and who they want to be. Against a regime that turned fear over national security, which it generated, into a state mechanism of population control, the people peacefully asserted and enacted their own narrative about themselves. They performed their collective subjectivity by regaining the power over life without the “security” state’s bio-political mediation. The nation-state must be transformed, and a genuine, radical democracy is what people demand.

The Hirak began on 22 February after former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, old and ailing, decided to run for a fifth presidential mandate. People took to the streets in staggeringly large numbers, ending the ban to protest in public spaces since the so-called black decade of the 1990s, and demanding the departure of the president. After four weeks of relentless peaceful protests that swept the whole country, the president was forced to resign under the pressure of the army who appeared to have sided with the people’s Hirak. But that was only the beginning. The Hirak has continued, demanding the departure of the interim president and the current government, seen as relics of the old regime. The head of the army, Ahmad Gaid Saleh, has moved to the forefront of the political scene. He has stated many times that the army’s mission is to “accompany” the Hirak in its aspiration for a genuine democracy. However, the ambiguous and powerful influence of the army over politics has become the target of the Hirak’s increasing suspicion and criticism. This is due to the regime’s reluctance to engage with any initiative for a democratic transition.

The history of postcolonial Algeria—postcolonial in the historical sense that includes the colonial—has seen the army as a key player in Algerian politics since the War of Independence against France (1954-1962). The military branch of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which was behind the 1954 Revolution, had the upper hand in steering the country after independence. What followed was the story of the triumphant one party ruling the country with presidents who were military figures. However, the crisis of 1988 saw Algerians, fed up with the then deteriorating socio-political conditions, protesting against the government. The protestors were crushed by the army, yet the crisis led to the end of the one-party system and the institution of political pluralism. The Islamists made the most out of this transition, winning the first round of the 1991 parliamentary elections. Taken aback, the army intervened and ended the electoral process. As a result, the country plunged into turmoil that lasted for a decade, and the army maintained its power over politics. In the twenty-year rule of Bouteflika, who is credited with ending the black decade with his initiative of “national reconciliation,” institutional corruption and social inequality amplified, despite the relative economic improvement brought about by the country’s oil revenues. But the new generation, the youth of the post-black decade, became increasingly disillusioned. The “Arab Spring” did not spread to Algeria, but there were socio-economic protests in 2010 after which the government put an end to the state of emergency in place since 1992. In 2013, the president suffered a stroke which put into question his ability to govern. His brother, now under arrest, who was also his adviser, is said to have been the de facto president, with a powerful oligarchy around him, recently dubbed al-’issaba or “the clan.” President Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth mandate was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now the people want a true civic democracy where the army and the old oligarchies do not meddle into politics.

This is the particular historical and social context of the Algerian Hirak. Yet where is the universal in this particularity? It must be pointed out that the universal here does not denote the antithesis of the particular, nor does it mean something that is by its very nature transcendental. Rather, the universal stems from a particular form of life or a mode of living, knowing, sensing, believing or acting that is socially, culturally and historically conditioned, but which has elements that are potentially universalizable within a “pluriversal” global context, to use Walter Mignolo’s term. In the light of this understanding, what is universal about the Algerian Hirak?

The nation-state is a modern institution of European provenance. In its postcolonial Algerian embodiment, the nation must be distinguished from the state. The latter, in the aftermath of independence, derived its power from the so-called “revolutionary legitimacy.” Its sovereignty, therefore, was not predicated on the will to representation, but was assumed in this legitimacy in whose name the regime seized the state and, consequently, monopolized the official identitarian discourse about the nation. This discourse became what Meskini calls a “structure of identity,” whose purpose is to turn individuals into consumers of a ready-made identitarian narrative imposed by the tools of legitimate violence. This structure of identity, however, cannot exhaust the nation and the way the individuals feel about the nation.

The word for nation in Arabic is ummah, but it also, and perhaps more accurately, translates as watan, which means a place where one resides, a house of one’s residence but also of one’s belonging. Algerians call it leblad, literally meaning the country, a word that connotes a shared space of living and belonging. This organic and spatial understanding of watan or leblad locates it, on the one hand, beyond ethnicity and race, and, on the other, outside the official discourse of identity imposed by the state, outside loyalty to the regime that speaks and governs in the name of revolutionary legitimacy. The Hirak, which witnessed the coming together of people from all walks of life, has moved the nation away from the state. Hirak means is a movement: people in active and politically conscious mobility reclaiming the nation as that house where all Algerians live and should live in dignity and freedom, the watan or lebled as a living space of freedom unexhausted by the state. In other words, the Hirak has placed freedom before identity, or, to put it differently, it has freed identity from the state’s monopoly. This means, crucially, that it is against the undemocratic appropriation of the state by the regime, not against the state as such.

The Algerian revolutionary past, thus, is no longer a source of governmental legitimacy. It has become one condition of possibility for a future genuine democracy. In this respect, not only is the nation imagined across time and space (Benedict Anderson’s thesis); it is actively reclaimed, reinvented and liberated as a (potential) house of democratic living by the bodies that are occupying the public spaces previously restricted by the state. The body of the citizen, thus, can regain its power over life with the aim of peacefully transforming the state on the condition of a free watan or bled. This peaceful, transformative movement—in the literal sense of the word—aims for a kind of political life that does not simply liberate the citizen from the state’s biopolitical control. It is a continuous movement—now entering its twenty first week—that seeks the transformation of the state itself after reclaiming the nation as a free space of living together, and not a revolution in the sense of violently “turning around” (the meaning of revolution in Latin) the state. This is the first universal element of the Hirak. Whether it succeeds to do (and how), however, remains to be seen.

Yet the healthy balance between identity and freedom, to draw again on Meskini, is not easily maintainable. With the Hirak in its fifth month now, not all the demands of the protestors have been met. People in the streets are demanding the departure of the interim president and the prime minister, both of whom are seen as illegitimate representatives of the people and therefore as ineligible to oversee the coming presidential elections that were set to take place on 4 July, but which are now postponed under popular pressure. In the meantime, the discourse of identity, even if it is liberated from the state, can be still distracting and divisive.

On social media, and especially on Facebook, the debates and discussions over possible initiatives for a democratic transition sometimes slip into fake quarrels over Algerian identity and what should constitute it. Some of these quarrels are widely believed to be fueled by state sponsored “electronic warfare” units under the auspices of various security apparatuses. These divisive identitarian discourses are also openly promoted by public figures, including some members of the parliament known for their proximity to the current military leadership. The movement holds these to be a part and parcel of a “divide and rule” strategy on the part of the those in power. By falsely pitting the “Arab Muslim” against the “Berber,” or vice versa, these exclusivist identitarian claims rest on a certain selective, and therefore distorted, knowledge of the past. This is the case with the recent vacuous principle of “Badissi’ya Novembar’ia.” Badissiya refers to the Islamic revival led by Abdelhamid Ibn Badis, the founder of the Algerian Association of Muslim Ulama in 1931. Ibn Badis had a strong vision and commitment to reform the Algerian society, which was under French colonial rule at the time, by reviving Islamic teachings and ethics. His, therefore, was an Islamic, social movement of reform, not a political or (as might be inferred) an Islamist one. Novemberia, however, refers to the principles of the revolutionary declaration of 1 November 1954, the starting date of the Algerian War of Independence, which the Muslim Ulama endorsed two year later. By an ideological sleight of hand, these two distinct elements were combined by some public figures to allegedly form the identitarian basis of the Hirak in its aspiration for a “new Algeria.”

The actual bodies on the streets, however, are maintaining the national unity of the Hirak and its unified multiplicity, laying bare the falseness of those quarrels and the triviality of identitarian discourse. What is more, it is on Facebook that the Hirak’s democratic force on the streets of the capital and many other Algerian cities is best captured and reported. Facebook here becomes a democratizing tool of disseminating news, a powerful alternative platform of reporting, representing and debating the Hirak. The latter’s organic force on the streets testifies to a mode of being-together that unifies the multiplicity of the people beyond any divisive discourse of identity, forcing this discourse to the margin of this continuous event week after week. In contrast to the UK and the US, where Facebook has come under suspicion over its controversial role in Brexit and Trump’s election, the Hirak demonstrates that it can still be deployed for democratic, not imperialist, ends. Democracy is everywhere jeopardized by the rise of ultra-nationalism. But in a country where a genuine democracy is determinedly sought, the unrelenting biopolitical reclamation of the power over life by the people in the streets has kept in check the virtual means that jeopardize it. Exclusive claims to identity are perhaps inescapable, yet the free collective performance and preservation of a people’s unified multiplicity can contain and isolate this exclusivist identitarianism in both the actual and virtual worlds. This is the second universal element of the Hirak.

These universal potentialities of the Hirak should not be understood as universal actualities. They remain potentialities that are open, promising and disruptive of imperialist ways of thinking about countries of the global South like Algeria. This imperialist mode of thinking often looks at the particularity of countries of the South in a way that obscures this particularity, seen not its difference but through the lens of the same, thereby foreclosing any potentially universal element(s) within it. Algeria’s ongoing, peaceful quest for a long-awaited, authentic democracy and a genuinely free society is yet to be realized, but it is essential to recognize that this particular quest, to be cautiously optimistic, can offer or inspire a universal hope for a better future.

Further Reading