If what has been happening in Algeria since February 22, 2019, may not be a revolution, it very much looks like it.
On March 11, 2019, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s President since 1999, renounced his bid for a fifth mandate and postponed the upcoming presidential elections. After three weeks of peaceful yet massive demonstrations, protesters forced the presidency to put an end to an absurd situation. The incapacitated president is not able to govern. He is not the man holding the nation together. He is merely the symbolic head, the framed picture (le cadre) used by a cartel that controls the state. And the people want the fall of this gang (e-cha’ab yurîd îsqat al-‘isâba). Is this a revolution?
Both conjunctural and structural, a revolution brings together many lines of flight. It is a combination of events and movements that break the monotony of the polity. An election that was won in advance thus becomes the occasion for a tide of rebellious bodies to flood the streets. In Algiers, Annaba, Oran, Constantine, Boumerdès, Béjaïa, a “peaceful and civilized” (silmiya wa hidariya) mass has broken the continuum of the never-ending democratic transition that had been appropriated by the regime.
Some lines of flight end in chaos. The popular uprising of 1988 is perceived by many Algerians as the first Arab spring. It forced a reconfiguration of the system of domination, with the adoption of political pluralism, freedom of association and the birth of a dynamic and critical private printed press. It was nonetheless met with violent state repression. The once revolutionary army shot at protesters, killing hundreds. The dramatization of national politics led to the electoral success of a messianic Islamist party (the Islamic Salvation Front), a military coup to prevent the Islamists from running the country and a bloody civil war. More than 150,000 Algerians perished during the Dark Decade.
As the polity was re-ordered, the regime created a hard-segmented world. It aimed at capturing its subjects, ending their flight, entrapping and disciplining them. Privatization was key. After the end of the war, the cartel that controls the state benefited from high hydrocarbon prices. Cronies made fortunes in imports, public construction, as well as in the drug and food industries. National wealth was plundered, public companies privatized, the welfare state undermined. To control popular anger, the regime drew on an ever-growing police apparatus. It offered an alternative between a suspended catastrophe (the repetition of the civil war) or a security-based order embodied by an old man. The youth was trapped, suffocating. Many tried to find their way out through illegal migration. Many died in the sea. Last November, protesters were already in the streets, denouncing this ongoing catastrophe.
Lines of flights move across the organized space of the state to subvert it. Algiers, the capital, was considered to be fortified by anti-terrorist measures, but it is now flooded with joyful and peaceful citizens. The gerontocratic power is hiding, on the very edge of death. A youthful power, popular, sparkling, all-encompassing, is chanting in the streets. Spokespersons of the regime once depicted a childish people in need of discipline. Now the people are jubilant and mature. The government is criminalized. Algerian flags are subversive. The national anthem is once again revolutionary.
All the multiplicities that made the polity are undone and rewoven. For more than twenty years, the cartel constituted around Bouteflika, the army and the technocratic elites formed an heterogeneous coalition. Now, it is falling apart. Members of the ruling FLN are quitting their party and the national assembly. Abdelmajid Sidi Said, the leader of the main trade union (the Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens) and a fierce supporter of the regime, is challenged by his own troops. The National Organization of the Mujahideen, which once revered Bouteflika as a veteran of the war of Independence, is now backing the protesters. Meanwhile, the people, this fantastic creature that had been objectified by the regime, has come back to life as a united multiplicity, a collective body. The youth, this heterogeneous social class, started the movement. It has been joined by parents, workers, middle-class urbanites, Islamists to form a powerful cross-generational, cross-sectoral, cross-ideological movement. Protesters repeat an old revolutionary slogan: one hero, the people (un seul héros, le peuple). If it is not a revolution, it very much looks like it.
Lines of flight come from inside the polity. Some of them were born in the South and the High-Plateaus region. Far away in the Algerian hinterland, rioters have defied the police state for more than a decade, testing its limits, undermining its authority and forcing it to redistribute a portion of the wealth that was stolen. In the Sahara, social movements trumped the narrative of the suspended catastrophe by organizing peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins. Since the Black Spring of 2001, Kabyle activists have relentlessly defended their culture and their pride while portraying a government of assassins. There is no forgiveness, they said (Ulach Smah Ulach).
Lines of flight also transcend the fixed limits of the nation-state, and connect the rhizomatic polity with other spaces, bodies, experiences. Unruly Algerians traveled across the Mediterranean. They traveled without a visa and burned their passports. Their exile was often already a form of defiance. The current movement is also connected to other uprisings. Algerian protesters learned from the Arab revolutions of 2010-2011. They use similar slogans. They are committed to clean the public space to demonstrate their sense of responsibility, as did their fellow Egyptian revolutionaries in Tahrir. Some influences are unexpected: one of the first messages calling for a massive mobilization on February 22 featured a yellow vest. Transcending the national limits is also a question of solidarity, as leader of the Moroccan Hirak movement, imprisoned Nasser Zefzafi, expressed his supports for the peaceful uprising in Algeria. Mobilized against Omar al-Bashir since the end of 2018, Sudanese protesters also express their solidarity with the Algerian people. These lines of flight will continue to leak, infiltrate and subvert. Soon, Algerian, Moroccan and Sudanese dissidents will inspire others.
Bouteflika will go, but the regime is already trying to capture these lines of flight. It is promising a transition, announcing the constitution of a government, and replacing widely hated Prime Minister Ouyahia with less tarnished figures (former minister of Interior Bedoui and former minister of Foreign Affairs Lamamra). The revolution might not end how you imagine, but it is here. The revolution exists as a qualitative moment, the result of converging desires that the order cannot contain. Constituted in the revolutionary instant, the Algerian people desire dignity (karama). They proclaim to the world that they deserve respect. It is true: they are poised to sack their president in a way “democratic” people only dream of.
The peaceful uprising that started on February 22 is still facing major hard-segments. The regime will try to control the transition to its advantage, as it has done for 20 years. In the name of preventing a budget crisis, international institutions will push for economic restructuring. The Army and the police will remain pillars of the state. But a revolutionary movement is not to be determined solely by its outcome. A friend recounted that older people joined the crowd in Algiers waving Algerian flags made in 1962. The revolution is a celebration of resistance. It is also a revenge. This one is a beautiful, peaceful, self-organized revenge. It is a revenge for the Algerian people after a decade-long civil war, and for those who endure a similar violent re-ordering, in Syria and in Egypt.