Algeria's protest movement challenges the zombies of a colonial past

Algeria's protest movement challenges the zombies of a colonial past
Comment: The Algerian state has built on the country's colonial legacy to distract from the goals of the Hirak movement, writes Ahmed Mitiche.
5 min read
08 Jul, 2019
Algerian protesters stand up to riot police in the capital, Algiers [AFP]

Frantz Fanon described a phenomenon in which the colonised wrongly fixate on imaginary targets - zombies and other superstitions - rather than the actual colonisers who subjugate them, as a sort of collective "deliberate forgetting".

The Algerian mass protest movement of 22 February, known as the Hirak, has shown that the zombies of colonialism in Algeria, however, may in fact be real after all. It has responded to this dying yet persistent colonialism with its own anti-colonial strategies, politics and dynamism. 

The Hirak has been about dignity and freedom, a restructuring of the subject-state relationship, a rethinking of social memory and collective identity, a forging of an ethos of nonviolence and unity, and an ushering in of a new political order.

In many important ways, these projects are squared directly at Abdelaziz Bouteflika's post-colonial and post-civil-war regime, and more recently, Gaid Salah's military "transitional" apparatus.

However, they have also been coloured by a keen awareness of the lingering effects of colonialism and neocolonialism, and an uncompromising commitment to opposing them both. 

The most obvious example of a de-colonial ethos and strategy has been the consistent reference to Algeria's own independence struggle from November 1954 to July 1962.

The Hirak has been about dignity and freedom

Various protest signs recall the beginning of the revolution and its heroes, with protestors from Algiers to Oran holding signs calling the Hirak a "Badis-ist and November-ist movement", referencing the towering intellectual leader of the revolution, Abdelhamid Ben Badis. 

Protest marches on Algeria's Independence Day last Friday also reappropriated the state's version of the 'revolution narrative'.

A new chant that emerged offered a serious critique - and indictment - of the ruling power: "The People Demand Independence!" despite official independence having been declared 58 years ago.

And as one participant told me, "1962 was only the liberation of the land, 2019 will be the liberation of the people." Another held a sign that read, "132 years of colonialism [and] 57 years of neo-colonialism. It's enough!"

A less obvious example of a de-colonial Hirak has been the massive civil disobedience directed at General Gaid Saleh's 18 June edict banning flags other than the national flag from protest marches. 

The edict, meant to implicate the bearers of the Amazigh flag, has been widely interpreted as an attempt to stoke division among different political factions and to recall a sometimes fraught history of debate and even violence around the symbolic meaning of the flag, and Amazighite more broadly. 

While many of the debates around the issue are legitimate and in need of continued consideration for the Hirak and society at large, the history of these debates is contested.

As Algiers-based historian and veteran of the Algerian Revolution, Saleh Berkenou, explained to me, many of the tensions between so-called "Arab" and "Amazighi" were at least exacerbated, if not invented, by French colonial orientalists and anthropologists and their myth of essentially different races of Amazighis and Arabs, and this as an attempt to divide and conquer the subject population.

Algerian state leadership has built on this colonial legacy by co-opting legitimate debate on the issue in order to divert the goals and objectives of the Hirak.

But their efforts have proved fruitless, and protestors from all political leanings emerged en masse last Friday bearing Amazigh flags and chanting "Amazighi and Arab are brothers, brothers!" in the face of police crackdowns and arrests. 

Another recurring theme has been the opposition to foreign, especially French, influence on internal Algerian politics as well as emerging neoliberal policies. One protest sign evoked the beginning of the Algerian revolution against France on Bloody All Saints' Day (Toussaint Rouge) in 1954, with a warning to current President Emanuel Macron:

"Allo Allo Macron! The grandchildren of Toussaint (November '54) are back!"

Elsewhere, protesters are rejecting the "energy colonialism" that has unfairly advantaged European consumption of Algerian natural gas; in 2017, France imported 38 percent of its petroleum gas from Algeria and has long recognised its regional strategic importance. Another protest sign read:

'Hello Macron... Yes, who is it?... It is the Algerian people. Listen, prepare the wood, this year there will be no gas!' - read one protest sign

"Hello Macron... Yes, who is it?... It is the Algerian people. Listen, prepare the wood, this year there will be no gas!"

Demonstrators have noted that this meddling is possible only with the help of willing lackeys - politicians whose careers have rested on the favour and benediction of their French counterparts - calling them 'hizb frança', the Party of France - and indicating their role as agents of neocolonialism, an epithet that preceded the contemporary Hirak. 

In Algiers, for example, protestors have called Gaid Salah a 'chiyat' - shoeshiner - of the Emirates, indicating his subservience to the Gulf state and its US and EU allies.

Another protest sign depicted the country as chessboard, with French, American, and Emirati hands on one side and the hand of the 'cha'b' - the people - on the other.

Finally, the Hirak's solidarity with the ongoing pro-democracy movement in Sudan as well as resistance to settler colonialism in Palestine is a patent example of the anti-colonial nature of the Hirak.

As the Saudi and Emirati backed Sudanese military continues to murder nonviolent protestors in Khartoum and elsewhere, Algerians have pronounced that their solidarity crosses colonially imposed nation-state boundaries.

Similarly, Palestinian flags have been a consistent feature of the marches, a testament to the shared experience of resistance to settler colonialism in both Algeria and Palestine.

The zombies of colonialism in Algeria have been rightly identified and challenged by the Hirak.

With political uncertainty on the horizon following an impressive turnout at the independence day march, the Hirak may be the needed second act to the revolution… the coming of a new, de-colonial movement. 

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.