Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Restless Algerian youth see Bouteflika resign

Algiers, from the Place des Martyrs
In January, I was in and out of sport shops on the main commercial drag, rue Didouche Mouradin, in Algiers, Algeria, when I noticed a group of rough-around-the-edges, Arabic-speaking young men who seemed to be in and out of the same shops.  I mentally upped my "security threat level," watching the guys a little more closely than I was looking at the merch.  At one point, we were all sandwiched in the same small store, to the point that it would be socially awkward not to acknowledge that we'd taken notice of one another.

Turned out we were in and out of the same shops only because we were all looking at the European football kits.  (Always on the lookout for discounted last-season ManC gear.)  Given the opportunity of tight environs, the guys in fact were eager to strike up a conversation and find out who the pale foreigner was.  They confirmed something I had seen repeatedly by that point in my travel in Algeria:  More than their elders, young people's English is good, they are up to speed on global politics, and they want to know why they don't have the same social and economic security and opportunity that they see young people enjoying in Europe, just across the Mediterranean.

A Bouteflika banner flies opposite Le Grande Post.
The fellows were eager to tell me what European football clubs they followed, and what towns they were from and how they lived their lives in Algeria.  They also were eager to tell me about Algerian politics—though hushed their voices when they said that the status quo needs to change, and the older generation's tight grip on leadership needs to give way.  Outside from the city streets, one could look up in any direction to see billboards and banners bearing the smiling face of Algeria's cult-of-personality president since 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

When I came home and people asked about Algeria, I often said: it's teetering on the point of a major transition—which is going to happen one way or another, peacefully, or by popular uprising—because the young-adult cohort, now irreversibly integrated into the world by our globalized information technology, are not content with stalled development and socioeconomic marginalization.

Downtown Algiers, Le Grande Poste at middle left
Naturally as protestors took to the streets in recent weeks in Algiers, I've been thinking a lot about my fellow football supporters.  I see the flag-waving crowds filling the streets around the Old Post Office and wonder whether the guys are there, sporting their favorite kits behind their green-and-white flags.  Now Bouteflika has stepped down, and the government is effectively back in military hands.  The military has a mixed record, at once supporting popular demands for progressive leadership and having a limited patience with protests in the streets.

I hope my fellows are OK, and Algeria can deliver the opportunity that they deserve.  Maybe one day I'll see them in the stands at Santiago BernabĂ©u.

Me on the street at the celebration of the Berber new year

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