[This article is part of a special bouquet on the interrelationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and social mobilization in the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States. Click here to view the entire listing of entries.]
One of the iconic moments of the Algerian Hirak occurred on 11 March 2019. The peaceful revolution had begun in February, and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would not be running for a fifth term. A young man who we now know to be Sofiane Bakir Turki responded to a reporter from Sky News Arabia on the streets of Algiers. She was not only asking the wrong questions (are you celebrating the departure of Bouteflika?) but also using the wrong language (Fusha). Her repeated interruptions asked him to speak in “Arabic.” His response was poignant: this is our Arabic, and we are not celebrating. They (i.e., all the members of the regime) should go, Yetnahaw ga3. This subsequently became the rallying cry for the movement.
The narrative of Algerian history and politics in the official media often follows this script, seeming out of touch with the realities on the ground. Discussions focus on stale “memory wars” or insist on well-rehearsed lines of inquiry. The Hirak, which is a broad social movement and not an official political organization, engaged with Algerian history to denounce official narratives and create a “usable past” in order to construct a better future. Protestors also displayed the humor that is characteristic of Algerian political satire creating a rich lexicon of political contestation.
That was before COVID-19. As cases first emerged in Algeria at the end of February, the regime immediately seized on the pandemic to put an end to the Hirak and close down avenues for expression and dissent. Algerians were forced indoors and their creativity and channels of expression moved onto online platforms. The regime responded with a typical lack of imagination. The authorities blocked Maghreb Emergent and RadioMPost in April. In May, the much-loved satirical website “El-Manchar” ceased publishing due to the atmosphere of repression. As the regime has not only put pressure on media outlets, but also arrested an increasing number of Algerian journalists, activists, and citizens, the ground of protest has shifted, but the Hirak has not disappeared.
In late March, a new media format emerged on the Algerian scene: pirate radio. Abdallah Benadouda, who has lived in the United States since 2014, began Radio Corona International (RCI), a podcast that is available on Soundcloud and has a Facebook page. With thousands of followers, the episodes are both cheeky and profound. Benadouda points to Radio Caroline, the British offshore radio station created in the 1960s to circumvent the monopoly BBC, as a model. He also insists that Radio Corona International does not claim to be the official radio of the Hirak, but rather tries to “carry the flame” until the movement can retake the streets.
While radio is clearly a different manner of occupying public space, the choice of airing two episodes a week adopts the temporality of the Hirak, which featured bi-weekly protests in the country (on Tuesdays and Fridays) before the times of COVID. Fayçal Sahbi, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Oran, reports on music–covering the heroes (and heroines) of Rai in addition to other topics. According to him, the Hirak protests become a “kind of ritual for many, and a point of reference (repère) for some.” He continues: “Certain relationships and dynamics were possible thanks to the Hirak. The actors sought a public space that could be a refuge or alternative [in order] to continue this quest for a community of ideas and hope. RCI was one response to this need, even without intending to be."
Meryem Belkaïd, an assistant professor at Bowdoin College who contributes a chronique on cinema, notes that RCI is not the only such initiative. She also portrays the RCI as one way of continuing the revolutionary work of the Hirak. The format of a podcast offers more freedom than other outlets, she says: “It allows us to tackle about topics that other media can’t talk about if they wanted or won’t because they are close to the regime.” This resonates with Sahbi’s feeling that RCI’s episode on Meryoula (the “liberatory” or even “libertine” woman featured in Rai music), or the regime’s instrumentalization of Rai in the face of Islamism, would not have been possible in traditional Algerian media.
In the episode that aired on 31 July, Belkaïd reflected on the Algerian documentary Fi Rassi Rond Point (A Roundabout in my Head) by Hasan Ferhani. The wonderful film recounts life in a slaughterhouse in Algiers and documents the feeling of physical and emotional entrapment of Algerians. The work testifies to a more general social condition as well as the political and spatial forced immobility of the population in the time of corona. It was also particularly fitting for the subject of the podcast, which was a special episode for Eid dedicated to the theme of sacrifice.
The topic of sacrifice would likely have become a stale repetition of patriotic tropes in the hands of an official news outlet. But when adopted by RCI it becomes a charming and authentic tour of various subjects: personal anecdotes regarding the sacrifice of sheep, the history of Algerian football (focusing on the legendary player Hasan Lhmaz, nicknamed el-kebch or the ram), to René Girard (both the football coach and the theorist of sacrificial violence) and ending with a recounting of the story of Electra–told in Algerian Darija. The music spans from Umm Kalthum to the Algerian rapper, Diaz. As listeners send in their Eid wishes, they often say a word of support for the détenus d’opinion–those who have been jailed for their political opinions. A special mention is often expressed for Khaled Drareni, the journalist who was sentenced to three years in prison on 10 August on the pretexts of “inciting an armed gathering” and “endangering national unity.”
Yet it would be misguided to present the Algerian media landscape as a bleak space dominated by ENTV that features state propaganda. Since the 1990s, the possibility of accessing non-state-run media outlets–including cable TV–contributed to the rejection of official discourses. Moreover, as these channels came into Algerian living rooms, they fashioned new subjectivities and engendered new forms of resistance.
The connection between the media field inside and outside Algeria has another layer of complexity. Given that some of the contributors to Radio Corona International live in the diaspora, I asked Belkaïd if this split had influenced the reception of the podcast. She responded that the Hirak has exposed how “many things have shifted in the country” and said that rather than asking themselves questions about who has the right the act, the diaspora has “a responsibility to act, since our colleagues and fellow citizens are jailed or risk prison.” The alleged split between Algerians in the interior and exterior of the country is another division , she pointed out, that the regime has exploited for its own purposes–much like its crackdown of protestors carrying the Amazigh flag during protests.
The voices of Radio Corona International often mix references in multiple languages–Berber, Fusha, Darija, French, English. According to Sahbi, this occurred in a natural way: the founder Abdallah Benadouda used to work for Francophone Channel 3 and so it was more natural for him to animate the first episodes in French. “But it was a ‘reclaimed’ French, Algerianized,” Fayçal notes. “The public was mostly Francophone, which made things easier. But the more we continued, the more we felt the need to open ourselves to the question of language to not give the impression that we were ‘sectarian.’ At the beginning, the only chronique in Arabic was a parody that explained a single word used in a speech of Gaïd Salah. Since that time, we have [aried] around three or four episodes in Arabic (also Algerianized), and the mixture works pretty well I think.”
It is true that when listening to RCI, one feels that they listening to a conversation rather than consuming a piece of packaged media. “One of the many reasons I believe the Hirak is a revolutionary movement,” Belkaïd explains, “is because it allows us to be who we are, to be reconciled with all the facets of our identities.” Indeed, the content of the podcast is incredibly varied. Medhi Dahak analyzes the past and present of Algerian football, Salah Badis reflects on literature, and Sihem Abbas covers psychiatry. Some episodes feature an intra-generational conversation, for example when Mehdi Dahak spoke to his father, Bachir Dahak about the latter’s book entitled Les Algériens: le rire et la politique de 1962 à nos jours (“The Algerians: Laughter and Politique from 1962 to Today”). Another episode with Asma Benazouz featured a conversation about the Dark Decade, reflecting the need to transmit a painful history in the context of the official government policy that has insisted on “turning the page.”
All of these topics echo the deep-seated desire to recount one’s own history rather than have it recounted by someone else. To define oneself rather than being defined. Radio Corona International speaks to a refusal of the passive tense; a refusal that is communicated in many languages. As Belkaïd concludes, “There is no conscious policy other than being who we are and speak our truth.” Frantz Fanon once remarked that radio had the power to create national communities and that listening is not only a form of consumption, but rather an act of constitution. While Radio Corona calls itself the “radio of the end of the world,” it reminds us that another world is indeed still possible.
 Ratiba Hadj-Moussa, The Public Sphere and Satellite Television in North Africa: Gender, Identity, Critique (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018).
 Algerian immigration to France began in the early twentieth century and increased during the First World War. This created a diaspora with immigrant subjectivities even as nationalist figures like Messali Hadj (as well as the FLN’s chapter in France, known as the FLN) were central to Algerian independence. During the war itself fighters were divided between those stationed inside the country, and those stationed outside, leading to a rivalry that was only temporarily resolved at the 1956 Soumamm Charter, which stressed the primacy of the internal struggle despite the eventual hegemony established by the “army of the borders” (stationed in Tunisia and Morocco) led by the Second Algerian President, Houari Boumediène. During the early years of independence the notion of hizb frança (“party of France”) emerged, which is a pejorative term used to denote those who are French-speaking and potentially put the political interests of the former colonial power before those of the Algerian nation.
 The “Dark Decade” refers to the violent conflict that occurred in Algeria in the 1990s that some have referred to as a civil war. Bouteflika’s policy of national reconciliation attempted to bring closure to these events by offering amnesty to those who committed violence. This also prevented a credible account of the state’s involvement and families who had membered “disappeared” continue to seek justice for these crimes.