Algiers, revolutionary Algiers, capital of the third-world revolutions in the sixties and the seventies, was a sure bet as the next stop in the unfolding drama of the Arab spring. The stage was set, the actors identified, and the script rehearsed in Tunis and Cairo. Anxious observers scrutinized every bit of news coming out of Alger-la-Blanche trying to anticipate events, ready to connect the dots with the rest of the grand narrative that was being constructed to explain the political awakening of the region. But nothing happened. Sure, there were calls for marches and public demonstrations, online declarations, op-ed pieces and a heavy police presence in the streets of Algiers. But nothing that could match the mesmerizing spectacle of the massive gatherings in Tunis or Tahrir square. And the world’s attention was quickly redirected to Bahrein, Yemen, and finally Libya and Syria where things did happen.
Those still paying attention to Algeria were left with the task of explaining why nothing happened. The exercise is still in progress and more will be said about that in future posts here, but an emerging consensus argument runs something like this: Algeria has already gone through this phase back in October 1988, when massive riots left over 500 dead, led to an opening of the political landscape and the emergence of an independent press. This was followed by the cancelation of the 1992 legislative elections, won in the first round by the Islamists, by the military and ten years of a bloody civil war during which an estimated 200,00 people died. Traumatized by these events, Algerians were not too keen for a repeat performance. They have lost trust in the political process, and are today more interested in social and economical reforms to improve their constantly deteriorating situation. This explains why communal guards and students succeeded where political organizations failed. They were able to organize public demonstrations because they focused on meaningful and concrete social demands, not on political demands such as bringing down the system.
The validity of this argument will undoubtedly be tested in the coming weeks as the reforms announced by president Bouteflika in his April 15 speech are implemented.
In this context it was interesting to follow what may seem like a totally unrelated event: The TEDxAlger conference. Organized on April 09 by the ETIC club , run by students of Algeria’s top school in computer science (Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Informatique) , this first independent TED event in Algeria focused on the spirit of entrepreneurship. A number of reactions by those who attended the event can be found here, here, here, and here. Videos of the talks can be viewed here. A comprehensive collection of links about the event can be found here.
To organize such an event, focused on business and entrepreneurship, when the whole region is swept by a revolutionary mood focused on freedom and regime change could be interpreted as a lack of consciousness, a form of indifference or even as reactionary. Businessmen and entrepreneurs cannot possible compete as role models when compared with those who are heroically bringing down autocratic regimes. Yet, the significance of this conference can be found elsewhere, beyond its theme and content. What should draw our attention is the fact that this was a large scale international event organized entirely by students in a country notorious for the extent of governmental control on all public activities. One of the most powerful ideas underlying the Arab spring is the desire of the youth to have a say in the conduct of the affairs of their societies and countries. No longer satisfied with the status quo, they are yearning for freedom. The freedom to dream, to build, to act and to fail. They want to be in charge of their destiny. And that is exactly what the members of ETIC have done. They did not wait to be told what to do. They had an idea, they organized themselves, worked hard, overcame all local obstacles and accomplished something significant. How much impact this particular event will have in the future is hard to gauge, and this may not qualify as a revolutionary act as usually understood, but, keeping in mind the context discussed above, this could serve as an example of the kind of actions Algerian youth could undertake to progressively build their own civil society. Rather than directly and violently confronting the regime, it might prove to be smarter and more productive to simply make it obsolete. In that sense TEDxAlger could be a truly subversive act.