SUMAYA BOUADI — It was a generational shift in thought that guaranteed a revolution long before Mohammad Bouaziz ever sold fruit on Tunisian streets.
TWO YEARS AGO, the sights on the streets of any North African city would be eerily similar: the street vendors selling bread or tobacco, the older, employed men on their coffee breaks, gossiping and smoking, and the “wallists” — an Algerian term for the row of unemployed young males sitting against the walls — occasionally playing pool.
These wallists spearheaded North Africa’s Arab Spring movement, forcing regime changes that seemed impossible only months before. However, while much has been made of the tools with which these youth achieved this revolution – especially social networking sites – their motivations and personality is often seen through an economic lens. Unfortunately, this interpretation ignores the complex culture and mentality of these youth, beginning with their placement in history.
Tunisia and Algeria, both former French colonies, gained independence in 1956 and 1962 respectively. Algeria was largely unaffected by the Arab Spring. Yet, comparing it to Tunisia proves useful, as many of the same political and economic undercurrents are present in both nations. Post-independence, both countries experienced similar transformations into single-party states. In the case of Algeria, the FLN (National Liberation Front) took control of the nation, while Tunisia found itself ruled almost exclusively by the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally).
By the mid-1980s the RCD and FLN had consolidated control of their respective countries. The governments developed a “cult of the War of Independence” — a nearly fanatical obsession with the long-gone “ideals of independence,” which included the party of independence. In the educational system, teachers indoctrinated students with tales of revolutionary bravery, all with a strong Pan-Arab and Islamic focus. Islamism came to the forefront of politics as a method to both rebel against the former Western, colonized culture, now demonized, and to unite a country of various ethnicities (Arab and Berber) under one flag. However, unlike the two generations before them — the one that fought in the war of independence, and the one that was born into the cult of independence — for this generation, civil unrest within the country undercut the government’s pro-revolution rhetoric.
In the late 1980s, both Tunisia and Algeria experienced major civil unrest, as the future Arab Spring revolutionaries were toddlers. A startling 10 percent inflation rate in Tunisia lead to an attempted government overthrow and a series of bombings by the Islamic Tendency Movement, leading to the rapid appointment of the later ousted Ben Ali to the Presidency. Algeria matched Tunisia for chaos, with the Black October Riots of 1988. The government under President Chadli Bendjedid initially dealt with these riots, which were driven by rising food costs and falling oil profits, through violent repression, although he eventually embraced reform. The blatant contradiction between the government rhetoric and the enveloping chaos imbued the youngest generation with a deep cynicism that characterizes it today.
This cynicism is the trait which most distinguishes the Wallist generation from its predecessors. Their grandparents’ fought in the revolutionary wars of independence, and believed ardently in the nationalist cause and the revolution’s party, whether it was the FLN or the RCD. Their parents’ were born into the revolution, raised on government rhetoric, and found little to contradict it. This generation was surrounded by the optimism of a country starting anew, and looked to the future. However, the Wallist generation had no such luxury. The chaos of their younger years perhaps could have been forgotten if peace swiftly followed; however the 1990s in North Africa only served to increase the Wallist’s cynicism and distrust.
In 1991, Algeria found herself embroiled in a civil war which claimed well over 150,000 lives, a conflict between the long-standing military establishment of the FLN and Islamic militant groups. An explanation for the Arab Spring’s inability to touch Algeria may be found in the youth’s memories of the civil war; as 18-year old Algerian youth Rami said, “The war was awful. Yes, there’s corruption, but we can’t return to the blood again.” Although on the surface more peaceful than its neighbors, the Ben Ali government’s crackdown on opposition groups in Tunisia — resulting in the late-night arrests of 8000 citizens in a two year time frame — created a culture of fear throughout the country, complemented by a culture of corruption born during the rigged elections of 1994.
It is this culture of corruption that proved so destructive to the wallist generation, especially to the young men to whom the term typically refers. From a young age, they became aware of two facts: The cultural pressure on young men to be “rajl” (manly) — and therefore work — and the complete impossibility of gaining a job if they did not have connections. This conflict left the young men unable to prove their worth within the culture of “rajl” through traditional means, possibly contributing to the boom in young men practicing martial arts in Tunisa and Algeria during the 2000s. Furthermore, the strong culture of the extended family present in these countries showed to many young men the corruption within the economic system while still in high school, and led many to drop out before completing a high school or even middle school degree: In the words of Walid, age 23, “There’s no point. You go to school, and then you don’t get anything from it. It doesn’t make a difference.” Similarly, he has little faith in the government, joking, “They say ‘Long Live Algeria’ – I say, let Algeria die.”
Echoes of this cynicism resonate in the youth’s music. In the song Any Jay, popular Algerian rapper Lotfi Doble Kanon declared, “they [government officials] steal every day, and take the livelihood of the people/they got rotten with politics, and stuck on the chair.” Chair, in Algerian slang, references political office. Similarly, Tunisian rapper El-General addressed Ben Ali in on of his pieces, “We’re living like dogs… are you seeing what’s happening in the country? People can’t find where to sleep.” And these are, of course, the rappers to which many youth listened in the years and months leading up to the Arab Spring. The hatred and cynicism in their lyrics articulated the young people’s rage, and sparked similar anger in those who had yet to understand the corruption within the system.
Unlike the generations before them, today’s generation of “wallists” grew up with no faith in the established parties or the potential for reform in the economic system. Long before protest spread throughout North Africa, they already saw no hope of change in a country that many viewed as rotten — at least, not as long as the same political establishment stayed in place. It is this trait that lead to many of their desires to flee the country, and the reversal of the traditional Western-hating rhetoric. To many of this generation, the West, especially France, was not the nation of oppression and injustice, as it was to the generations of the revolution; rather, France became a nation to be emulated and, if possible, emigrated to. This desire to emulate the West led to a growing interest in democratic ideals — the same democratic ideals that earlier governments dismissed as “Western.” It is the generational shift in thought, this cynicism and disenfranchisement that truly sets this generation apart, and guaranteed a revolution long before Mohammad Bouaziz ever sold fruit on Tunisian streets.
Sumaya Bouadi is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying political science.