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Borders and Bobbing Heads: Postcoloniality and Algeria's Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence

[The ticket for the celebrations at the 5th July Stadium which bears the official logo for the 50th anniversary seen all around Algiers. Image by author.] [The ticket for the celebrations at the 5th July Stadium which bears the official logo for the 50th anniversary seen all around Algiers. Image by author.]

Algeria, one might say, is a site of postcoloniality par excellence. A protracted war of independence that was the model for third-world struggle and a nationalist party that had Frantz Fanon as an official spokesman gave rise to a word, algérianité, that has become a buzz-word of postcolonial studies. Moreover, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), which declared itself the sole party until 1989, not only won the war against the French (and other rival Algerian nationalists) during the revolution but remains in power after the May 2012 legislative elections. Indeed, the current political climate remains closely linked to the war of independence. In a speech made the week before elections as Sétif (the site of the famous 8 May 1945 colonial massacre), President Abdelaziz Bouteflika invoked the sacrifices of his generation in a clear attempt to garner symbolic capital from the war of independence.

It is not only Algeria that seems to take comfort in couching official discourse in the well-worn tropes of anti-colonial nationalist discourse. Regimes around the MENA region have invoked “foreign interference” at different moments as they faced a popular uprising that commentators (perhaps wearily) dubbed the “Arab Spring.” So as I watched the stages that were being erected, the buses that were being decorated, and the conferences that were being organized in Algiers last week to celebrate Algeria’s fiftieth anniversary on 5 July, I couldn’t help but wonder: what does post-colonialism mean in 2012? 

Perhaps it is a strange question to ask, given that Algeria is now considered as the so-called “exception” to the Arab Spring. And maybe it is an unfair line of questioning given that theorists are not necessarily obligated to use current events as tools of analysis. But regardless, when there are widespread comparisons being made between the current regime and the French colons, there is clearly something we should revisit. What follows is based on my experiences theorizing, historicizing, discussing, archiving, and living in Algeria. It is my hope, however, that it may also help us think about the current moment being experienced and conceptualized in other places in North Africa and the Middle East. 

What is Power?: From Colonial Hegemony to the Mystification of Le Pouvoir 

At the basis of a critique of colonialism was always an analysis of colonial power. The notion of power as re-conceptualized by Antonio Gramsci, Gayatri Spivak, Michel Foucault, and others, was not just about repression or a monopoly of the means of violence. While there was never a singular opinion, it is fair to say that postcolonial theorists emphasized the productive aspects of colonial power. Following, the concept of colonial hegemony highlighted the ways in which the colonized accepted the terms of their domination; the colonized, it was said, internalized, identified and reproduced the ways of being in the world that were propagated by the colonizers. 

Along with this re-conceptualization of power came the notion of the subaltern, which began as a way of escaping the narrow confines of class analysis and ended as a catch-all for those marginalized by the state (often a stand in term for gender or race, for example). Even as Foucault taught us that power was decentralized and all-pervasive, it was generally clear where the source of power lay—in state apparatus such as the school, the prison, and the hospital, for example. While the functions of power were no longer limited to the control of material resources and the making of political decisions, the sources of power were generally understood. 

In Algeria, however, one does not talk about the hegemony of the political elite, but rather the nebulous nature of le pouvoir. The ruling classes are notoriously opaque and the country is marked by divisions between the presidential claim and the extremely powerful Intelligence and Security Services  (the DRS, Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité).  Moreover, the country has a history of assassinations, corruption, and conspiracy theories that make it almost impossible to know who, exactly, controls what. Take “Toufik” Mediène, for example, who is sometimes said to be the most powerful man in the country as the head of the DRS. And yet, amazingly, there is only one photo of him in circulation. On the Fifth of July as I sat with colleagues after attending a long day of Anniversary conferencing, there was speculation as to where Mediène lived. After a few different theories were circulated, we joked that he was everywhere and nowhere—“evanescent,” one friend called him. Mediène is the spirit of the regime with no actual physical presence. In Algeria, there is a constant questioning of whether politicians are alive or dead (literally). A paranoid form of necropolitics, to borrow a concept from Achille Mbembe, has indeed become the paradigmatic symbol of post-colonial power. 

Thus, instead of protesting against a colonial or even comprador elite, Algerians have become rioters par excellence (I strongly recommend Alain Bertho’s blog, which has a comprehensive list of riots not only in Algeria but also in other parts of the world). In 2012 the so-called  “subaltern” might be the unemployed youth, the inhabitants of a disenfranchised banlieue, or students of a corrupt and malfunctioning university. How to engage Gayatri Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism” – a way of asserting an essentialized identity in order to valorize a marginalized subject position – is less evident in this case.  In other words, with the changing nature of the subaltern comes new strategies for contestation, especially given that the forms of domination are no longer either legible or coherent.

Perhaps there was no better example of this shift than at the official celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary at the enormous football stadium (itself called the “5th July Stadium”). Not only was the venue less full than I had seen it this fall when I attended the soccer match between rivals MCA and Harrach, but the atmosphere was palpably less charged. There were no official government officials to be seen, either on the stage or in the stadium, leading one colleague to joke that a “real” authoritarian regime would have made sure it was a full house. Bouteflika had quite visibly been in attendance for the final of the coupe d’Algérie, but for the celebrations on 5 July, he was very much out of sight. 

Who is a Colon? Deracializing the Hybrid 

The figure of the colon looms large in the postcolonial psyche. As the colonial system creates an “authorized version of otherness,” in the words of Homi Bhaba, the dynamics of mimicry emerge from an attempt to parrot the social mores of the dominant, whose racial attributes become a mark of power and prestige. As Fanny Colonna notes, however, the qualities of the colonizers could never actually attained by the colonized. While the French system was meant to ensure the “maximum internalization of educational values,” it also policed the boundary between European and Arab, without which the colonial system would descend into chaos.[2]

There are important parallels to be drawn between colonial mimicry and the regime that rules Algeria in 2012. Even if it is no longer technically French, it is undoubtedly culturally foreign. Take, for example, the policy of Arabization, which has been nothing short of disastrous in Algeria. The population is alienated from its own dialect while being asked to speak a modern standard Arabic for which the pedagogical tools are sorely lacking. (The festivities on the Fifth of July celebrations were conducted in fusha, of course). Members of the elite themselves are more comfortable in French and continue to send their children to France for their studies, occasionally with a summer abroad for their Arabic. A particularly comical example was found at a recent press conference when the Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahia, was attacked by a journalist for responding to a question in Kabyle. 

One of the most frequent attacks on the current ruling elite is to compare them to the French colon. Not only do they show a similar disregard for the daily lives of Algerians, but they seem pervasively foreign in their linguistic and cultural mores. Yet in addition to this tendency to view the Algerian elite as “Other,” the French figures who fought for the FLN, such as Maurice Audin or Pierre Chaulet (who recently published his memoir with his wife, Claudine Chaulet) have been methodologically erased from popular memory. 

An article in the 5 July supplement of El Watan quoted Tahar Belabès of the CNDDC (Comité national pour la défense des droits des chômeurs) as saying that “Today, Algerians are subjected to an internal colonialism (un colonialisme interne).” He did not mean that the consolidation of the nation-state is a process that resembles colonialism—in the classification and control of national resources, for example. Instead, his statement uses colonialism in a more politically charged way, to say that Algerians have literally been colonized: “We like under the yoke (joug) of injustice (hogra), corruption, nepotism and repression,” he continued. Finally, he used a word that has often been echoed in the course of the “Arab Spring”: “We are fighting for our dignity.” 

Rethinking postcolonialism, then, demands that we re-conceptualize how colonialism is invoked and remembered by various actors. It means remembering that identity politics was a tool of colonialism picked up by post-colonial regimes. Today, the colon is a figure that continues to be relevant, though he might not fit the “racial profile” that we have come to expect. 

A Colonial Episteme? Revisiting Orientalism…and Counter-Orientalism  

I am guilty of it myself. Often in critiquing coverage of the “Arab Spring,” commentators on the Middle East have reached for their copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism (which is naturally stored next to their own “Green Book”—Hans Wehr’s English-Arabic dictionary—on their bedside table). The question of knowledge production lies at the heart of the postcolonial critique; at least since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, knowledge about the Middle East has been produced by a corpus of politically invested individuals who depicted the region as fanatical, static, and backwards. According to Hamid Dabashi, for example, “The destabilization of that regime [of knowledge] is the first and foremost fact about these uprisings.” If the “west” has produced knowledge about “the east,” for Dabashi the Arab Spring has worked to “dismantle that regime of knowledge.”[2]

Perhaps.  But does merely affirming what had previously been denied really help us analytically (to say that Arabs are not inherently violent but tend towards nonviolence, for example)?  Should we accept the possibility that a critique of Orientalist knowledge production may lead to an equally myopic “counter”-orientalism? When the geographical division of knowledge production is not taking place between the hexagon and colony (the French administration saying that that Algerians are fanatical), but between Algiers and Tamanrasset (Algerian administrators saying that people in the North of the country are less patriotic to explain low voter turnout), what should we do? When it is the youth—and not the Mohamedans—that has become a stigmatized category, does a mere affirmation of “local” knowledge really help us? When the stereotypes about Algerian political protests are manufactured by the Algerian elite and are subsequently parroted by “international observers,” how should we account for the geographical networks of knowledge production?

It is not enough to say that knowledge production is now “neo-colonial” or to assert that the “east” is now (finally) “transnational” (as Dabashi seems to do when he claims that the revolts are a “retrieval of a cosmopolitan worldliness”[3]). Instead of looking to geographical or civilizational blocks, we should remember that, as Bourdieu first pointed out “Every established order tends to produce…the naturalization of its own arbitrariness.”[4] An episteme might be colonial in the sense that certain colonial administrators propagated a certain way of understanding a society, history, or culture. Or it might be colonial in so far as it represents a way of validating truths that emerged during a period of history during which a society was colonized. Or it may not be colonial at all.  

Conclusion: Bodies and Boundaries 

The official celebration at the stadium of Algiers was exactly what most people had expected. There was the re-enactment of sacred events in national mythology, such as the French arrival at Sidi Fredj in 1830, the victory of Abd el-Qader against General Bugeaud, and the War of Independence. Following this, there was a kind of colonial exhibition in which different regions of the country were exoticized for the population of Algiers, dressed in traditional garb to perform their local musical traditions. The third part of the performance can only be described as n’importe quoi (anything goes) for those who expected a display of post-colonial nationalism. Hundreds of young Algerians performed karate to music that seemed vaguely Japanese. There was a scene of hundreds of youth allegedly performing “hip hop” (that is, jumping around erratically), and parades of school-age children dressed up as butterflies twirling around with candy-colored umbrellas (Mary Poppins meets North Korea?). Yet for a crowd that rarely leaves home at night (the insecurity of the civil war looms large, especially in Algiers), n’importe quoi could be read as a relief from the ideological confines of a historical re-enactment. This is especially true given the pervasive bitterness at the fact that, fifty years later, the regime has done very little to improve the lives of the population. N’importe quoi might not be a central analytical tool in post-colonial theory, but in the afterlives of post-colonial regimes, it certainly has its place. 

Then came the finale: hundreds of bodies marched onto the pitch in the shape of the Algerian nation-state, and then attempted to unfurl a stadium-sized Algerian flag. If we first learned from Benedict Anderson that nations are a “cultural artifact,” he forgot to mention that, sometimes, they require physical bodies to unfold. As the massive flag spread over the pitch, it did so unevenly and imperfectly. At one point, we wondered if the entire spectacle would collapse in its final moments, and yet, incredibly, the stunt worked. The flag filled up the space, and yet it was impossible not to notice that the crescent was a bit jagged. In addition, we could make out the bodies bobbing up and down furiously underneath, which ruined the oceanic calm. In a time when Algerians remain generationally divided between apathy at official post-colonial politics and indifference at their own revolutionary history, it seemed fitting that the greatest staging of national ideology was being ever-so-slightly thwarted, one head bob at a time. 


[1] Fanny Colonna, “Educating Conformity in French Colonial Algeria,” in Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler (eds.), Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 356.

[2] Hamid Dabashi, The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (London: Zed Books, 2012), 44, 47.

[3] Dabashi, The Arab Spring, 11, emphasis in original.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 164.

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