Defaced mural in Algiers reveals widening ideological rift

A former conservative support base turns against the regime
Wednesday 27/05/2020
Algerian Secretary of State for culture Salim Dada visits the vandalised art mural. (Facebook)
Algerian Secretary of State for culture Salim Dada visits the vandalised art mural. (Facebook)

ALGIERS – An art mural was vandalised by a group of youth in the Algerian capital on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, revealing a deep ideological struggle between conservative and modernist currents in the country.

The security forces arrested one of the perpetrators, sparking an online campaign in support of the youth.

The incident and ensuing controversy reflected Algerian authorities’ efforts to curb the influence of conservative forces, which have previously held pro-government stances.

Algerian authorities used conservative forces in the past to demonise the popular Hirak movement, portraying it as a rogue movement that goes against religion.

Currently, the so-called Francophone current is pushing back against the influence of conservatives and their attempts to roll back the gains of Algeria’s Amazigh community.

The detained youth, Faycel Gueffaz, was released on Tuesday, but the controversy over his arrest and the stance of the authorities against the conservative current has continued.

Conservative social media activists launched a campaign in solidarity with Gueffaz after he was arrested for vandalasing the mural in La Kasbah, the old section of the  capital. The perpetrators and their supporters alleged that the mural represented “a piece of Masonic propaganda.”

The administrator of the Facebook page “Algerian Forces’ Shield” said “the act of Faycel Gueffaz, must have disturbed the Francophone current, the proxy of France, and moved it to mount a media campaign condemning the act of vandalism, an act which expressed the zeal of the sons of Algeria about defending the religious and cultural tenets of their country and their people.”

Other conservative activists blamed Gueffaz’s arrest on what they called “deep infiltration of the state apparatus by the secular democratic trend and its influence on political decisions, despite the overthrow of their heads by the new authority,” in reference to the country’s intelligence services and loyalists of former longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Those defending the act of vandalism said the mural showed “masonic symbols and allusions to homosexuality, which are offensive to public taste and that of the local inhabitants, as the mural stood next to a stadium, and which are incompatible with the Islamic and Arab religious and cultural values ​​of Algerian society.”

The development seems to indicate a widening divide between the administration of President Abdelmajid Tebboune and what is known as the conservative  “Novembrist-Badisian Current,” which previously supported Tebboune and helped secure his election last December. This shift would represent a significant turnaround of the president’s political base.

Signs of the rift between the new regime and its grassroot support-base and propaganda arm were made clear by the attitude of conservative activists. Journalist and media activist Noureddine Khattal expressed strong opposition to the draft constitution put forward by the government and his objection, in particular, to a proposal to “make the Berber Amazigh component an immutable part of the national identity”. In a video on social media, Khattal accused the president of treason and of reneging on his positions.

The defacement of the mural in Algiers recalled a similar incident in 2017, when a Salafist vandalised the female statue of Ain El-Fawara in the city of Setif in east Algeria.

Postings on social networks raised fears of a possible slide towards sharp tensions, including old anti-Amazigh rhetoric.

Terms such as “the minority” and “France’s loyalists” have been used to refer to the Amazigh base leading the Hirak movement since 2019.

The “Novembrist-Badisian Current” is a mix of conservative religious positions that has enjoyed the support of the military establishment and civilian authorities in their showdown with the Hirak movement. That provided a political power base for Algeria’s transitional authorities until Tebboune’s election. Recent developments, however, could herald the end of this alliance.

The art mural before it was defaced. (Facebook)
The art mural before it was defaced. (Facebook)

Algerian Secretary of State for Cultural Production Salim Dada, who inspected the defaced mural,  stated that “the mural was put in place legally and dates back to 2012, and it took about two years to complete.”

He went on to say that “the mural is an embodiment of the participatory spirit and brought joy and innocent discussion to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who had accompanied their children to watch dozens of young Algerian graduates from the national institutes and universities working together creatively to improve the character of a popular neighbourhood, which was in the nineties a hotbed for drug traffickers, delinquents and suspects.”

Since the beginning of Algeria’s pro-democracy Hirak movement, Algiers and other major cities  have seen more works of mural art and graffiti. Many young artists and volunteers have completed art work carrying political messages in major neighbourhoods and squares.