For scholars and analysts of Algeria, this is both a fascinating and worrying time. Many of us have an emotional connection to the country and personal attachments to friends and colleagues involved in the Hirak. Many of us are also anxious about the possibility that state violence might undermine the widespread demand for peaceful change. We remain glued to the news cycle, as the political crisis unfolds before our eyes and the presidential election planned for 12 December 2019 approaches.
Moments of acute struggle and/or rapid change offer a unique perspective from which to understand the making (and unmaking) of social orders. The multiple scalar effects and temporalities at work, the dialectics of change and stability as well as of domination and resistance, offer almost infinite insights to understand the critical process. Admittedly, political crises also provide a new platform and relevance to much of our work and opinions. The media (both mainstream and alternative), as well as some government agencies, turn to us for expertise in order to identify opportunities and threats. In a period of crisis, researchers not only gain a rare feeling of political relevance. They also benefit from resources distributed by the securitizing machine. For all these reasons, political crises are both an intellectual and material opportunity.
Nevertheless, analyzing an unfolding political crisis is a challenging endeavor. The situation is often fluid and marked by uncertainty. Far from systematically inaugurating groundbreaking political futures and challenging the status quo (both ideologically and materially), a crisis often pushes actors and observers alike to revert to conservative behaviors and entrenched ideas. Any real-time diagnosis is therefore necessarily precarious and shortsighted, based on partial insights and shaped by prejudice. In the case of Algeria, my own bias is obvious: I have long been critical of the regime’s contempt for its population and strongly supportive of the Hirak’s call for a constituent assembly and the demilitarization of politics. Yet the desire to be relevant can also lead experts to repeat the epistemological violence that has long been a characteristic feature of Western-based knowledge production on the Global South. Hugh Roberts’s “The Hirak and the Ides of December,” published in November 2019 on Jadaliyya, illustrates some of the shortcomings associated with the analysis of a political crisis in real-time. In it, the Algeria specialist focuses on the current situation in Algeria to identify and explain an alleged failure of the Hirak to propose a coherent revolutionary alternative to the regime.
Reading A Critical Configuration
Let me be clear: There is no question regarding Roberts’ profound understanding of Algeria. His recent article provides us with many key insights into the chameleon nature of the regime, the place of the army within it, and the way in which the Hirak has amplified indisputable popular feelings. Yet his central claim is that the Algerian Hirak lacks both political vision and concrete goals, which for him explains why it has allegedly failed to position itself as a genuine revolutionary force. He contends that the movement missed an occasion to negotiate a “historic compromise” with the army. Instead, it has increasingly made negative and unspecific demands that do not—in his eyes—constitute a political program.
To advance his argument, Roberts relies on a series of questionable claims. For example, in describing the early days of the Hirak, he argues that it had a precise and constitutionally-grounded objective: the rejection of Bouteflika's fifth term. For Roberts, this is precisely the kind of clear political and legal referent that has been missing after Bouteflika’s forced resignation in early April 2019. Yet this characterization is only partially accurate. While the fifth mandate was clearly an essential catalyst for mobilization, the movement echoed much broader social and political claims. From early on, slogans targeted the 'isaba (all those associated with the fifth mandate, but also the systematic mismanagement and embezzlement of public wealth). Protesters did not only reject Bouteflika's candidacy but also denounced those who had plundered the country. Certainly, Algerian protestors strategically appropriated the constitution to make the case against those who they claimed had confiscated political power. Yet, the constitution was also widely viewed as a document that had been repeatedly trampled on by the regime in order to legitimate the confiscation of the first revolution (the struggle for independence). In contrast to political discourses in the United States, Algerians do not view the constitution as a sacred document. Only the people and the nationalist struggle against the French are sacred references in the eyes of all.
In his analysis of the situation, Roberts fixes his attention on the political elites and the institutional context. This allows him to critique the Hirak’s orientation following the initial months of protest. He laments that the movement pushed for a constituent assembly and a “second republic” when nothing proves that such a republic will be “massively superior to the actual Republic.” While focusing on concrete institutional arrangements, he misses a wide-spread subjectivity in Algeria. For the vast majority of the population, the current framework is a mere “démocratie de façade,” a cosmetic democracy manipulated by the bureaucratic-military apparatus. Legal scholar and longstanding regime critic Madjid Benchikh has repeatedly explained why this institutional framework has no legitimacy whatsoever. Over the past decade, electoral processes have been increasingly experienced as a slap in the face of the population. From this perspective, any second republic would necessarily be superior to the current one, at least initially. This claim is not rooted in its institutional mechanisms, but in the fact that a healthy polity requires some level of trust in its institutions, something that the current republic cannot provide anymore.
Perhaps the most questionable of Roberts’s claims pertains to his assertion that the Hirak “has not been objectively revolutionary at any point. There is not a revolutionary situation in Algeria.” His diagnosis is based on the alleged absence of a dual-power situation in Algeria, as the army is seemingly the only “real” political force. This view is questionable for many reasons. First, it is a simplification of Charles Tilly's argument regarding “dual power,” which is just one normative aspect of a revolutionary situation. Tilly states that “a revolutionary situation begins when a government previously under the control of a single, sovereign polity becomes the object of effective, competing, mutually exclusive claims on the part of two or more distinct polities.”  It is then up to the observer to determine if they want to use this theoretical apparatus in a flexible or rigid fashion. Clearly, Roberts prioritizes the second, which serves his purpose. But one could also contend that the Hirak indeed represents a second “polity” that formulates competing claims, exercises sovereignty in the streets of the country, and has received the support of various parts of the state apparatus (e.g., the education and health systems, parts of the judiciary, and local officials). Moreover, an exclusive and rigid focus on the notion of “dual power” serves to elide many other aspects of the revolutionary situation identified by authors as diverse as Trotsky, Lenin, Gramsci, Arendt, Skocpol or even Tilly himself. Divisions within the regime, its inability to produce cultural hegemony, the discrediting of political authorities, the “suffering of the masses” and their continuous mobilization—all of these elements that led to the peaceful uprising of 2019 suggest a revolutionary situation. It is the privilege of the expert to focus solely on the factors that confirm their unidimensional interpretation of the crisis.
The Only Game in Town
Arguing against a revolutionary situation has important consequences. In Roberts's view, what matters is the outcome, even if Tilly clearly states that “a revolutionary situation can occur without a revolutionary outcome.” The fall of Bouteflika, the massive expression of dissent, the outspoken denunciation of state brutality, and the re-appropriation of the public space become mere milestones on a pre-determined and limited trajectory. If this is not a revolution, it is because the protesters committed a number of errors. They should have acted differently, been more realistic. Roberts notes that “In the absence of a revolutionary situation, the most the hirak could realistically hope for was a significant reform,” reassert the role of “public opinion,” and demand “better behavior” from the ruling elites.
Such analysis is necessarily constrained by the pre-conceived democratizing framework of many social scientists. Good governance, reform, intra-elites compromise, respect for institutions and the constitution, not to mention the organization of elections, are all recurring themes. This appears to be the case not only for Roberts, but for many experts who have pronounced a judgment regarding the revolutionary movements that have shaken the Middle East over the last decade. Despite much criticism since the early 2000s, this theoretical apparatus of transition and democratization has nonetheless survived.  And with it come a number of pre-established milestones and an obsession with a particular outcome that shapes (and distorts) analyses of the political process shaking the polity. 
To advance the framework of democratic transition, the expert must make concrete proposals. In Algeria, Roberts emphasizes the need for a historic compromise between the army and opposition elites. At this point, he has no other choice but to turn reality on its head, since the conditions for such a discussion have been absent from the beginning. Roberts suggests that the Hirak should have persuaded the military to accept a deal. In other words, a fundamentally leaderless movement should have appointed representatives to negotiate with a military oligarchy whose illegal political activities have been constantly driven by self-interest and paternalism. Moreover, this discussion should have happened at the very moment when the army's chief of staff Ahmed Gaïd Salah launched a crack-down on protesters, which was legitimized by the paranoid securitizing discourse that has long been characteristic of the regime.
The elites which Roberts identifies as supporting such a compromise are also telling. Abderahmane Hadj Nacer, for example, represents a group of technocrats whose influence is based on their previous position in the regime and their defense of liberal and reformist ideas. But they are elitist and have no political constituency whatsoever. Abdallah Djaballah is certainly one of the most credible figures of Algerian Islamism, yet, his political party is hardly a meaningful force and its geographical reach is limited. Moreover, Djaballah is now opposed to the elections scheduled for December 12th. Finally, the acting secretary of the National Organization of the Mujahideen, Mohand Ouamar Benelhadj, has taken courageous positions in defense of imprisoned protesters, but he remains the non-elected interim leader of an organization that has offered unwavering support for Bouteflika throughout its tenure.
Roberts' proposal is at odds with the program advanced by many of the figures and movements that have opposed the Algerian regime over the last decade: Bouchachi, Tabou, Belabbes, Djilali, Bencheikh, RAJ, FFS, PST, LADDH, Jil Jadid, autonomous trade unions, CNDDC, and others. The expert has long lamented the failure of the Algerian left and the superficial nature of its democratic commitment. His critique is partly true and many activists share these concerns. Yet, as Roberts seeks to offer guidance in the form of a proposal validated by his expertise, he progressively re-legitimates the bureaucratic-military apparatus that has confiscated much of the polity's political power and economic wealth since independence. His presentation of Ahmed Gaïd Salah is charitably incomplete. As the army’s chief of staff, Gaïd Salah was a key enabler of Bouteflika's presidency for life. He also enjoyed his own network of corrupt associates, embodied by the widely-despised Baha-Eddine Tliba and Amar Saadani—the second of whom is still free and enjoying various privileges. It is pointless to review the track record of the remaining members of the bureaucratic-military machine, but it is difficult to accept Roberts’ claim that they enjoy a “moral high ground” or that they are “more plausible” agents of reform. How can a regime that has sought the support of Putin and the Emirates against its own people, and which has failed to reform the country for some forty years, be either of these two things?
The framework of democratic transition used by many experts studying the Middle East is both unrealistic and uneven. Its expectations (participation in institutional politics, intra-elites consensus, adoption of a liberal constitution) are normative and ethnocentric. It is almost impossible for the actors on the ground to meet these expectations, and therefore to be “genuinely” democratic and “truly” revolutionary. Consequently, it seems like only the authoritarian machine can win. Undoubtedly, a political crisis calls for a diagnosis, and experts are continuously asked to formulate necessarily short-sighted opinions. Yet, while a revolutionary process may last for decades, these well-informed observers proclaim its success or failure after a couple of years or, in the case of Hugh Roberts and Algeria, ten months. This contributes to the prevailing catastrophism that shapes discourses on the Middle East, and allows for the articulation of reformist endeavors, securitizing policies, and foreign interference.
Experts and Their Silenced Others
Roberts has built his framework over more than four decades of close engagement with Algeria and the Middle East. His critique of the “abstract” call for a constitutional assembly and of the “negative” focus of the emancipatory project associated with Algerian nationalism, as well as his observation of an absence of dual power in Algeria were already present in his Battlefield (2003). He highlighted what he views as the Egyptian Kifaya’s lack of positive agenda in a 2005 report published for the International Crisis Group. He later repeated this critique in an article for the London Review of Books, in which he lamented “the radical absence of republican political thought in the societies of the region.” From this perspective, Roberts's repeated argument are similar to the one proposed by Asef Bayat in Revolution without Revolutionaries , even though their different expectations lead them to diverging conclusions regarding the nature of the 2011 uprisings.
While left-leaning secular actors are often disappointing to Roberts, Islamists such as Djaballah in Algeria seem to better correspond to the strategic and intellectual framework he has built over the past decades. Rather than adapting to the changing situation on the ground, this framework leads him to formulate value judgments. Indeed, once experts have acquired enough expertise, they can renounce the objective of learning from their object. Instead, they often dictate the strategic, realistic, opportunistic moves that should be followed. This leads to a responsibilization of local activists, from Kifaya to the Hirak, whose shortcomings explain the “failure” of their movement. Roberts thus argues that by failing to make a deal with counter-revolutionary forces, Algerian activists have proven to be unable to deliver the expected outcome.
Consequently, several problems arise. First, there is the brutality inherent to a discourse that blames the victims rather than their tormentors. Indeed, it is important to recall that the latter are responsible for thousands of killings, arbitrary arrests, suicides, cases of police brutality and torture, in addition to mercilessly plundering their own country. Second, the expert benefits from the stability of a framework unchallenged by the reality of the crisis. In his piece for the LRB, Roberts can thus wonder about the reasons that led the Muslim Brotherhood into the trap set by the Egyptian army. But what is missing here is the very simple and essential fact that actors who are making these decisions do not enjoy the privilege of a stable unchallenged theoretical framework. The “miscalculations” of the Brotherhood in Egypt are a direct consequence of a situation of overwhelming uncertainty, danger and volatile public feelings. Unlike the expert, actors on the ground walk on shifting sand, and a single “mistake” might lead to their death after years in solitary confinement. There is indeed something utterly preposterous in the act of telling revolutionaries what they should have done. Despite all our expertise, the hundreds of books we have read and the many articles we have written, we do not possess the most important capital to formulate such a judgment: experience. The expert cannot understand and speak for the revolutionary. Sympathy for a cause does not excuse the false transparency once denounced by Gayatri Spivak .
Experts distance themselves from the field in order to simplify reality and respond to the demands of their audience (notably the state and the media). Drawing on preexisting frameworks allows them to deliver the goods as expected. But in this process, they run the risk of silencing activists on the ground who are seeking to find a way out of the crisis. In formulating his critique of the Hirak, Roberts must effectively ignore any diverging voices. For example, when he claims that the rejection of the presidential election is the “only focused element in the hirak's stance” (JAD), he neglects the series of claims formulated by the Forces of the Pact for the Democratic Alternative in September. This coalition of opposition figures also advocates for the liberation of political prisoners, the independence of the justice system (a demand supported by most legal practitioners), and the opening of the media (especially the public sector). Similarly, when Roberts argues that Algerians have failed to outline the constitutive principles of the Second Republic, he overlooks the fact that many of those who support a Second Republic have agreed that it should start by moving away from the presidential system since the early days of the Hirak. In general, far from being vague and disorganized, the Forces of the Pact for the Democratic Alternative have started a process of self-organization at the local level —despite the arrests and considerable bureaucratic obstacles. Lastly, rather than clashing directly with the army, protesters have clearly made a distinction between the military oligarchy and the institution itself (jaysh shaab khawa khawa, wa Gaïd Salah ma'a el-khawana).
In short, the expert is often tempted to speak for local activists without listening to what they are actually saying. Robert’s reliance on his entrenched diagnoses and the pre-packaged framework of democratic transition ultimately leads to an oversimplistic and patronizing representation of a grassroots mobilization. Despite his deep knowledge of the region, he also legitimizes the strategy of re-ordering implemented by the regime. In the process, he silences those who have been fighting for the same secular system based on “freedom, justice and dignity” for which he himself has advocated. In conclusion, as a counterpoint to the expert’s circumlocutions (both myself and Roberts), this piece will give voice to a dear friend and revolutionary who has been imprisoned since the end of September. Algerian political prisoners will start a hunger strike on 10 December to demand the end of their incarceration and express their rejection of the elections.
A Letter from our Brother Hakim Addad (1 November 2019)
“From the Prison of El Harrach to Algeria
Strength, honor, and respect to the people who, since this wonderful Friday the 22nd of February, march for a new, free, democratic Algeria, where justice and equality will be a reality.
On this Friday the 1st of November, even behind the walls and bars where I am held with my friends and comrades, we remain free men. And I am convinced that the same applies to our prison-mates Samira and Nour El Houda, held captive by force in a nearby location. Outside, we resisted; we are doing the same in here, where we are forced to remain momentarily. We have full confidence in our revolutionary and peaceful Hirak, and in you who are outside. In you, the youth, and in you, elderly men and women.
I want to salute you, the countless lawyers, and journalists, prison guards and prisoners in El Harrach, who are maintaining a vivid link with the outside world, with real life. I also want to salute you with all my soul, you who march on Friday and Tuesday, men, women, students who are protesting everywhere in our vast country, and you, Algerians and friends of Algeria from overseas, who do the same on Sundays. I salute your passion that maintains alive our dream of Liberty and Justice. Our dream of Dignity.
I send my salutation to you, activists and leaders, in parties, associations, leagues, trade unions, and collectives, to you my colleagues of the Pact for a Democratic Alternative, to you who are marching steadily, in symbiosis with our peaceful and revolutionary Hirak. I hope, I know, I am confident that you will continue to translate politically and without duplicity the dream of our people. The dream to see the advent, maybe tomorrow, surely by the day after tomorrow, of a civilian state, based on the rule of law, and on equality, starting with gender equality. A state where the institutions have a meaning, starting with the idea of justice.
To you, my friends from everywhere, to you, my fellow travelers, to you, my mother, to you, my partner, to you, my deceased father, to you, the apple of my eye, my children, believe in the strength of my determination and those of my fellow inmates. As long as you continue to march, outside and everywhere, before December 12th and after Friday December 13th, you will reinforce our conviction. You will prove that we were right to oppose the regime, to protest, to march peacefully, without hate or desire for revenge, before the 22nd of February and after. We were right to demand an Algeria worthy of those who started the Revolution on November 1st 1954 and who led to our independence, wich was the first necessary step.
Lastly, to you, my fellow inmates, who are like me detained for political reasons, wherever you are in Algeria, to you great Lakhdar Bouregaâ: RESPECT!
See you soon, always! Have a great Friday of Liberty. I embrace you all.
Hakim Addad, political prisoner.”
 Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution, (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1978), 192.
 Ibid, 193.
 See for example Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy, (13:1, 2002), 5-21.
 Michel Dobry, “Les voies incertaines de la transitologie : choix stratégiques, séquences historiques, bifurcations et processus de path dependence,” Revue française de science politique, (50:4-5, 2000), 585-614.
 Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield: Algeria, 1988-2002, Studies in a Broken Polity, (London: Verso, 2003).
 Asef Bayat, Revolutions without Revolutionaries: making sense of the Arab Spring, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).
 Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Cary Nelson & Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Macmillan Education: Basingstoke, 1988), 271-313.