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The re-entrance of an iconic figure from the Algerian revolution into Algerian politics has always sent shock waves through the whole society. The latest entrant is Djamila Bouhired, one of the most recognised faces of the revolution worldwide. The manner in which she shot back into the political arena commands further analysis than the typical response that has been written, and is still being written in various Algerian and Arab outlets.
Very few living people in Algeria still command the same respect as Djamila Bouhired as a revolution figure. The revolution is sacred, and so are the people who participated in it – but only those who passed away during the revolution or stayed on the touchline after the independence. After 1962, the men and women of the revolution chose or were forced into three different paths. The first group took control of the country in a single party rule and dived in its wealth, sharing it with those who turned out to be opportunists. The second group voiced their discontent about the direction that the new state was taking, and were all forced into exile or were mysteriously assassinated. The third group chose to keep quiet, living on the sidelines, content with being remembered every year on the national day and being given a token state recognition every now and then. Djamila has been one of these until two weeks ago, when she chose to step back into the field, and what a step it was.
Djamila sent two letters to the most popular Arabic and French newspapers, Echorouk and ElWatan. The first is mainly pro-state and the second is firmly in the opposition camp. But that doesn’t matter, the goal was to reach the largest audience. The letters voices her personal hardship and her discontent with the way she has been mistreated along with war veterans. But Djamila’s aim is not to merely voice her unhappiness, it seems to be an effort to embarrass the current government in general, and the current president, Bouteflika, in particular. The letters were addressed in his name.
Like most veterans, Djamila is drawn a remuneration that is modest to good by Algerian standards. Djamila was given an apartment in ElMouradia, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country and the site for the Presidential palace itself. She has been assigned a maid to help her in the apartment. The remuneration money would not be able to cover for the typical private health costs of her age, so her claim is legitimate. Djamila could have contacted one of the many veterans organisations in the country, and they would have scrambled to help her. But the Ministry of Mudjahideen (veterans) and the Organisation of Martyrs both claimed that Djamila never contacted them directly about her hardship.
Djamila must know the status that she holds with Algerians and Arabs all over the world. She was depicted in both La Battaile D’Alger and the Egyptian blockbuster “Djamila”, both films that thrilled the international and Arab audiences respectively. She has always been a symbol of feminine activity in largely men dominated Arab societies. Her letters caused an outcry in Algerian circles to the huge embarrassment of the state. The Arab press roamed free to criticise the Algerian government’s carelessness, with much of the criticism coming from Egyptian circles (ongoing football row). The blow was with such force that the government could not even issue a statement or apologise, instead there are reports of efforts to appease her with better Villas and a potential position in the cabinet or one of the veteran organisations.
Her move signals that she is foremost deeply unhappy with Bouteflika, who, just a few months ago, held her hands as he paraded her to an audience of foreign personalities and diplomats during the yearly independence celebrations. The feud could be personal: Bouteflika enjoyed the legacy of the revolution to the fullest: he became foreign minister at the age of 27, having served for only the last few years of the revolution. His return was orchestrated using his revolution and Boumediènian credits, and he used that to concentrate power more than ever before into the presidency and seek a third presidential term.
It would not be a surprise if Djamila’s move was encouraged by a circle of veterans, many of whom may still be powerful figures in the Algerian army. It has for long been known that there is a great power struggle between Bouteflika and some Army sections that are unhappy with the way he has been stripping them from power. The struggle manifested itself more openly in Benflis’s attempt at unseating Bouteflika in the presidential elections of 2004 and the ensuing internal struggle within the FLN. Djamila’s letters may not necessarily suggest an evil motive as she may simply be unhappy with the way Bouteflika and his henchmen have been benefiting from the country’s wealth while ignoring the plight of countless veterans.
Djamila’s cry sheds further light on the colossal mismanagement of the veterans issue. Veterans of the revolution enjoy quite a range of benefits that are a point of envy, greed and controversy for Algerians. In addition to the remuneration, veterans can import certain goods without tax and often get priority when houses and apartments are allocated by the state. In many eyes, the veteran system has become a vehicle of corruption where opportunists and corrupt officials use dubious revolution credits to maximise their wealth. Algeria is often quipped to be the only country whose number of veterans increases over time. In 2006 there was a great debacle at the claim that up to 50000 registered veterans are not only false veterans, but were actively fighting against the revolution.
The veteran system has become to be seen as a vehicle with which power hungry officials claim credence. It represents the failed legacy of the revolution in many Algerians’ eyes. The revolution captivated the people’s minds and set the Algerians hopes high with visions of freedom and development. But now the agony of the disappointment over its legacy can be seen in many writings and events , such as Ahlam Mosteghanmi’s trilogy, the illegal immigration problem (Harga) and now Djamila’s letters. Djamila’s complaint is, in the end, a continuation of this collective mourning.