Panem et Circenses?

Text & Photos ·· Karim Sayad 
Published ······ Online, November 2014
Section ·······  Current Affairs

Algeria in 2014

Algeria today is at a turning point. Being the biggest Arab-African country, Algeria has undergone many transitionary periods in its history, and once again, the country is seeking to find its own identity in an ever more complex world. Despite the struggles and hardships of daily life, the Algerian youth did not experience the same revolutionary momentum that swept neighbouring countries over four years ago.

Governed since its independence by an old political elite unable to satisfy its younger population, the Algeria of today exports solely oil and gas while importing everything else. The regime casts its people in total darkness, leaving them to fight for the few resources that are provided to them. The few voices daring to denounce the incompetence of the political power are either co-opted, ignored, severely defamed by people benefitting from the system, or silenced by the security forces. The political climate is a heavy one, and the permanent presence of the security apparatus strengthens the feeling of control of the regime over its population.

Following the outbreak of the “Arab spring” in 2010-2011, and despite strong discontent amongst the population, numerous Algerians were sceptical about the outcome of the uprisings. Algeria is widely seen as the first country to have had its revolution in October 1988, and the price people paid for it was beyond measure. It accomplished no real change. Rather, it led to a catastrophic civil war: one that remains an open wound for an entire country, still traumatised by 10 years of terrible violence. The youth wants change, but they know better than anyone the risks that come with a violent opposition to the regime. The latest developments in Libya, Mali, Syria, and Egypt confirm their fears. The health of President Bouteflika, who was re-elected for a new term despite his old age and following another show election, as well as the absence of any credible political alternatives, raises numerous questions concerning the future of the country.

January 2011 demonstration for democratic change in Algiers

Sport and politics

From the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, perceived as a manifestation of strength for Putin’s Russia, to the Black Panthers’ power salute in Mexico in 1968, the sports arena has been an ongoing field of battle between political forces and protest movements – and Algeria is no different. In this context, football calls attention to interesting aspects of the relation between the Algerian youth and the overruling political power. The regime instrumentalises football to strengthen its international prestige and to divert the youth's attention away from its inability to satisfy their basic demands. This instrumentalisation, however, is in sharp contrast with songs sung by fans of local teams, who go to the stadium every weekend to insult the regime during the entire game. “You sold the country, we will destroy it!” “Fuck the State!” “You the cop, with a truncheon in hand, a whore can make better use of it!” are all examples of songs sung each weekend in stadiums all around Algeria.

French researcher and sociologist Youcef Fatès describes this phenomenon remarkably in his book Sports and politics in Algeria. Fatès says that the politicisation of sport can be found easily in the different uses made by Algerian authorities as well as by civil society. The government manipulates and assigns to sports tasks such as education of the youth, and the strengthening of Algeria's international exposure and prestige. From the youths’ perspective, however, sport is transformed into an effective medium for expressing demands and entitlements as well as a way of communicating with the political power. Through football, the stadium becomes a new paradigm for political expression. 

Thus, stadiums become one of the few remaining places where the masses can freely and legitimately gather. It is a place that the State itself fears attacking. As a space of verbal and physical opposition to hegemony, the stadium assembles within the same territory both the oppressor and the oppressed, while at the same time representing a place for entertainment, allowing the youth to interact and forget the struggle of their daily lives.

Mouloudia of Algiers vs Jeunesse Sportive of Bejaia, Algiers, Jan 2014

From the World Cup…

April 2014 saw the tragicomic re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth term as President of Algeria. Old, unable to walk nor speak in public (his last public speech was given in spring 2012), his re-election was sarcastically commented on, through various social networks as well as in the press, by a number of citizens voicing their discontent against what was perceived as an insult to the dignity of the people.

Algeria’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup, followed by their remarkable performance, was like a godsend to the regime, which seized the opportunity to divert the population’s attention from the bad image left by the presidential election and the numerous scandals of corruption.

After Algeria’s qualification against Burkina Faso (19 November 2013), the President congratulated the national team: “Once again, the Algerian people inside and outside the country are celebrating a national triumph. Fans will rejoice in full ecstasy after this brilliant and well deserved victory of our national team against our brothers from Burkina Faso in a competition where both teams observed fair play for this qualification for the World Cup 2014 in Brazil”. The populist campaign of self-glorification ‘from the regime, to the regime’ could begin.

The Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal paid a visit to the national team before their departure to Brazil. In a press release from the Algerian Football Federation, he urged the players to act as an example to the Algerian youth. "Know that all the people are behind you, and encourage you no matter what the circumstances. Be yourself, have fun, and be united."

Poster of the national Operator Mobilis, Algiers, Nov 2014

The “Inter-sectoral coordination of preparation of the travel of the Algerian fans,” formed by representatives from the Ministry of Sports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Algerian Federation of Football, the National Direction of National Security, as well as the national airline Air Algérie offered all-inclusive packages from €3,000 to attend Algeria’s first three games in Brazil – for those who could afford it. Since Algeria qualified for the second round of the tournament, the state-owned mobile phone operator, Mobilis, also joined in, offering the opportunity to Algeria fans in Brazil to attend the game against against Germany.

The players’ brilliant progress at the 2014 World Cup further facilitated the regime's instrumentalisation of the national team: rather than the usual negative international headlines of terrorism, corruption, and immigration, millions of Algerians in Algeria and in the diaspora were given a rare occasion to be proud of their country. The regime now had the opportunity to present itself to the world positively, and this led to further interesting initiatives.

Algerian fans celebrating the qualification to the second round, Lausanne, Switzerland, June 2014

As the 2014 World Cup coincided with the month of Ramadan, which every year sees Muslims all over the world fasting throughout the month,, the historical qualification of Algeria to a second round in the World Cup began to raise serious religious issues. The final game in the round of 16 between Algeria and Germany was scheduled at the time of the last compulsory prayer (Al 3esha), and the supererogatory prayers of Tarawih, which posed the moral question of how to watch the game during prayer time. The Ministry of Religious Affairs decided, therefore, to issue a fatwa allowing the people to delay the prayers until after the game!

Although defeated, the national team were greeted in Algiers like heroes. The euphoria around their return illustrated the real momentum of this manipulation. Hundreds of thousands of people welcomed the heroes, who toured in a double-decker bus on the streets of Algiers. The national team was received by Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the Presidential palace, the ceremony was broadcasted live on Algerian State TV, and a rumour quickly spread in the press and across social media networks that the Algerian players were going to donate their World Cup money to the people of Gaza, who were undergoing the terrible Israeli operation “Protective Edge.”

The president of Algeria also publicly intervened to ask the president of the Algerian Football Federation to renew the contract of coach Vahid Hallilodzic, who was leaving the national team after the World Cup. The “souvenir” picture of the team with the president closed this godsend momentum for the regime with a caricatural metaphor (watch the video at 1:48) of this young country led by old men: all the players of the first rank of the picture were asked to crouch down to appear at the same height of the President, seated in his wheelchair in the middle.

to the local championship

For the dedicated fans of the Algerian local teams, often organised around ultras groups who animate the crowds in local stadiums every weekend, the World Cup and the regime’s sensationalising of football was not experienced in the same way.

In fact, some fans of the local teams were considering that, as the majority of the players playing for Algeria were born and raised in Europe and have never even lived in Algeria, the team could not pretend to represent the country. “The players are lucky to play with Algeria, and they only were allowed to do it recently because football has changed! Now you can play with France with the under 21 years old selection and then decide to play with Algeria when you realise that you will never be asked to play on the French World Cup because competition within the team is too big. These players made this choice for their careers, not for the country! And instead of building new stadiums and thinking of a real strategy to develop local football and local players, the authorities go take players trained in France by France with huge cheques instead of doing the job here!”  says Bilal, an ultra from Algiers.

MouMoloudia Algiers vs JSK game, Algiers, Oct 2014

Furthermore, the songs sung by local fans in local stadiums are not of the same nature as the famous “one two three viva l’Algérie” which was sung by the whole country in June 2014. Instead, the motto “Bab el Oued chouhada” (martyrs of Bab el Oued), in honour of the victims of the demonstrations which ended the single party system in Algeria on the 5th of October 1988, is sung each weekend throughout stadiums in Algiers. The lyrics of the song “Roma wa la ntouma” (Rome rather than you) also sang in Algerian stadiums, inspired the title of Algerian filmmaker Tariq Teguia’s first feature film, “Seaman, give me your boat to leave Africa, I prefer Rome than this country.” After the events in Tahrir Square, which led to Mubarak’s downfall in Egypt, Algerian football fans diverted the famous motto “The people want the fall of the regime” into “The people want hash for free!” The tragicomic re-election of President Bouteflika also inspired a meaning-infused banner in April of this year. The weekend after the election, a group of fans of a local Algiers football team, unfurled a banner which read: “Congratulations to the people who decided to change the President’s throne”. The banner sarcastically plays on the double meaning of the Arabic word koursii which means throne, while alluding to the wheel chair of the re-elected President.

“We hear songs that would not be tolerated by the regime during demonstrations,” says Amine T., fan of one of an Algiers team. “We adapt raï songs for example (Algerian popular music). We keep the melody, but we change the lyrics to make it sarcastic. Our songs are always dealing with the latest political and economic events that we criticise in our way. We speak about politicians, security, or terrorist attacks…We do not differentiate between the actual leaders and the extremists of the Islamic Salvation Front. We also criticise the high cost of living as well as privileged people living in “Club des Pins” (one of Algiers richest compounds), who send their children to study abroad while the Algerian youth lives in misery without any prospect of employment. To be a part of a crowd makes us forget our fears. We know that the police will not do anything in the stadium, although they would arrest us if we were singing the same things in the streets. The stadium is the only place where we can express our rage,” he continued. The stance of the regime for the sake of the national team during the World Cup is, in fact, inversely proportional to their abandonment of the local football scene. Regularly, violent incidents between fans from rival local teams lead to interruptions of games and sanctions against the clubs. Stadiums are old and often badly maintained. The 5th of July stadium (Algiers’ biggest stadium) was closed since the start of the 2013-2014 season, following the death of two fans who fell after the stands collapsed.

Anniversary of Mouloudia of Algiers organised by Mouloudia’s fans, Algiers, January 2014 

Furthermore, the recent tragic assassination of the young Cameroonian player from the Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie team, Albert Ebossé, is a reminder to the regime that the performance of the national team at the 2014 World Cup cannot hide the underlying socio-economical problems of the youth to international opinion. Albert Ebossé was killed in August 2014 by a stone most probably thrown by a “supporter” of his own team angered after a defeat at a home game in Tizi Ouzou. This tragedy, which illustrated the level of violence still underlying Algerian society and the inability of the regime to control the violence in the stadiums, eliminated any hope that Algeria would host the African Nations Cup in the near future.

Football fans: “tools of the regime” or new political actors?

Bologhine Stadium in the distance, Algiers, October 2014

So does the stadium only represent a way of diverting the youth from concrete political action? Or does it represent a kind of new political involvement and a reappropriation of politics by the Algerian youth, with all its contradictions and dramas?

Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was a fervent football fan, once stated that “Football is used to divert the youth from arguing. It is used to hold the workers. It is used not to do the revolution, like Franco with the corrida.”  This opinion seems to have been well understood by the Algerian regime as illustrated with the above-mentioned examples. The use of the “panem et circenses” policy, which mainly consists of hope in the ephemeral glory of some football games and how they may make the people forget about the regime’s lack of legitimacy to govern them, represents one of the many tools of the Algerian authoritarian rule.

Pasolini also added: “sport is an important phenomenon of civilisation that it should not be ignored or neglected by the ruling class and intellectuals.” The mistrust of the Algerian people in its political elite, and the manner in which it prevents them from participating in the political arena, made ultras groups one of the last opportunities for some youth to adhere to an organised structure, which will allow them to express their frustration publicly and confront physically the regime. Ultras groups constitute therefore an outstanding barometer of people’s concerns and political aspirations.

At the regional level, the implications of ultras from local Cairo teams in the various demonstrations during and after the Egyptian Revolution, the numerous Arab ultras groups singing for Palestine in the stands, and the allusions made to the actual regional events by ultras in stadiums seems to confirm this fact. These many examples show the need for the youth to find new ways to independently express their frustrations when authoritarian regimes continue to violate the right of the people to freely express themselves, in Algeria, and across the region.

Born and raised in Switzerland to an Algerian father and to a Swiss mother, Karim Sayad holds an MA in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies of Geneva. He has previously worked for UNDP in Algiers and for the Swiss based NGO Alkarama before deciding to become a documentary filmmaker. His first short documentary "Avancer l’arrière" was screened in 2012 at the «Journées cinématographiques d’Alger  in the Algerian short films competition. He is now working on his next documentary project on football fans in Algiers.