On 22 February we published the first article of a series of de-centered perspectives on Algeria at the end of Bouteflika's fourth term. The same day, a massive movement of protest broke out in the streets of the country. Rejecting the candidacy of an incapacitated president and threatening a system of domination based on multiple forms of violence, tens of thousands of Algerians demonstrated the resilience of the revolutionary impulse that was the glory of the country in the 1960s and 1970s. It is an understatement to say that this spontaneous mobilization was a surprise—and a wonderful one! In response, Bouteflika had no other choice but to announce that there will not be a fifth mandate and that the elections are postponed. A revolution is in the making, but this does not mean that we abandon our initial project. Indeed, we will proceed with a view of Algeria from Africa, which also invites further reflections on revolution. Re-inscribing the country in an African perspective allows us to better understand the consequences of the loss of the third-worldist impulse. It also allows us to analyze the current revolutionary moment, and competing notions of identity and sovereignty. Much like our previous voyage, we will once again travel with distinguished guests; here, our article benefits from the comments of anthropologist Nabila Moussaoui and political scientist Salim Chena.
The African Revolution
There is no more eloquent analyst of the continental reach of the Algerian War of Independence than Frantz Fanon. As early as 1958, the third-worldist herald argued that “the details of colonial repression (and) the heroism of the Algerian people have awakened and emboldened men and women of Africa.”[i] Of course, Fanon's passionate internationalism soon collided with the reality of the nationalist movement, as the FLN was primarily concerned with state-building after the war. This did not stop the nationalist party from financing the foundation by Jacques Vergès of the weekly newspaper Révolution africaine in 1962, which covered the unfolding national liberation struggles in Africa. In the 1960s, the government supported the fight against imperialism and welcomed revolutionary movements from all corners of the continent and beyond. In 1969, Algeria organized the first Pan-African cultural festival. South-African singer Miriam Makeba delivered a breath-taking performance. After Pretoria revoked her citizenship, she received Algerian citizenship. While Algeria never abandoned its commitment to Pan-Arabism, a Pan-African orientation enabled it to assert itself internationally.[ii]
As demonstrated by the case of Makeba (along with many other revolutionaries during this period), Algerian Africanness is inseparable from a third-worldist tradition of hospitality. The largest country in the continent is de facto a land of immigration and circulation. If its third-worldist vocation has largely vanished under Bouteflika, Algeria remains nonetheless situated at the crossroads of many forms of mobility, notably across the Sahara.
Salim Chena: There are several categories of mobility that cross the Algerian south. Some draw on cross-border familial and tribal links, especially among Tuaregs. For example, the region around Kidal in Mali is closely tied to Tamanrasset. These transnational circulations will sometimes involve cross-border economic activities, whether it is trade or trafficking. They can also include transnational migrants who cross the Sahara to travel north (though not necessarily to Europe). The transporters are often Tuaregs. As for the migrants, they often come from West Africa, and at a lesser extent from Central Africa.
Precariousness and Migrants
Far from being only the country of exile and harga, Algeria is positioned to welcome migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as refugees coming from other parts of the Arab world. After facing the exile of foreigners in the 1990s (principally Westerners), Algeria is once again a country of immigration.[iii] Many bi-nationals coming from Europe have returned to Algeria (along with the installation of European enterprises) and have settled in the north of the country. However, the majority of the migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa. Their arrival is partly a consequence of the progressive development of cities in the Algerian Sahara since the 1970s. This movement has increased since the beginning of the 2000s.
Salim Chena: Since the 1970s-1980s, development projects in the Sahara, largely financed by and linked to hydrocarbon resources, have fueled urbanization and the subsequent need for workers. The construction sector is a major employer of migrant workers, as is food service activities (bakeries, restaurants) and craft. Informal trade and repairing household items in the streets are also sources of revenue. Migrants can thus save some money, for themselves, to finance their mobility or to send to their home country. One also finds Sahelian workers whose migrations are seasonal, as they seek jobs in Saharan urban areas to complement their agricultural income. One should not underestimate the number of students, especially in Southern wilayas.
Migrations coming from sub-Saharan Africa inscribe Algeria into a transnational space where humans, capital, and commodities circulate. At the same time, many migrants are fleeing security and humanitarian crises. The majority thus arrive with the status of asylum seekers, and their situation is precarious, especially on the job market.
Nabila Moussaoui: The main sectors of employment for migrants of Sahelian and sub-Saharan origin are housing construction, which benefits from national projects requested by the presidency, and large-scale public works projects. Most of them are obviously undeclared, as informal jobs remain the main modality of employment. The government has not seriously planned any initiative for the creation of work permits or mass regularization, unlike Morocco or EU countries. We take advantage of this cheap available workforce, but we refuse to grant them any safety net, in the case of a work-related accident, for example. This population has no choice but to accept informal jobs, and to be maintained in a position of illegality.
Insecurity and Racism
The precariousness of migrants is a symptom of the national economic system. As the importance of the informal economy increases the vulnerability of workers, this socioeconomic violence disproportionately impacts migrants from the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa. This is accompanied by forms of symbolic violence, which have been especially pronounced under Bouteflika. Migrants are thus associated with the fear of a terrorist infiltration and a destabilization of the country. More generally, Algeria, like much of the Arab world, has seen the rise of a racist and negrophobic discourse, which signals the gradual collapse of third-worldist solidarity.
Nabila Moussaoui: Sub-Saharan migration has long been ignored by Algerian policymakers. Over the last few years, the high number of arrivals from these regions, who are looking to escape conditions of emergency, has forced the Algerian state to react and acknowledge these unexpected migrations. Society also had difficulties in accepting this “other.” Racist words such as “khalech” or “negraoua” are routinely used to designate their migrants by referring to the color of their skin. Even the prime minister describes these migrants as bringing “their lot of misery and disease to our country.” These words demonstrate the reality of racism at the highest level of the state.
In the tense context of the last five years, which has been marked by political paralysis and the fear of economic breakdown, negrophobia has been on the rise in the Algerian public space. This is especially the case on social networks, where racist trolls lashed out at a Miss Algeria targeted for the darkness of her skin, while others accused African migrants of bringing various plagues (disease, crime...) to the country.
Salim Chena: The depth and complexity of trans-border mobility has often been overlooked. Instead, it has been perceived and managed through the lens of security and misery, even if these discourses seem contradictory. There is also an ancient imaginary linked to the medieval period that serves the construction of the “other” as inferior. These xenophobic discourses have political goals. When elite discourses instrumentalize insecurity, they also legitimate prejudiced depictions of migrants while overshadowing the structural problems that actually fuel criminality in Algeria.
If many Algerians expressed their solidarity with the migrants, the trivialization of racist discourses cannot be separated from the security-oriented routine of the regime. Indeed, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia describes migration flows as issues of national security and public order. These discourses are inherently linked to an effort to re-territorialize questions of migration in the 2000s.[iv] The state has acquired new tools to monitor and control transnational flows of population. In his work, Salim Chena shows how the securitization of migration in Europe was exported and appropriated on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. There, it has been reshaped by specific economic and racial structures. This state of affairs is in stark contrast with the image of hospitality and solidarity once associated with revolutionary Algeria. Malian journalists can thus accuse Algeria of accepting European money to bully Sahelian migrants. In response, regime spokespersons have appealed to a convenient vestige of third-worldism. Indeed, drawing on a routinized defensive nationalism, they have cast these accusations as “foreign manipulations.”
The “Algerian Personality”
To speak of racism in Algeria is also to analyze questions of Africanness and Algerian identity. The question of the Algerian personality (shaksiyya islamiyya) was once central in the anti-colonial struggle, as a way to counter French racism while creating the nation.[v] In the anti-imperialist struggle, Algeria's Africanness was a source of pride and a diplomatic resource. More than fifty years after independence, the idea of a common continental destiny has been discarded in favor a narrow nationalism.
Nabila Moussaoui: Algerians do not feel that they are Africans, which is both alarming and sad. We speak about the migrants as if they were from a faraway land, as if they were different and inferior beings. In general, Algeria should embrace Africa, and an economic approach is not sufficient. We should facilitate circulation of goods and knowledge, and prioritize exchanges between universities (which are few). Algerian society is undermined by identity problems. A real opening towards African culture would allow us to realize that our Algerianness is a form of Africanness. This would be beneficial both politically and socially.
Algeria has a rich history of plural identities: Arab and Berber, African and Mediterranean, secular and Islamic, nationalist and globalized. The process of national construction nonetheless upheld Algerian identity as primarily Arab and Muslim. This was established during the Congress of Tripoli in 1962 and helped construct a vertical and bureaucratic sovereignty. If this narrow definition responded to the necessities of the anti-colonial struggle and (a short-lived) pan-Arab solidarity, one cannot proceed further without returning to Frantz Fanon. Denouncing the arbitrary separation between the “Negro” and the “Arab,” he saw narrow identity struggles as an attempt by the national bourgeoisie to monopolize political and economic power.[vi] This narrowing of the Algerian identity was one factor—among others—that led to the culturalist mobilizations of the 1980s, and the civil war of the following decade. As the national community faced a major crisis, experts, media pundits, and foreign journalists subsequently propagated the image of Algerian society plagued by identity issues and made schizophrenic due to the alleged confrontation between tradition and modernity. These negative and dualist representations have served the reorganization the police state and the staging of a never-ending democratic transition under Bouteflika.
Thus, we return to the current revolutionary movement: since 22 February protesters have started a major symbolic revolution. By repeating their desire to act peacefully and civilly, they are proposing a reinvention of the Algerian personality; they are liberated both from the traps of Boumédiène's vertical unanimity and of the pathological routine inherited from the civil war. The generation born during the black decade is demanding the right to live free from the paranoid framework imposed by the regime. In this context, drawing on the country's Africanness might help us imagine a future liberated from the obsession with security and defensive nationalism.
The Death of Abdelkader El Mali
When Bouteflika was still alive, he linked his own political destiny to an idea of Algeria that transcended the borders of the nation-state. During the Algerian Revolution, he organized FLN operations along the southern borders. He thus earned his nom de guerre, Abdelkader El Mali. He also achieved notoriety through diplomacy: at the UN General Assembly (over which he presided), notably when he offered a tribune to Yasser Arafat in 1974. Lastly, when he ran for president the first time in 1999, the hopes that he would be able to restore the country's prestige were notably associated with this alleged faculty to reconnect with Morocco, which is his place of birth. While the Algerian ruling coalition still relies on international diplomacy, its fundamental strategies have undergone a profound transformation.
Salim Chena: Because of its history and economic weight, Algeria has always played an important role in African institutions, where it has solid allies and occupies key functions. Nevertheless, the place of Sahelian and sub-Saharan Africa in the foreign policy of Maghreb states is mainly limited to narrowly North-African goals. Whether it is Libya, Morocco, or Algeria, each of these states has developed its own African strategy by using their strength and focusing on their national interests. This shows the pervasive disunion between Maghreb countries, which face the Mediterranean and Europe, and are unable to act collectively as an integrated region.
It would seem that revolutionary times are over along with a certain conception of third-worldist and pan-African solidarity. Diplomacy remains state business, but the Algerian state now has different goals. The international projection of revolutionary sovereignty, a transgressive and emancipatory force, has been replaced by a narrow conception of national sovereignty. Unable to transcend the rivalry with its Maghrebi neighbors, this sovereignty has become limited, chauvinist, and Machiavellian.
Thinking about Abdelkader El Mali and Africa together underscores that the living-dead president and negrophobia are two elements of the same system of domination. It is a system that uses racism to articulate a security-oriented bio-power with a circular sovereignty.[vii] In this system, power targets power in order to protect power. All actions must serve the status quo, even if it means squandering a revolutionary tradition based on international solidarity. In this system, the youth is maintained in dégoûtage (the feeling of being fed up) and hogra. Workers live in precariousness. Black bodies are treated like viruses. As for Bouteflika, he has been artificially made to exist among the living. The unbearable has become a routine, in the name of security and the political status quo. It is this system that the Algerian people are now trying to overthrow.
[To read this article in French, click here. Pour lire cet article en français, cliquez ici.]
Salim Chena. Les traversées migratoires dans l'Algérie contemporaine. Africains subsahariens et Algériens vers l'exil. Paris: Karthala, 2016.
James McDougall and Judith Scheele (eds). Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
Fatima Nabila Moussaoui. “Le trabendo ou la mondialisation par la marge.” Politique africaine 137, no. 1 (2015): 117-128.
[i] Frantz Fanon, Pour la Révolution Africaine. Ecrits politiques, (Chicoutimi: éditions de l'UQAC, 2001 (1964)) 170.
[ii] Jeffrey James Byrne, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization and the Third World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
[iii] Mohamed Saïb Musette et Nourredine Khaled, “L’Algérie, pays d’immigration?,” Hommes & migrations 1298 (2012), 54-69.
[iv] Collyer, Michael, “Moving targets: Algerian state responses to the challenge of international migration,” Revue Tiers Monde 210, no. 2 (2012), 107-122.
[v] James McDougall, History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 93-94.
[vi] Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la Terre, (Chicoutimi: éditions de l'UQAC, 2002 (1961)) 151-152.
[vii] On racism as a way to articulte biopower with sovereignty, see Michel Foucault, Il faut défendre la société, 1992, Lecture of 17 March 1976.