Engaged Algerian Youth:  Living in Diaspora, New Approaches to Political Action?

As part of its broad research project “Arab Youth as Political Actors”, the Arab Reform Initiative organized on 25 November 2018 in Paris, France, a Policy Dialogue, bringing together 13 Algerian activists residing in Europe in order to exchange views on the modes of action and new forms of engagement of Algerian youth as vectors of political thought and practice.

The role of youth and the diaspora was central to the exchanges and was addressed from different angles. First, the participants shared their experiences and knowledge of activities carried out in Algeria or abroad relating to the strengthening of democracy and civic participation in the broadest sense. The idea was to highlight the diversity of the participants’ experiences, but at the same time also the impact of living abroad on action in Algeria, at both the personal and societal level.

The second emphasis was on practical methods of engagement. What are the means of action at the political level in Algeria? How is action in partnership with public actors perceived, planned and experienced? What role can young people play in influencing public policy? How do young people see the political future of the country after Bouteflika? What impact do entrepreneurship and associative action have as instruments for political expression? What are their benefits and limitations? What would be their role in a possible transition? These questions enabled participants to express themselves on diverse subjects, including culture, education, citizenship, history, societal and institutional models, national particularities versus best international practices, women's rights, preserving the environment, etc., thus allowing ample space for reflection on an Algeria that is truly democratic and truly popular, and where each citizen is represented.

Factors Shaping Youth’s Position towards the Political Sector

One key component of the discussion concerned the various factors that shape the political positions and attitudes of youth towards the political sector, and how these, in turn, shape their own forms and methods of engagement. As the participants to the dialogue agreed, a certain mistrust towards everything political has emerged. This distrust in the formal political sector is fuelled by the accumulated traumas linked to the country’s past and the inability or lack of willingness of the political sector to address these. Not all Algerians have lived abroad, and they often have an idealistic image of the West and its institutions. People have the impression that things are better in the West, with more established, powerful, and legitimate institutions, whereas in Algeria the pervasive feeling is that “there isn’t much.” This has been enhanced by the impact of foreign media, which has fuelled an already very present post-colonial inferiority complex, a continuous “self-hatred.” Indeed, it could be argued that there is a colonial continuum and that the current regime perpetuates reflexes and structural practices linked to a subordinate relationship with the West. One of the principal repercussions is that people have less and less faith in the associations and institutions in the country. At the same time, there is a form of violence connected to people’s muteness during the wars that must be taken into account, as trauma is still transmitted through parental education. Yet there has never been a true civil concord. “Civil Concord has never been either concord or civil! No one has asked for forgiveness, and no one has granted it.”

This historical legacy and the manner in which the political class has – or has not - addressed it translates into the palpable exasperation Algerians feel and their lack of faith that change will come from within politics. As soon as a group shows signs of increased activity, the general reaction is: “Where do they come from? Who sends them and who finances them?” and not “What do they do?” As one participant summed up, “The problem is that, from the perspective of the State, the Algerian is neither an actor of his destiny nor a worker, but a client purchasing social peace.”

For the participants at the dialogue, there may thus be a need to break with a variety of established approaches in order to rebuild confidence in the political sector. First and foremost, the elite should stop thinking of itself as the vanguard and should listen to society instead. Yet the manner in which youth activists can contribute to this process, and the degree to which they should work with the formal political sector, is debated. While there are those who argue that institutions exist and that it is necessary to accept this reality and try to effect change from the inside the system, there are others who do not recognize these institutions and call for a total break with a government that they feel will  “never listen.”

Associative Action in the Field

While many Algerians do not consider public space to be their own or to be part of their home, there is nonetheless significant local effervescence at the moment that is not necessarily centralized and that is occurring away from the formal political sector. Importantly, this associative sector fills a vacuum where the state is absent: many associations are charitable or promote solidarity, thereby creating an additional social safety net.

Yet, such initiatives occur within several parameters that restrict their ability to achieve larger scale. The Algerian territory is vast, with fragmented demography and very different realities; moreover, existing initiatives tend to be Algiers-centred and are poorly federated. This fragmentation and isolated-nature of work are further underscored by the strong lack of a sense of common interest. The absence of agoras and forums to exchange on concrete action leads to a lack of good intelligence to inform debates. This incapacity to disseminate information and network all initiatives to enable the exchange of experiences and the replication of good practices is compounded by a lack of willingness on the part of some to share information. Both at the diaspora level and within the country, there are a plethora of new associations created by young people, despite the fact that many already exist and are active. This shows a great lack of coordination and collaboration, particularly between student associations.

The undemocratic context in which associative action takes place must also be taken into account. In practical terms, it is quite difficult for activists and civil society actors to convene. The freedom of association is even more restricted than before and has led many associations to lose their accreditation, making their actions in the field even more complicated. Yet, even obtaining state accreditation does not guarantee any freedom of action, quite the contrary: by going through official channels, civil society groups place themselves overtly on the state’s surveillance radar.

Moreover, though state accreditation is key for associations to obtain resources, the state’s substantial budget allocates virtually nothing to existing initiatives. Many young people who create associations or student groups are unable to finance these initiatives sustainably in the long term, and private sponsorship cannot last indefinitely.

Despite these limitations, local actors do a formidable and considerable job of collecting, redistributing, and reorganising associative work, and a number of successful projects take place across the country. Indeed, the most successful initiatives are those that integrate into the local environment, embracing existing infrastructure and its local uses. The challenge, though, is to increase visibility so as to further stimulate popular engagement. Community advocacy is successful in Algeria, for example, yet the population is not sufficiently aware of it, nor the strategies that work and that should be highlighted. It is with this in mind that projects such as “Chabaka” were established: a collaborative directory that asks people to fill in positive initiatives on a map, along with an interactive agenda for follow-up.

The Algerian Diaspora: A Resource for Action on the Ground?

As the participants to the event discussed, the Algerian diaspora is endowed with skills and resources that place it in a position to not only leverage existing associative action in the country but also to play a critical future role in an eventual transition process. From their perspective, leaving the country allows one to step back and see Algeria differently. It enables individuals to see themselves as actors without suffering the fatalism and inertia that pervades Algerian society by providing examples of how people elsewhere shake things up in their countries and sometimes succeed in similar (or even more complicated) ecosystems.

In addition, the diaspora in Paris (or elsewhere in the West) is often better trained and has many more resources than Algerians residing in Algeria, as there are facilities for diaspora members to receive funding from Western sources. Moreover, members of the diaspora often are endowed with a strong sense of belonging to Algeria and a willingness to be aware of what is happening there. We see this in the ability of the current popular movement, the 22 February movement, to bring people together under the same banner. This sense of belonging can be capitalized on so as to build a strong community.

Yet there are substantial reservations about the impact of diasporic experiences and the ability of the diaspora to meaningfully leverage local action in Algeria. There is a considerable lack of communication, efficacy, and cohesion within the diaspora. There is also little coordination in Algeria, where the diaspora often does not have a very good reputation. The diaspora is distrusted by some for having a frustratingly didactic attitude and a tendency to speak on behalf of young people using the pretext of having resources. And while the diaspora organises many events, which its representatives travel to and attend, there is often a lack of follow-up and concrete action.  This is in part the result of the very specific relationship to private and public space that the diaspora holds, rendering investment in local action difficult. Participants to the dialogue recounted that they often hear the remark “you’re a foreigner” when they do not hail from a local area or, worse, when they live outside Algeria.

Yet the activists participating in the dialogue affirmed that the diaspora had a role to play in a future transition process. For them, young local actors must be at the forefront of the scene, and the diaspora can play a key role in supporting them. The role of the diaspora is to seize opportunities and resources and direct them towards initiatives in Algeria. In particular, the diaspora needs to be able to transmit methodologies and conduct training so as not to create dependencies. As one participant stated, the role of diaspora projects is “to move aside and be a link to those living in Algeria. To use everything we can from our international anchorage. Being accountable to foreign administrations and not having to say everything in front of the Algerian authorities helps, and yet is another reason to move aside.”

Among the concrete actions that the participants cited that the diaspora can take are: the activation of large-scale citizen consultation platforms; networking of initiatives across different cities; providing educational material on the exercise of democracy; using open platforms, such as Ushaidi, to reference problems related to corruption or the poor deployment of public funds; raising awareness among Algerians of their right to decide how the state’s budget is used; and creating an e-parliament where the citizen's voice has a greater influence on what occurs. The diaspora could particularly help with distilling knowledge from foreign experiences, in particular with regards to advocacy techniques. Raising awareness of best practices and how they can be implemented in Algeria could be achieved through partnerships with foreign associations, for example.

For such actions to occur, though, it is necessary for those in the diaspora to be keenly aware of unfolding dynamics in Algeria and to be able to align themselves with the realities on the ground. As a case in point:  since the outbreak of the 22 February movement, it has become very difficult to know the reality on the ground despite the huge volume of information disseminated via social networks. The best information comes from relatives and acquaintances who are themselves witnessing the evolving situation and can, in turn, transmit this information to members of the diaspora for the purpose of transnational coordination.

More Broadly, How Can a Democratic Transition be Achieved?

For participants to the Policy Dialogue, it is impossible to talk about real political change without strengthening the notion and the practice of citizenship. Citizens must become actors, endowed with the means and resources to fully exercise their citizenship. Indeed, it is essential to have a political and citizen-led strategy. This requires, though, a common denominator moving towards democratic transition which would involve citizens and diasporas and in which institutions would be reconceived.

To achieve this, participants emphasized the need to create more spaces for debate, gathering, and consultation. Connecting people would build trust and social connections – something everyone wants. This could be achieved, for example, through the creation of “citizen idea boxes,” co-developed with civil society, which could use digital platforms to launch debate and build consensus. Keeping the language accessible would be essential to such a process: talking to people about citizenship will not stimulate them as much talking about their daily lives, the dirt on the streets, and the practical aspects of life. Such an undertaking would not only demonstrate the aptness of Algerians for analysis but also that they have relevant things to say to each other.

Yet, it is also critical to provide the tools for action and federation. Currently, online social networks offer relative freedom of expression and allow people to learn about democracy through lived experience online. The internet and social networks increase the potential for information at the local level but also at the global level; however, it is unclear how neutral these platforms are. Moreover, public institutions are known for their intransigence, and while Algerian activists and civil society actors know how to be effective at the local level, their efforts to scale up to have a wider impact are most often stymied.

Given this, it may be beneficial to focus on the actions of local organizations, which do not require many resources to have an impact:  instead of trying to reach for the inaccessible, it may be better to work at a more localized scale. The appropriate organizations must be given support by putting in place the right people at each level. For the participants to the dialogue, the right approach should indeed be to discard the idea of starting from scratch to create new things: in most cases, it is neither viable nor relevant. Instead, it is necessary to take note of what already exists, consult with the population, gather expertise, and deflate large projects to make small interventions instead, whilst maintaining a planned perspective. The methodologies, tools and techniques that are used should then be freely available and be disseminated to as many people as possible.

If it becomes clear at some point that citizens are better organized and generate better results than the state bureaucracy, they will become an inevitable part of the equation. The challenge is, therefore, to make citizens indispensable to the functioning of the state.