Naked Punch Talks To Sociologist Amel Ouaissa About Her Experience As An Algerian Living In The Diaspora And Her Take On The Hirak.
Qalandar Bux Memon: Let us begin with questions regarding the movement or the protests themselves. What was your experience participating in these protests? Why did you and others protest? What were the demands of the protestors?
Amel Ouaissa: The protests in Algeria started on February 22, 2019. I remember that a couple of days before, I spoke to a friend on the phone who is well-connected in the cultural scene in Algeria. He told me that the atmosphere in the country had changed, and that people were fed up with then President Bouteflika; they were infuriated at the prospect of him running for another term. Then, a couple of days later, people went out onto the streets, they were protesting peacefully, the movement would later be referred to as ‘revolution of smiles’. The protesters were dancing and singing, they picked up fan chants sung by the Ultras in the football stadiums who in Algeria have a long tradition of political activism that dates back to the period of colonization.
When I saw the pictures of hundreds of thousands of people in the street, I felt exiled. I remember at that time I was working on a festival dedicated to Edward Said’s concept of ‘counterpoint’ here in Berlin. Thus I could only get to Algeria on March 18 which was the fourth week of the protests. As many others in the diaspora, I wanted to be part of this movement. It was the first time in decades that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country organized, mobilized and marched together towards a common objective.
Naturally, I worried that violence might occur. After all that’s what happened when the Algerian people protested against the economic plight and political oppression in 1988, which we know, was one of the triggers of the decade-long war of the 1990s. Violence also occurred in 2001 when Kabylians demonstrated against the socioeconomic conditions and demanded the recognition of Tamazight as an official language.
Despite this fear, we protested together. In Algeria and in the diaspora. Here in Berlin, the Algerian communities organized weekly demonstrations on Sundays. So, for several weeks, the demonstrations would be held on Fridays in Algeria, on Saturdays in Paris, where a large part of the Algerian diaspora lives, and on Sundays in Berlin. I found that incredibly invigorating.
QM: We see in a lot of recent movements that women are at the forefront, for example, although for specific reasons, in Sudan. So what was the role of women in these protests or in this movement in Algeria?
AO: The question of the women’s role is often raised in Europe in regards to movements in the so-called ‘Global South’. Now, in the case of Algeria, it was clear that the protests had created a space where inner-societal problems were now publicly debated and re-negotiated. We have to look at the question of the role of women in Algeria in a broader light; Algerian women were an essential part of the first revolution, the anti-colonial revolution against France. Then in 1984, with the controversial adoption of the ‘Code de la Famille’ they had their legal agency taken away from them and transferred to their male family members. They were downgraded to second-class citizens. So, the Hirak was the opportunity Algerian women had been waiting for to renegotiate their place in society. They did so by organizing and collectively participating in the demonstrations, particularly in the big cities, to claim visibility in the public space. One example is the ‘carré féministe’, a collective of feminist women who would be very present throughout the protests. There was an incident where some of the women were attacked by male protesters who destroyed their signs and accused them of dividing the movement. This, among other things, sparked a broader discussion in which many men emphasized their solidarity with the feminists and Algerian women in general. That’s only one example for the public debates that accompanied the protests.
QM: Could you walk us through the progression of the protests? Do you think the revolution has been successful? If so, how successful? What limitations has it shown to have?
AO: The first very tangible demand was that Bouteflika shouldn’t run for a fifth presidential term. The movement succeeded in getting this demand fulfilled. Bouteflika stepped down and Abdelkader Bensalah became interim President until elections were held against the will of the people in December 2019. Abdelmadjid Tebboune who is considered part of the old establishment has been president since then.
People asked for a complete transformation of the Algerian political system which, as of yet, hasn’t happened. Since March 2020 there have been contentious and ongoing debates about whether or not the Hirak failed. Even though there is no leader to have emerged to streamline this movement into an organized political opposition, many important changes have been achieved. Thanks to activists who are very experienced in grassroots work, a sound infrastructure for debate and for people coming together was put in place. What was remarkable is that people of different social classes and cultural backgrounds (Arabic and non-Arabic identifying Algerians) came together, thus not allowing the government to use their standard methods to divide the population and prevent nationwide mobilization. That’s a very important achievement.
Now, with the pandemic, the protesters have made the responsible decision to suspend the demonstrations and to focus on the non-bodily dimension of the Hirak, its immaterial and ideological strength as a popular movement that is going to endure. Intuitively, I would, of course, say this pandemic was the worst thing that could have happened to the Algerian popular movement, it weighs heavily on the mind, on the mind that seeks liberation in particular. Yet, as an optimist - as an activist I have to be optimistic - I find solace in the fact that the Algerian people have learned again to speak with one voice and I do believe that we will continue to do so.
Amel Ouaissa is Research Associate at the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss. She holds a master's degree in Sociology from the Freie Universität Berlin, with her research interests focused on Sociology of Education, Postcolonial and Decolonial Theories, Feminist Theory, and Societal and Political Transformation in the MENA region.
Photograhy by Lydia Saidi