George Orwell writes that “every joke is a tiny revolution.” According to the “superiority theory” of humor, laughing from a marginal sociopolitical position at a dominant power is liberating, empowering, and even subversive. It capitalizes on degradation and ridicule which symbolically reverses hierarchical divisions and strips the dominant discourse of its semblance of authority. The recent Algerian protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term illustrate the way comedy can be used as a strategic medium for political subversion. It marks a continuity of a long history of Algerians’ use of comedy as a form of resistance against repressive political and military agents and violent extremist groups, particularly during the colonial period and the civil war of the 1990s.
When the eighty-two-year-old Bouteflika, who has ruled the country for twenty years since 1999, declared his decision to run for the presidency last February, hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets saying, “no to the fifth term.” Starting on 22 February, these popular protests across Algeria’s forty-eight cities (wilayas) adopt the slogan “silmiya” (peaceful) to describe their non-violent movement against Bouteflika’s re-election. Equally, protesters are calling for the rejuvenation of the political system of the dominant party (FLN) that has monopolized the political power since Algeria’s independence from the French colonial rule in 1962, and that is believed to be behind the orchestration of Bouteflika’s candidacy.
Armed with jokes, humorous banners, and slogans, Algerians have been demonstrating for the past five weeks, determined to alter the political status quo through laughing for dignity. They labeled their pacific movement “The Smiling Revolution.” While it is arguably early to ambitiously categories these protests as a “revolution” as the political crisis is still unresolved, Bouteflika bowed to public pressure by relinquishing his bid for a fifth term and postponing the presidential election on 11 March. The Algerian protests are particularly reminiscent in their festivity and recourse to resilient humor of the Egyptian uprising of 2011 which was critically termed “the laughing revolution” (al-Thawra al-Daḥika). This highlights the strategic function of humor and its relationship to dynamics of power and democracy in the contemporary Arab region.
A “Country of the Absurd”
What characterizes the current leaderless, popularly-organized demonstrations in Algeria, in addition to their peaceful nature, is the incongruous political circumstances that have stimulated them. The 2019 elections are not free from a sense of absurdity that led one commentator to describe Algeria of February 2019 as “the country of the absurd.”
[Image of a tweet caption by @iswerenfelsi which describes Algeria as “the country of the absurd,” from Isabelle Werenfels public Twitter account.]
The most notably incongruous event was Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term, an invisible candidate whose health crisis since his 2013 stroke has prevented him from directly addressing the Algerian people. This led many observers to describe him as “the president who does not speak.” One banner from the protests reads: “you are not God to be believed in without being seen”; another says, “Error 404, president not found.” Bouteflika’s presence during official national occasions had been usually substituted by his gold-framed picture, which provided a rich ground for many “cadre” (frame) jokes by Algerians who expressed their refusal “to vote for and be ruled by a frame.”
One of the major figures who has exacerbated the unusual context of the elections is the notorious activist and presidential candidate Rachid Nekkaz. The Constitutional Council of Algeria refused to accept Nekkaz’s bid because he previously held French citizenship. Defiantly, and using his documents which bear the endorsement of thousands of his supporters, Nekkaz presented his Algeria-based mechanic cousin, who has the same name, for candidacy instead. Through a Facebook live stream, Nekkaz urged the Algerians to vote for his double who, if he wins, would amend the constitution, appoint the real Nekkaz as his vice president, and then step down allowing him to rule. Nekkaz ironically commented that nominating his cousin, whom he described as “roue de secoures” (spare tire), is a strategic back-up plan to respond to the ruling party’s nomination of a “dead person,” in reference to Bouteflika.
In a satirical article entitled “5 Reasons to Vote for Nekkaz (the Mechanic) on April 18,” El-Manchar, a popular comedic digital platform, extends the satire even further by urging the Algerians to vote for the mechanic cousin because the country has been “en panne” (broken down) for twenty years. The article jokingly states that it is the first time in history that the people of a country are forced to elect an object, having the choice between either “the frame” (Bouteflika) or “the spare tire” (Nekkaz’s cousin). In a subsequent Twitter post, El-Manchar admits that Nekkaz is “beyond parody.” Nekkaz’s candidature becomes an emblem of the absurd in a supposedly democratic political system that has been fraught with incongruities.
Mocking Power, Together
The Algerians’ use of humor as a medium of expressing dissent came as a response to these theatrical political circumstances. The Algerian street has witnessed an outpouring of jokes used as strategic non-violent forms of demonstration to speak truth to power. Social media outlets burst with comedic memes and political jokes directed towards the figure of Bouteflika and his clan (publicly known as le pouvoir–the power). Protesters comedically twist public official speeches, draw grotesque political caricatures, exchange vulgar jokes on government officials, and launch a flood of prank calls targeting the Geneva University Hospital (HUG) where Bouteflika was undertaking “routinely medical checks” (until 10 March). The majority of the political jokes are centred around the themes of Bouteflika’s invisibility, his health crisis, the symbolism of the number five, and the infamous frame.
The most subtle characteristic of the protesters’ humor is its capitalization on a plurality of references ranging from digital jargon, popular culture, historical references, and global consumer culture, which are not only re-appropriated but ideologized. For instance, popular brands are adopted to express the rejection of Bouteflika’s fifth bid; one banner reads ‘‘Only Chanel can be N°5,” in reference to the popular designer perfume. Another banner reworks the American cigarette brand Camel, a term that means “all” in darija, and says “the people are Camel (all) against you, your system is the cancer of this country.” Reference to American politics is also present. A banner emulates the famous Barack Obama “Hope” poster, from his 2008 presidential election, bearing Bouteflika’s picture and a caption that reads “No, You Can’t.” Literary references have also been spotted in the demonstrations. While Bouteflika has been addressing the protesters through a number of letters mediated on national television on his behalf, one protester held a banner that reads ‘‘the letters we have been receiving from Bouteflika are more than the letters that Khalil Gibran sent to May Ziade,” alluding to the futility of the official response whose rhetoric attempts to play on national emotions. This plethora of references can be partly attributed to the fact that the protests are youth-led and hence influenced by the dominant culture of the millennia. The popular awareness of the potential international reach of the movement through different media outlets is also a contributing factor in orienting the slogans towards a global, target audience.
The use of humor to communicate and address authority is instrumental in setting the Algerian protests in a carnivalesque mood of dissidence. The complex ethnic structure of Algeria (Arab, Kabyle, Chaoui, Mizab, and Touareg)  and the multilingual character of its population gave way to a myriad of forms of comedic resilience, including banners and chants, public performances, dancing, nationalist anthems, and football songs. These comedic forms constitute an act of transgression which aims at degrading the power that ruled with an iron grip for decades. A banner boldly attests “FLN, it is time to take your place in the museum,” reiterating the former assassinated president and founding member of the FLN Mohamed Boudiaf’s infamous statement on the ruling party. This reclamation of free speech through the use of comedy mainly defies the rigid legal constraints on freedom of expression that targets the state. These constraints were set by The Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation passed and enacted by Bouteflika in 2006, which in addition to granting national amnesty to repentant Islamists, states that “Anyone, who, by speech, writing, or any other act [attempts] to harm the institutions of [. . .] Algeria, to weaken the state, or to undermine the good reputation of its agents [. . .] shall be punished by three to five years in prison.” Fluidly and rapidly transmitted through social media platforms, and thus uncontrollable and untraceable, humor allows the people to publicly and collectively scrutinize the corruption and hypocrisy of the dominant power. It enabled them to move defyingly beyond the unspeakable that is officially constructed and normalized through fear and intimidation.
Equally, this dissident laughter nurtures the protester’s sense of collectivity through subverting socio-political orders, challenging hierarchies, bridging social differences among protesters and providing a collective comic relief. Laughter brought the Algerian demonstrators together by virtue of their shared experiences of tyranny and common target of humor, regardless of their age, gender, and social status. It subsequently creates a form of solidarity, or what the philosopher Henri Bergson in his analysis of laughter describes as a “freemasonry, or even complicity.” Humor thus becomes a politicized act and a national resistance narrative. It acts as a reminder of the existence of popular agency which has been coercively repressed by the dominant rhetoric of peace and stability. However, while the ethical dimension of the popular collective use of comedy urges to be considered, especially regarding the way Bouteflika’s critical health condition and his physical disability are a major subject of ridicule, it suggests the legitimacy of political incorrectness in the face of an oppressive discourse that has been repressing the people’s voice for two decades.
While Bouteflika’s decision to cancel the elections automatically extends his fourth term, demonstrations in Algeria continue to escalate. On 15 March, the fourth consecutive Friday of demonstrations witnessed updated comedic slogans such as, “No to the 4.5 term,” and “Leave, we did not have naps for the past four Fridays.” Indeed, the barriers of reticence and fear in Algeria are being broken through the use of humor. However, it is uncertain whether this laughter will transcend the symbolic, translates into actual political reforms, and eventually brings dignity to the Algerian people. As the outcomes of these peaceful movements remain obscure, no one is sure whether Bouteflika and his clan will democratically attend to the people’s “laughter.”
 George Orwell, “Funny, but not Vulgar,” George Orwell’s Library (1945), http://orwell.ru/library/articles/funny/english/e_funny
 Noёl Carroll, Humour: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
 Elizabet Perego, “Laughing at the Victims: the Function of Popular Jokes during Algeria’s ‘Dark Decade’ 1991-2002,” The Journal of North African Studies 23, no. 1-2 (2017), 191-207.
 Heba Salem and Kantaro Taira, “al-Thawra al-DaHika: The Challenges of Translating Revolutionary Humour,” in Translating Egypt’s Revolution: The Language of Tahrir, edited by Samia Mehrez (Cairo, New York: The American University in Cairo, 2012).
 See Réda Bensmaïa, Experimental Nations: Or the Invention of the Maghreb, trans. Alyson Waters (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003).
 Quoted in Patrick Crowley, ed., Algeria: Nation, Culture and Transnationalism 1988-2015 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), 125.
Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic [Le Rire (1945)], trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 2005).