Algeria: Barakat, a cloud of suspicion. Is the movement truly democratic as it claims to be?
A movement called Barakat (Enough in English) was born out of the first protests organized against Boutefika’s 4th candidacy. When i first heard of this movement, i was happy, but then went from curious to intrigued to completely dubious about the founding values upon which this movement is built. My criticism might be too harsh, but it is a necessary one for the betterment and the probable evolution of this movement toward real political change in Algeria.
Upon a closer look and some research conducted on the Barakat Movement, (I even had a conversation with a member of this movement who described himself as a “founding member”), I have to say that I have become more worried about the overall ideology and tone of this movement than I initially was. And here, in this piece, I list a few points and questions that Barakat must answer and elucidate for the sake of the movement itself, and the sake of its success.
First, let me say that any movement that revives the concept of citizenship and reanimates a moribund and dormant Algerian civil society is agreeable news that must be welcomed by all Algerians, personal ideology and views notwithstanding.
Second, Barakat as a movement is structured in a horizontal way—i.e., it claims that it has no leadership per se, but it has some sort of a collegial direction whose members are so far not known to the public. In the history of successful social movements, having a structural organization and unified and clear leadership that frames the movement’s ideas and narratives in an efficient and specific manner is a serious variable in the success of the movement. To cite only a few examples: the American Civil Rights movement and the Christian Southern Leadership Council (CSLC) whose first president and leader was Dr. Martin Luther King; South Africa’s African National Council (ANC) and Nelson Mandela was one of its leaders; the Women’s Suffrage Movement and National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA) whose leader was Susan B. Anthony, etc. We can keep on listing numerous successful social and political movements like these, and quickly a pattern would emerge: all these movements had solid organizational structures; all these movements had a clear leadership, all these movements had a clear narratives that framed their grievances; and all these movements had enough resources to be able to advance and articulate their grievances, and mobilize people around them.
On the other hands, unsuccessful or short-lived social and political movements had a very obvious flaw: a lack of an organizational structure and leadership to clearly articulate and frame the movement’s visions and narratives. The most recent example is Occupy Wall Street (OWS). It’s an unorganized leaderless movement that was established on a very powerful, and at that time, popular frame and narrative–i.e., the 2008 financial crisis–which was neither successful in broadcasting its grievances nor was it successful in impacting policymaking or bring about change in the financial structures of Wall Street. The lack of organization and an amorphous and nebulous leadership failed to mobilize tangible and intangible resources, which pretty much led the movement to its downfall. By extension, Barakat’s organization or the lack thereof could very much harm the movement and negatively impact its success.
However, the aforementioned observations, though important, are not the troubling aspects this movement. Barakat seems to echo a disturbing current of thought that was popular in the mid-1990s. This current is called “le courant ou la mouvance des eradicateurs.” (the eradicators or exterminators in English). Briefly stated, this current was (and still is) a proponent of the total physical elimination of all Islamists or the Islamist movement in Algeria. Their conception of Algerian political arena is that there is no room or place on the ideological spectrum for an Islamist party and/or ideology. It is also important to note that the eradicateurs’ doctrine was established, sponsored, and nurtured by an extreme wing of the Algerian military institution. One of the most famous eradicateurs was the Army General Mohamed Lamari. In the name of the eradicateurs doctrine, several crimes against humanity and egregious human rights violations were not only justified, but also perpetrated in all impunity. This doctrine had also several fervent supporters among the Algerian civil society and political class such as Redha Malek, a former Prime Minister, Mohamed Sifaoui, a famous pamphleteer and blogger, and Mustapha Benfodil, a poet, author and journalist, to cite only a few. These politicians, journalists, and members of civil society supported passively and actively the eradication of an entire political movement and class in Algeria. For the proponents of this doctrine, it is not enough to eradicate Islamic terrorism, which is legally, logically and rationally justified and supported, but this doctrine goes further and steps into the ideological realm and calls for the eradication of Islamism as a political doctrine well anchored into the Algerian society. More importantly, the eradication of political Islam (or Islamism) is not done through vigorous debates of ideas where Islamism is defeated at the intellectual level and by extension in the political arena. Not only is this approach acceptable, but it is also advisable and should be encouraged. The eradicateurs advocate the simple ban and the exclusion of Islamism from politics in Algeria, and here lies the heart of the problem and the contradiction with fundamental and crucial democratic values.
First, banning an idea has never succeeded or worked. The banning of an idea has always given more credence and more echoes to that idea than it deserves. Second, if we start by banning or outlawing idea, then we quickly need to start building large concentration camps for all those who subscribe to that idea. This slippery slope is dangerously slick and leads, as history tells us, to inhuman outcomes.
Third and most importantly, the doctrine of the eradicateurs is antithetical to the seeds of democracy. If democracy is as a concept, in many ways, the celebration of freedoms and freethinking, eradicating an idea or banning a whole class of people because they just happen to thinking differently than you and me is not only the negation of that very freedom upon which the house of democracy is built, but it is also a democratic abomination and an anathema. Democracy is built on freedom and freedom produces ideas, doctrines, and factions. We can’t agree with all the ideas or doctrines that are produced because of the freedoms bestowed upon a society through democracy. Some ideas will even be so extreme that they violent our intellectual being. But banning those ideas or doctrines or factions is analogous to banning democracy itself.
Yes I am lecturing Benfodil and Sifaoui and the members of the Barakat movement on democracy because they seem to have forgotten what democracy is; they seem to have a very limited, very narrow, and very primitive understanding of democracy. They seem to have let their emotions and their 1990s traumatic experience cloud their judgment. It is like their thinking has been veiled and tortured by their collective post-traumatic syndrome. We cannot advocate for democracy and at the same time advocate for the elimination of an idea or a faction. James Madison in Federalist No.10 (1787) asks this same question: How can we eliminate a class of ideas or the nefarious factions that push for those ideas and still be faithful democratic values? And his answer is in these few lines that are engorged with the philosophical wisdom of the Enlightenment era:
“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.”
James Madison tells us that the only way to eliminate a faction—a nefarious faction representing the majority or the minority of the citizens—whose interest is antagonistic to the rights of other citizens is by having more factions, not less; it is by building a large republican form of government based on a representative democracy where the freedom of ideas is the currency. For Madison, in a pure democracy (reads, direct democracy), a majority can easily control the minority faction, but the tyranny of the majority can overwhelm the rights of the minority. He tells us in order to neutralize and control the evils of factions, we need to set the foundation of a political system that is based on the protection of the minority and their rights—i.e., an antimajoritarian system. Moreover, in Federalist No. 51, Madison tells us that a republic vested with enough powers to control the governed, and the governed vested with enough powers to check the government is the only way to preserve liberties and freedoms, and guard against tyranny.
This is democracy. It is not the banning of the Islamist doctrine no matter how repulsive that doctrine is to us. And yes, the ultimate test for what a true democrat is (and is not) is when that democrat stands tall and defends the fundamental rights and liberties of his most ardent proponent when his rights and liberties are violated. And so during a conversation I had with Mr. Sidali Kouidri Filali (find his Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/sidali.kouidrifilali) who describes himself as a founding member of Barakat, i asked him a very specific question–a litmus test in sort: Why did you not condemn Ali Belhaj’s violent arrest by the police in front of the Constitutional Council (a transcript of the conversation is available upon request)? And his verbatim answer was:
Mr. Sidali Kouidri Filali: Ali belhadj n’existe pas pour nous, arrestation violente? ce type a eté la cause de 200000 morts,, ce ne sera pas demain notre soutien
Question: j’espere que vous n’allez pas commencer pas avoir une attitude d’exclusion envers d’autre mouvances/courants politiques?
Mr. Sidali Kouidri Filali: On ne defends ni les mêmes causes, ni le meme pays, ni la meme vision, Ali belhadj n’est pas une vision politique, c’est un criminel
Question: Vous carburez a l’émotional!
Mr. Sidali Kouidri Filali: je ne carbure pas a l’émotion monsieur, et je ne suis pas irraisonnable au point de défendre un principe démocratique avec quelqu’un qui veut justement me le supprimer dés qu’il lui permettra le pouvoir, on a pas encore perdu la tête, vous voulez appliquer le principe démocratique avec quelqu’un qui use des armes!! allah yahdik
Mr. Sidali Kouidri Filali very narrow understanding of democracy clearly exhibits authoritarian tendencies. His argument can be summarized as follows: in the name of democracy I need to be undemocratic with someone like Ali Belhaj. But this begs the question: If we are undemocratic with someone like Ali Belhaj, then what democracy is good for? Do we just behave democratically only with likeminded people and then put our Hitler hat on and become tyrants when we are confronted with ideas that violates our core beliefs? Can we sacrifice the rights and freedoms of someone like Ali Belhaj just because he repulses us? Let me extrapolate a little: What’s the difference between Ali Belhaj and Mr. Sidali Kouidri Filali? Both of them seem to be keen at eliminating each other’s democratic rights, and sacrificing each other’s freedoms if they have power. And if we start thinking this way, that there are deserving people in a democracy whose rights need to be protected and other not so deserving, where do we stop? Should we set a system that every time we don’t agree with someone we just press a button and his democratic rights disappear? What if one day, you don’t agree with me, what guarantees do i have that my rights and freedoms will not be taken away? In fact, Mr. Sidali Kouidri Filali and Ali Belhaj are not that different. Both are exclusionists, and both have forgotten that democracy is very inclusive.
In conclusion, democratic behavior and the belief in democratic principles and ideals are ultimately tested when those ideals and principles are threatened. Only during those moments, when our deep and cherished convictions are put to the test and are challenged that our true democratic self is revealed. The rights and the freedoms of the vilest person in the society are as important as the rights and freedoms of the most valuable person in the society. If we are too quick to dismiss of the rights of a vile person, like Ali Belhaj for instance, we would be too quick to dismiss of the rights and freedoms of another person with whom we just do not agree. And that is the beginning of the end of democracy.
In sum, i am aware that i have leveled harsh criticism and serious charges against the Barakat Movement. It is up to the movement’s leaders to answer these charges, otherwise this movement, in my opinion, is nothing more than Egypt’s Tamarod Mouvement without the Egyptian eloquence and the Saudi funding.