How Algeria's non-violent protests challenge regime narrative of 'armed resistance'

How Algeria's non-violent protests challenge regime narrative of 'armed resistance'
Comment: Algerians' non-violent protest is also a challenge to a state-controlled memory and identity based on violent resistance, writes Ahmed Zakarya Mitiche.
6 min read
24 Apr, 2019
Protesters in Algeria have kept up pressure on the regime since Bouteflika stepped down [AFP]
The Algerian state has often defined itself through a narrative of glorious violent resistance to French colonial rule, since 1962. But the nonviolence of the current Algerian protests, more than just a tactical strategy, is beckoning a radical reimagining of "Algerian-ness" writ large.

Light green plastic bags of rubbish are beginning to stack high among the white-lime painted trees of Rue Didouche Mourad in Algiers. Teams of volunteer clean-up crews have disposed of empty water bottles, debris, and even empty tear gas canisters from protests earlier that day.

In the face of fully-armored riot police, Algeria's young and old have been seen distributing flowers to security forces during the marches, chanting passionately, "Pacifism, Pacifism!" ("Silmiyya, Silmiyya!"), and "The People, the Army, are Brothers, Brothers!" ("Al-Sha'b, Al-Jaysh, Khaawa Khaawa!"). 

Despite being blasted with water cannon tear gas, the protestors have displayed an unyielding commitment to nonviolence and disciplined protest in the face of provocation.

Mohamed Yacine, a 28-year old cyber-activist and founder of an Algiers-based civil society organisation, told me how protest leaders prevent violent reactions to provocation.

"If a protestor tries to throw tear gas canisters back at security forces [after being fired at], the rest of us would surround the protestor to prevent him from throwing it. The police are under orders - and sometimes threatened by their superiors. The police officers are our brothers too - our fight is not with them."

This tactic has proven successful so far. The protests that began on 22 February 2019, have drawn millions onto the streets, and continued weekly since, accomplishing the unthinkable:
Despite being blasted with water cannon tear gas, the protestors have displayed an unyielding commitment to nonviolence
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of the Republic since 1999, revoked his bid for a fifth term in office on 11 March, and then under continued pressure from the streets, stepped down from the presidency after being declared medically unfit to rule on 2 April.

Millionaire crony capitalists affiliated with the president were arrested on corruption charges that same month, and on 5 April, the director of the internal security apparatus was sacked. More importantly, cleavages within the regime's internal divisions - especially within the military and security apparatuses, the President's cadre, and the military, have worked to the protesters' advantage.

That it was non-violent protests that have produced so much in such a short space of time, may come as a surprise to many, considering stereotypes around the country's political history.
Police officers use water cannon on protesters as they demonstrate against interim president Abdelkader
Bensaleh in Algiers, Algeria on 9 April, 2019 [Anadolu]

Afterall, Algeria is the "country of a million martyrs", as glamourised in Gillo Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers, and is inscribed into the annals of radical history as the Mecca of revolutionary resistance, where members of the Black Panthers established an international office, and where the late Frantz Fanon set his seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth.

Thirty years following the anti-colonial revolutionary struggle, the country was again visited by a traumatic violent episode, after an overwhelming parliamentary victory for the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut prompted a military coup and the infamous Black Decade.
The regime used the narrative of glorious violence as justification for its actions

James McDougall, historian at the Univeristy of Oxford explains that these memories of violence are not organic, but are rather systematically inscribed into Algerian social memory by the state, as it seeks to identify an essential Algerian "authenticity",

"The 'authenticist' vision offers a history of sacralised struggle in which the recourse to violence is not a legitimate, if tragic, strategy… but [rather] the only means of struggle, the heroic continuation of a perennial historic mission in defence of the community's "essential self," rooted in the memory of martyred ancestors and promised to the fulfilment of a utopian destiny."

Read more: Revolution and repression on the streets of Algeria

Following 132 years of French settler-colonial rule, including seven years of revolutionary struggle leading to independence, the nascent Algerian state sought ways to develop a coherent "structuring principle" around which to build an authentic Algerian national identity.

It found one in the revolutionary struggle of the independence war, and proceeded to engrave it into the social memory of the nation through education, culture, place-naming, monuments and the writing of history itself.

During the mass protests of 1988, trade union marches sparked a mass movement that led to the state's first open parliamentary elections, a subsequent military coup, and eventually a civil war that claimed the lives of 200,000 civilians.

This violent period, while directly traumatising for an entire generation, was used to reinscribe the notion of violence as an essential component of Algerian-ness. The regime used the narrative of glorious violence as justification for its actions (sometimes legitimate, sometimes repressive) in the ensuing turbulent period, and as part of its celebration of the reconciliation and 19-year state of emergency that followed.

This new thinking challenges the sclerotic notion of an Algerian social memory beholden to the glorified violence of the independence generation

This reification of violence, of course, is not the sole prerogative of the Algerian state, but is rather a characteristic of all modern nation states.

However, it held particular salience in the Algerian context where two major experiences of war created a ready audience clamouring to decolonise the French-imposed historiography, establish national unity and develop a meaningful common heritage to deal with lingering war-related traumas.

While it is certainly true that the contemporary movement's incessant avowal to resist all provocations to violence is a hard lesson learned from the Arab Spring as the most effective means towards democratisation, it also operates as more than just a strategy.

For the protesters, radical non-violence is also a challenge to the state's hegemony over historical memory - a historical memory built around the independence generation and the glories of violent resistance. Yacine echoed this observation,

"The first lesson we have learned from the 22 February [movement] is that when we are peaceful, united and dignified, we change ourselves as well."

While the political objective to remove the ruling class in its entirety is clear - "Système dégage!" ("Out with the system!") - a more proufound revolution is taking hold. This new thinking challenges the sclerotic notion of an Algerian social memory beholden to the glorified violence of the independence generation, and of violent resistance as the sole, authentic, means for contesting power.

Through the radical nonviolence of the movement, protestors are re-appropriating and updating the old revolutionary maxim, "Un seul héros; le peuple", "One hero; the people."


Ahmed Mitiche is a former Fulbright scholar and current graduate student in the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies program at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on social and political mobilization in North Africa, religious discourses, and the effects of the War on Terror. 

Follow him on Twitter: @azmitiche

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.