It's been one hell of a year for Algeria. Ongoing protests, political corruption, and AFCON glory. Maher Mezahi explains the story of how Algerians overthrew their nation's president, and became kings of Africa.
Friday mornings are quiet in Algiers. Prayers take place within mosques in the early afternoon before families kick off their weekends with enjoyable strolls along the Mediterranean.
Morning silence on the 22nd February, however, was different. It was eerie, and only pierced by mosque loudspeakers around the capital – this time acting as a harbinger for political protest, not leisure.
Rumblings of a democratic, anti-government protest had been floating around online for a while – ignited by president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for an unprecedented fifth term, despite his poor health. Bouteflika had not made a public appearance in a year and had not addressed his people since 2012.
Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets chanting: “There won’t be a fifth [term], Bouteflika”. The country collectively held its breath; the gathering had violated a decree which banned protests in the Algerian capital, and simultaneously dissolved a culture of fear.
“The majority of protestors were young men. Some of them looked like football supporters, and when they started singing a football song, one of the older guys told them ‘now isn't the time’” explained Zahra Rahmouni, an independent journalist that documented the first protest.
In the following weeks, anti-government protests grew and became ever more diverse as Algerians from all walks of life rallied together to oust Bouteflika. Eventually, they succeeded.
The result led to interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, taking charge until elections could be organised in 90 days time.
Algerian stadia as places of political protest
Football supporters’ role in initiating the protests did not come as a surprise. For decades, Algerian stadia have been hotbeds of political expression.
"Starting in the 1980s, and with the collapse of socialism, the football stadium became an arena for political mobilization."
Dr. Mahfoud Amara, Director of Sports Science at Qatar University
As the ultra-movement in Northern Africa has grown, so too has criticism of the region’s governing forces. Fans use art, in the form of tifos and songs, to demonstrate their opposition. In Algeria, USM Alger’s ‘Ouled El Bahdja’ are renowned for being the most political.
“One reason why I like USM Alger is their supporters hit you with songs," explained one supporter before the Derby of Algiers last March. "Their lyrics are bullets.”
Two of Ouled El Bahdja’s songs resonated heavily during the protests: ‘La Casa Del Mouradia’ and ‘Ultima Verba’. The first chronicles Bouteflika’s four terms, and paints his premature fifth in unfavourable light:
"In the first [term], they tricked us with 'reconciliation',
In the second [term] it became clear: 'La Casa del Mouradia',
In the third [term] the country suffered due to personal interests,
In the fourth [term] the puppet died and the problem remains.
The fifth [term] is coming, they’ve already set it up.”
The second is based on a poem, penned by the celebrated French author, Victor Hugo. The chorus goes:
”Freedom, freedom, freedom, the Kop is singing.”
One of Algeria’s biggest up-and-coming artists, Soolking, recently teamed up with Ouled El Bahdja to rejig a few verses and published his own version of ‘Ultima Verba’, entitled ‘Liberté’.
To date, the song has over 130 million views on YouTube and was heard from every street corner in the country during the months of April and May.
A politically conscious squad
It was in this charged socio-political environment that the Algerian national team prepared for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. A few months before the tournament, coach Djamel Belmadi spoke to beIN Sports about the political protests, which had been dubbed the ‘Hirak’ ('movement'):
“You can only congratulate the Algerian people because they are doing great things. We hope things will change for the better. It’s on us to give as much joy as possible.”
“Sport and politics are very closely linked in Algeria.”
Djamel Belmadi, Manager of the Algeria national team
Vice-captain Yacine Brahimi also spoke favourably of the Hirak to France24: “Of course we are paying attention to what is happening, it’s extraordinary.”
Nottingham Forest midfielder, Adlène Guedioura, would later draw parallels between the Hirak and Algeria's performances in Egypt: “The Algerian people have been an example for the entire world, with their peaceful protests these past months. We wanted to give them this cup. In this AFCON, we have [also] been exemplary, so it’s a kind of Hirak for us.”
Same old problems in France
Over the last decade, Algerians from the diaspora, such as Belmadi, Brahimi, and Guedioura, have been integral to Algeria’s success. Karim Ziani, Madjid Bougherra, Riyad Mahrez, and Sofiane Feghouli are all examples of players born in France who have gone on to become heroes for Les Fennecs.
As Algeria bulldozed their way through the group stages – scoring six goals and conceding none in the process – Algerian supporters in the diaspora began to celebrate.
Celebrations in Canada, England, and Belgium were seen as funny or, at most, a slight inconvenience. In France, however, Algerians celebrating on the streets stoked tension as rumours of violence, looting, and carelessness were published.
Trigger-happy media outlets were quick to pin the blame on rowdy Algerians in Montpellier when a mother was hit and killed, and her young baby critically injured, in a tragic car accident. It was only a few days later that it emerged the reckless driver was in fact not a supporter of the Algerian national team.
The building tension led to far-right politicians of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party tweeting their support for Algeria’s opponents, Nigeria, before the semi-finals. Julien Odoul tweeted: “To prevent the continuation of violence and looting, to avoid the tide of Algerian flags, to preserve our national holiday…trust the 11 Nigerian players!”
Le Pen also personally commented after the Nigeria match, calling Algerian supporters a ‘barbaric hoard’ and described what transpired after Algeria’s matches as ‘shocking’.
“It is only in France still that the raise of the Algerian flag is problematic,” Dr. Amara reflected, “particularly for the far-right movement to consolidate their political and populist narrative about the over-visibility of Islam in France.”
Adam Ounas and Riyad Mahrez nevertheless appealed for supporters to celebrate ‘humbly’ and in a ‘dignified manner’, before hitting back at right-wing politicians on the pitch.
After netting an historic free-kick in the final seconds of the semi-final – to send Algeria through to the Africa Cup of Nations final – Mahrez quote-tweeted Odoul:
“The free-kick was for you. We are one.”
Scoring political points
The current Algerian interim government is seen as illegitimate by large swathes of the population. This owes largely to the fact president Bensalah was appointed by the ousted Bouteflika himself. Bensalah has also overstayed his mandate – which expired on July 9th – after elections could not be organised in time.
Despite the ongoing upheaval, the progression of Mahrez and co. meant that Algerian politicians were looking for a way to associate themselves with the on-field success.
The Ministry of Youth and Sport subsequently subsidised thousands of flights and match tickets in partnership with local travel agencies. This meant 19 chartered flights from the national airlines, and a further nine military aircrafts, transported thousands of Algerians to Egypt, visa-free.
On the eve of the AFCON final, Bensalah seized his chance to embed himself within the success, and snagged a photo opportunity with the team during their visit to the Royal Maxim Palace Kempinski in Cairo.
It was later reported that the Algerian federation were irritated by the visit on the eve of a final. Further, the Algerian federation president reportedly fell out of favour with the current regime, to the point where he was excluded from the national team’s photo with the interim president.
Despite the lingering malaise between authorities and the national team, the relationship between supporters and players only grew stronger.
Hundreds of thousands of Algerians lined the 18 kilometres that separate Houari Boumédiène international airport of Algiers and the People’s Palace. They came from all 48 provinces, clad in green and white to welcome home and thank their footballing heroes.
Sirens in the distance signalled the arrival of a stampede. Dozens of black BRI jeeps and police motorcades cleared an ever-converging crowd while fans set their gazes upon the double-decker bus. It carried the 23 players, all of whom returned their infectious love. If they weren’t heroes of the people before, they certainly were now.
Guedioura later perfectly captured how everyone felt when he tweeted: “Communion”. It was in those ecstatic moments, of communion, that every Algerian came to understand the unifying power of the beautiful game.
Follow Maher on Twitter @MezahiMaher