Football at the Heart of Algerian Protests, Again

“Tell them they won’t fool us with football. We will attain our liberty no matter what,” chanted demonstrators in Algiers on Friday, July 12, marking the 21st week of the ongoing weekly protests of Algeria.

The day before, the Algerian national football team qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations semifinals, and Algerians took to the streets to celebrate their team’s victory over the Ivory Coast national football team. Yet, less than 24 hours later, they took to the streets again, this time to express objection, demanding for a long-awaited political change.

As football often is, this year’s Africa Cup of Nations proved, once more, mingled with politics, not least because it is held in Egypt. It exerted an unprecedented pressure on the Algerian national football team – even unequal to that of the World Cup –  as the Algerian selection is expected to appease demonstrators back home.

“It is our duty to make [Algerians] happy,” said Djamel Belmadi, the Algerian national team manager, after the quarterfinals qualification on July 7. “The players know they are responsible and they really want to do something for this country,” he added.

From preposterous conspiracy theories of Algeria “buying off” the continental tournament to images of Algerian players celebrating their goals with the military salute —as the contested army heads the country now and seeks to improve the image of it— some fear that the game is maneuvered to placate political objections in Algeria.

Yet Algeria’s elation in the streets after the qualification for the semifinals soon turned into the unyielding Friday protests, leaving no comprise between a football match victory and a months-long disapproval of the Algerian political élite.

“La Casa del Mouradia”

It remains noteworthy that football was, in a way, at the beginning of the Algerian February-22 uprising. The movement’s popular symbols and catchphrases have their roots in stadium chants, long nourished by youth who suffer unemployment and social grievances and can only find their voice at sports venues.

On April 2018, Ouled el Bahdja, a supporter organization of the Sports Union of the Medina of Algiers (U.S.M.A.), one of the most important football clubs in the country, released a song titled La Casa del Mouradia. About a year later, that song was to be intoned in almost each of the Friday protests.

The title of the song is a reference both to the Algerian Presidential Palace, situated in el-Mouradia in the heights of Algiers, and to La Casa de Papel, a Spanish television series featuring a band of professional robbers —the analogy being that the Algerian leadership has long robbed the country.

La Casa del Mouradia, like many other stadium songs, owes its popular success to its relevance in expressing the youth’s discontent and the country’s political appalling circumstances. It takes a virulent tone from its very beginning: “It’s dawn and sleep does not come. I’m consuming [drugs] in small doses. What is the reason for this and who is to blame? We are growing tired of this life.”

Even before any rumor that the former president was going to seek a fifth term, the song galvanized the anti-Bouteflika sentiment in the most explicit of ways.

“The first [term], we let it pass. They had us with the decade” —in reference to the 1990s civil war. “In the second, the scenario was clear, La casa del Mouradia. In the third, the country became emaciated due to self-interest” —referring to misappropriation of funds and wealth by the élite. “In the fourth, the doll is dead, but the case goes on…”

U.S.M.A.’s arch-foe M.C.A. (Mouloudia Club of Algiers) also has its musical group called Torino. In January 2019, weeks before the beginning of protests, Torino released a song titled “3am Said” (“happy new year”), but which holds much less optimism than acerbated critiques toward Said Bouteflika, the brother and special advisor of the former president.

Supporters of the Sports Union of Madinet El-Harrach (U.S.M.H.), another main football club from suburban Algiers, were also famed for a song titled “Chkoun Sbabna?” (“who is to blame?”). The song was released on June 2018 and forthrightly blamed the Algerian State.

Vox Populi

Clandestine migration to Europe, drug use and addiction among youth, “hogra” (injustice and contempt of the powerful), unemployment, corruption and state authoritarianism constantly nourish these stadium chants, which animate in turn the most hostile of anti-authority discourse —one that is even more explicit than that of opposition media, as the latter still stands in censorship.

Almost half of the population of Algeria is under 25 of age. According to the Algerian National Office of Statistics, 29% of this class are unemployed.

The overwhelming majority of these engaged football supporters come from deprived and underprivileged social backgrounds. The punchlines and political slogans they chant in stadiums —and in the streets since February— draw from their day-to-day grievances. They strive for a betterment they believe they are being kept back from.

For lack of social infrastructures, these youngsters made of football a common cause, which —although often said to be the “new opium of the people”— provides them with an independent voice. Its insolence and rawness plainly depicts their authenticity in expressing routine hardships and standing as a counterpower to central authorities.

Presently claiming over 5 million fans countrywide, M.C.A. was the first football club to embody antagonism toward central power during French colonialism, being the first Algerian Muslim team. Founded in 1921, its nomination draws from the word “mawlid”, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Alarmed, French authorities had then made it obligatory for Algerian teams to enroll European players.

During the 1950s Liberation War, about 40 Algerian fighters were said to have played for U.S.M.A. Yacef Saadi, a F.L.N. and military leader during the Battle of Algiers, had played under the black-and-red colors of the club as well. (But Saadi was particularly more renowned for his playing, as Yacef Saadi, in the movie The Battle of Algiers, under the direction of the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo —besides being a notable historical figure of the war.)

Post-Colonial Disobedience

The stadiums’ anti-power sentiment would not be appeased even after Algeria’s independence in 1962. Supporters often railed against Boumediene in the 1970s and Bendjedid in late 1980s —when they chanted “Bab El Oued el-shuhada” (“Bab El Oued of the martyrs”) in reference to the bloody crackdown on protesters in 1988.

In May 2018, it was Ouyahia, then prime minister, who had to endure mass verbal assault during the Algerian Cup final. The insubordinate chants were of such insolence that the Algerian Public Television cut off the sound during live broadcast.

On occasions, gatherings in stadiums and over sports led Algerian supporters to organize in quasi-political movements called “ultras”, transcending the mere aspect of football. The ultras culture emerged in the late-1960s social unrest in Italy, in which young protesters of left-wing aspirations took to stadiums with attitudes akin to those of radical political organizations —culture of anonymity, solidary between members, self-financing and independence from and defiance toward official institutions.

In Tunisia, ultras of E.S. Tunis and Club Africain were at the forefronts of the 2011 uprisings. In Egypt, that same year, Al-Ahly and Zamalek ultras stood against the Baltaguiyas (pro-government militias) in the Tahrir Square of Cairo.

The ultras movement swept across North Africa in the 2000s by dint of Internet and social media. The M.C. Algiers ultras are called Verde Leone, whereas U.S.M.A.’s Ouled El-Bahdja claim kinship to Milano, sharing the black-and-red colors of A.C. Milan.

On March 14, in the midst of protests against Bouteflika’s then ongoing rule, the Algiers two rivals were to play in the country’s biggest derby. The game was expected to draw a significant number of supporters, as it remarkably does per usual. But in the match-day morning, walls in the capital read, “We cannot go to a wedding feast while our mother is unwell.” For the ultras’ being “about more than football,” the game was widely boycotted, as the 5-Juillet Stadium 80.000 seats were almost empty.

The Algerian national football team qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations on Sunday, July 14. The Algerian Army previously promised it would make available six military aircrafts to convey some 600 Algerian supporters to Cairo to attend the final game, which will take place on Friday — customary day of weekly protests.