La politique est une réflexion sur la manière de servir le peuple. La «boulitique» est une somme de hurlements et de gesticulations pour se servir du peuple.
La politique is a reflection on the manner to serve the people. La boulitique is an accumulation of screams and gestures (invoked) in order to use the people.
- Malek Benabi
Rarely is the noise in Algiers as deafening, or the traffic as disorderly. If young Algerians are often depicted as hittistes, hanging out in public spaces with no visible sense of purpose, this week they have been whizzing around in cars, blaring horns, and singing while waving flags. The flags were not signs of patriotic allegiance, but another kind of affective attachment: that of football fans to their club. On the 1 May, the rival clubs of Mouloudia Club d’Alger (MCA) and Union Sportive Médina d`Alger (USMA) faced each other in the final of la Coupe d’Algérie. The Algerian fervor for football is certainly not new. The sport has long been viewed as a mechanism by which a younger generation of Algerians can “let off steam” – serving as a cure for the unemployment and pervasive ennui for which the city is infamous. It has also provided the population a medium to express certain socio-economic grievances (as was the case in 2009, when supporters chanted “batata seb`aa alaf!” in response to the rising cost of potatoes). Moreover, Algerian stadiums are notorious for triggering scenes of unrest. Tellingly, after the wave of riots in January 2011 the Algerian government canceled all football league games for a month.
While there were some reports of minor violence leading up to the match, this year’s final was remarkable for another reason: the absence of the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was hospitalized in France after incurring a minor stroke on 25 April. The Algerian Press Service (APS) sent a message from the President in order to reassure the Algerian people that “Regardless of the circumstances, [he] will share with the sons and daughters of [his] country their joy on this day.” The language of this statement is replete with references to reinforce his position as the “head” of the “revolutionary family.” By addressing the population as his “sons and daughters,” Bouteflika clearly tried to link himself to a youth that is increasingly disillusioned with formal politics. The system is largely seen as beyond reform, as symbolized by the recent litany of corruption scandals, such as the East-West highway, Sonatrach, Algérie Télécom, and the Khalifa Affair. Some commentators have speculated that these investigations, led by the Algerian state intelligence services, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), may have aimed to discredit Bouteflika by targeting individuals and organizations that are close to the President. Despite this widespread disenchantment, there is speculation that the Bouteflika will seek a fourth mandate. A year ago, an additional term had been almost unthinkable given his ailing health as well as other minor details - such as the constitution, which would need to be revised (again).
The CNDDC: The Assertion of “Social” – and not Political - Demands
In Algiers, the news of the president’s hospitalization was largely been met with relative indifference and a heavy dose of suspicion – not to mention the inevitable rumors that the president had already passed away. Yet while watching the celebrations in the center of Algiers, I was struck by the fact that among the numerous flags being waved (not only Mouloudia and USMA, but also Juventus, Barcelona, Liverpool, the UK) there were very few Algerian flags to be seen. This was in stark contrast to the recent march in Ouargla the La Coordination nationale de défense des droits des chômeurs (CNDDC) organized, where the Algerian flag could not be missed as the organizers deployed the nationalist symbol to respond to government accusations that the protests were separatist in nature and showed signs of the infamous main de l’étranger. In the heat of a particularly charged political moment - defined by Bouteflika’s health and the looming question of succession - the unemployed movement led by the CNDDC and the football ultras have two things in common: they are relatively young, and they eschew any formal link with la politique.
Because the CNDDC has demanded a peaceful change of the system, there has been some speculation that they are trying to “politicize” their actions. It may seem paradoxical that a movement that is calling for a new socio-economic status quo, and which has rejected the government’s stop gap employment measures by calling for another protest, could be considered as anything other than political. Yet the head of the movement, Tahar Belabbes, has maintained the following: “Our demands (revendications) are social: they concern the right to a job and the opening of a direct and formal dialog with the government.” I spoke with Hakim Addad, a long-time militant in Algeria, about the rejection of the word politique in Algeria. “The word ‘politics’ scares people, especially after the civil war. The regime has managed to criminalize (culpabiliser) the youth who partake in politics.” If the CNDDC has underlined that their actions are social and economic in nature, this is undoubtedly linked to the demonization of politics in Algeria – a country where the word boulitique (an Arabized version of the French politique) has an unmistakably negative connotation.
“Haddad v. Sonatrach” – The Political and Economic Structures of Algerian Football
Discussions of the Coupe d’Algérie have mirrored the reluctance of the CNDCC to engage in politics, despite the fact that the match itself was charged with symbolism. As the online paper Maghreb Emergent reported, “Football has become more and more integrated in the political life of Algeria. A month ago, a banner was put up by the leaders of Mouloudia, inviting [Bouteflika] to seek a fourth mandate.” Indeed, one of the jokes that I heard on the 1 May was that the match was not “MCA v. USMA,” but rather “Haddad v. Sonatrach,” a reference to the vested economic interests who run the two teams. MCA, which is often purported to be the “historic” team of the National Liberation Front (FLN), is run by Omar Ghrib and was purchased by the Algerian oil and energy giant, Sonatrach in late 2012. Tellingly, Ghrib has compared this to the purchase of the British club, Chelsea, by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovitch. In an apparent attempt to detract attention from Sonatrach itself, he stated: “Think about Chelsea and the debate regarding the origin of Roman Abramovitch’s wealth. We said that the guy was tracking arms and I do not know what else, but today, no one brings this up since the fans are happy with the results of their team and that is the most essential [thing].” The difference, of course, is that Roman Abramovitch – unlike Sonatrach – has not been involved in a scandal that has touched the inhabitants of London, where the club is based (at least to my knowledge). And yet, there is no doubt that the scandals have directly impacted the Algerians who support Mouloudia, the most recent of which were called “Sonatrach 2,” to distinguish them from the first round of revelations in 2010. Despite Bouteflika’s attempts to distance himself from these events, John Entelis has documented how Sonatrach’s “relationship to the state is direct, intimate, and long-standing.”
Certainly the hands of USMA are no cleaner. Ali Haddad, named one of hundred most influential businessmen in Africa in 2009 by Jeune Afrique, leads one of the first private enterprises in the country, which Haddad created in 1988 when Algeria remained a largely socialist country. His personal fortune remains a symbol of the wealth investors accumulated through the transition to an open economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s: “I knew that we were definitely heading (cheminions inexorablement) towards a market economy. It was necessary, then, to be present and prepare oneself for a major leap (grand saut),” he explained. In the same article, he glibly denied accusations of corruptions or nepotism. Yet, given the significant reach of his construction company, ETRHB, others have remained more skeptical regarding Haddad’s ability to stay above the fray - especially in light of the scandals that have marked the Ministry of Public Works and Haddad’s well known ties to President Bouteflika.
In this respect, the match between USMA and MCA symbolized the new economic interests that increasingly dominate the Algerian political landscape. Despite the fierce opposition on the pitch, both teams contributed in serving an end that was inseparable from la politique: they provided a distraction from the otherwise worrying news of Bouteflika’s hospitalization. As Addad recounted, “The Algerian authorities have used this match to help the people accept (faire passer la pilule) the news of Bouteflika’s illness. I do not think the news would have been announced in the same way if there had not been this match to distract the people. After all, in 2005 when Bouteflika was sick they tried to hide the news – and it was ultimately Jean-Marie Le Pen who broke the story, since he was unhappy that the French state had welcomed Bouteflika for treatment!”
Abdelmalek Sellal: Rejection On and Off the Pitch
The conclusion of the match was particularly dramatic. The defeated players of Mouloudia refused to accept their medals from the Prime Minster Abdelmalek Sellal after the match. This act was allegedly in protest of the questionable decisions of the referee, and eventually led the club to issue a formal apology. According to Dr. Mahfoud Amara, a specialist on Algerian football and author of Sport, Politics and Society in the Arab World, this reflected the fact that the sport “has lost its legitimacy and part of its integrity because of this network between business – les nouveaux riches – and politics.” According to Amara, some Mouloudia supporters did not accept the result of the final because they believe the winner had already been decided due to the growing influence of Haddad in football, business, and the media. In ordering the players not to accept their medals from the Prime Minister, Omar Ghrib wanted to show that he is untouchable, since he was able to use his influence to put a banner which said “Mouloudia supports the re-election of Bouteflika for the fourth mandate.”
To add insult to injury, the Prime Minster has also been an object of inquiry in the recent corruption scandals and has played a central role in the failed negotiations with the CNDDC. Being stood up at one of the most watched televised events of the year could not have been appreciated. It is also unlikely that Sellal was amused by the CNDDC’s response to the apparently sympathetic measures the government took in seeking to bolster employment and provide jobs for the police services. To this proposition, Tahar Belabes clearly responded: "The jobs recently created by the police and offered in the South do not offer a concrete solution to the problem of unemployment in the region." This statement effectively indicates the CNDDC’s refusal to accept the government’s shortsighted vision and signals their desire to keep a safe distance from official symbols. This stance is hardly surprising given that in Algeria, proximity to political parties often results in the co-optation of individuals and the domestication of radical demands. There is a generalized avoidance of politics, which can amount to a strategic choice. Addad explained: “Refusing to engage in politics can be a tactical measure for certain movements at certain times so that these movements continue to have popular support.” Whether the MCA’s refusal to accept the medals after the Coupe d’Algérie was tactical or merely ungracious is open to debate, but regardless, it has not been a good month for the Prime Minister.
While it would be tempting to claim that the rambunctious nature of football boulitique represents a political charge spearheaded by the youth, to do so would certainly be problematic. After all, police soon dispersed the crowds in Algiers by closing off the main throughway of Didouche Mourad as well as Place Audin, and most residents of Algiers seemed to be relieved that a relative calm would soon return to their city. Perhaps most tellingly, with the absence of Bouteflika, there seem to be no signs that economic or political slogans were chanted at the stadium. Yet, if boulitique is unlikely to change the political system, the successful recuperation of la politique also seems doubtful. Whether the CNDDC is able to provide a successful oppositional mobilization – a feat that remains particularly elusive in Algeria – remains to be seen. To fully appreciate the challenges, one needs only to think back to the experiences of la coordination nationale pour le changement et la démocratie (CNCD), an oppositional coalition made up of unions, associations, political parties, and other groups, which was created on the heels of the widespread protests in January 2011. As Layla Baamara recounts, however, supporters soon found themselves divided, and the group fractured between CNCD-Barakat  and CNDC-Partis Politiques. For the moment, pervasive fragmentation, distrust, and corruption underpin the logics of social movements in Algeria. These factors also explain the denial of the unemployed movement to don the jersey of la politique at their next protest. For them, the colors of Green, White, and Red remain the best defense against being declared hors-jeu.
 “Barakat” means “enough” in Algerian Arabic, reflecting the fact that this group chose to concentrate on social initiatives and awareness raising rather then aiming for a change in the political system.