The Soccer Fans That Toppled a Government

The Soccer Fans That Toppled a Government

The Soccer Fans That Toppled a Government

From Algeria’s soccer stadiums, fans launched an uprising that brought down President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.


Algiers was in a celebratory mood when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his resignation on April 2 after popular and military pressure. The crowd outside the central post office, an iconic early 20th-century neo-Moorish building, sang “La Casa del Mouradia,” protesters’ anthem since their first peaceful march in February. It started on the terraces of the leading soccer club, USMA (Union Sportive de la Médina d’Alger).

Its title refers to the presidential palace in Algiers’s El Mouradia district and to a hit Spanish television show about a gang of armed robbers, La Casa de Papel, or Money Heist. The supporters’ organization Ouled El Bahdja (Sons of the Radiant One, referring to Algiers) wrote it, and its words are about the young and their dégoûtage (disgust with life): “It’s dawn, and sleep won’t come. I’m taking [drugs] in small doses. Why? Who should I blame? We’re sick of this life.” Later verses mock Bouteflika’s 20-year reign: “The first [mandate], they’ll say it’s over. They got us with the black decade. In the fourth [mandate], the puppet died. Things follow their course.”

Algeria has always had soccer chants, but in the past 15 years they have become a distinct musical culture. Supporters of MCA (Mouloudia Club d’Alger), have their own group, Torino, that in January put out a video, “3am Said (Happy New Year),” criticizing the judicial system and attacking Said Bouteflika, the ex-president’s brother and former special adviser. Fans of USMH (Union Sportive Madinet El-Harrach), a team from the Algiers suburbs, became known for their lampoon “Chkoun Sbabna?” (“Who’s to Blame for our Misfortune?”), which says the lack of opportunities for Algeria’s youth is the fault of the state. Ouled El Bahdja is the most prominent group in this scene; it got together in 2010 and had an online hit in 2017 with “Quilouna” (“Leave Us Alone”), attacking state corruption, and in 2018 “Babour Ellouh” (“Wooden Boat”), a reference to the harraga, people who attempt to cross the Mediterranean in makeshift boats.

“‘La Casa del Mouradia’ expresses what most young Algerians think of the regime,” said Mehdi Mahloul, 17, a USMA supporter from Algiers’s western suburbs. “Since it went on YouTube last April, it’s had over 5 million views. Everyone in my school sings it, including the girls. So it’s not surprising it’s been taken up at the demos.”

USMA supporters, mostly from the Casbah—the historic heart of Algiers and home of Algerian chaabi—are inspired by this traditional music, with its roots in Arab Andalus, and also by the social engagement of rai (a genre that began in the coastal city of Oran). Their tradition of singing dates back to 1969 Algerian Cup final, when USMA supporters, calling themselves the Virage Electrique Orchestra, sang Algerian folk music for the first time.

Songs of hopes and dreams

Today’s lyrics reflect clandestine emigration, drugs, the authoritarian state, corrupt leaders, injustice, and mass unemployment. In a country in which 45 percent of the population is under 25 and 29 percent of those age 16 to 24 are unemployed, these stadium chants voice the hopes and dreams of the country’s zawali (deprived youth).

“Since independence in 1962, the stadiums have served to amplify the social demands of the country’s young men,” said French-Algerian sociologist Youcef Fatès of Paris Nanterre University, an expert on Algerian sport. “Historically, soccer clubs have always been a place for challenging the authorities. They have a socio-political dimension of resistance and anti-colonial struggle.”

MCA, with some 5 million supporters, is the most popular club. From its founding in 1921, MCA represented anti-colonial identity; it was the first Muslim club, which earned it the nickname Le Doyen (the Elder). The French authorities feared an organization created by and for Algerians and forced Muslim teams to accept a quota of European players in the 1930s in an attempt to stop soccer from becoming a conduit for anti-colonial feelings.

Yacef Saadi, the military leader of the Autonomous Zone of Algiers during the battle for the city in 1957, and Zoubir Bouadjadj, a revolutionary who was part of the Group of 22—which initiated the war of liberation in 1954, and the creation of the National Liberation Front (FLN)—both played for USMA and recruited fighters there. About 40 “martyrs of the liberation struggle” came from the club. The FLN’s team, the Independence Eleven, was set up in April 1958 to raise the profile of the struggle internationally.

‘We’re Berbers!’

Soccer stadiums have always provided an outlet for tension. In the colonial period, supporters sang nasheed (religious songs) as an assertion of their Arab-Muslim identity. After independence, people from Kabylia, who mainly supported their own JSK (Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie), chanted “Imazighen!” (“We’re Berbers!”) from the stands. They did this during the 1977 Algerian Cup final, when they also yelled abuse at President Houari Boumediene—who was attending the match—and his regime. President Chadli Bendjedid was often jeered during soccer matches in the 1980s. And after demonstrators were killed by the authorities in the October 1988 uprising, the chant “Bab El Oued chouhada” (Bab El Oued martyrs) became popular, as did “Dawla Islamiyya” (Islamic State), chanted by supporters and sympathizers of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

“In the 2000s, the emergence of ultra culture, with its anti-authoritarian slogans and more elaborate songs, has highlighted the role of Algeria’s soccer stands as a place of protest,” Fatès said. “With the Bouteflika clan determined to cling on to power, supporters lit the fuse of the anti-regime uprising that began on February 22.”

The ultra movement is a radical soccer fandom based on independent groups that provide entertainment at matches with chants, banners, and large-scale choreographed routines known as tifos. They originated in Italy in 1968 at a time of social unrest, and the first ultras were young far-left activists who brought the tactics of radical politics into the stadiums: It was a culture independent of institutions that prized anonymity and solidarity and was self-funded. Those first Italian ultras sometimes adopted names inspired by far-left organizations, such as AC Milan’s Red and Black Brigades and AS Roma’s Tupamaros, a reference to the left-wing Uruguayan movement.

By the 1980s the ultra movement was established in Europe, and around 2000 it began spreading to North Africa via the Internet and social media. In 2002 the Ultras L’Emkachkhines (Multicoloured Ultras), supporters of Espérance Sportive de Tunis, were the first African manifestation of this soccer counterculture. It reached Morocco in 2005 and Algeria and Egypt by 2007. Sometimes links were formed across the Mediterranean: USMA’s ultras felt kinship with AC Milan, as their team colors were also red and black.

The ultras, made up of youths who were both organized and rejected state power, became a major problem for regimes, which saw them as a threat to their authority. This led to police repression, including arbitrary arrest, physical violence, and restrictions on movement.

Ultras from Espérance Sportive de Tunis and the city’s other main team, Club Africain, were on the front line of the Tunisian Spring demonstrations in January 2011, turning their experience of self-defense against the authorities and mobilizing their ability to rally. In February and November 2011, ultras from Cairo’s biggest teams, Al Ahly Sporting Club and Zamalek, defended Tahrir Square against government militias in the Egyptian uprising. Their protest slogans were taken up by the whole movement.

The Verde Leone ultras of MCA were Algeria’s first in 2007. “The name Mouloudia is a reference to Mawlid, the Prophet’s birthday,” said Kacem, a Verde Leone ultra in his 30s. “Our club’s two colors, green and red, symbolize Islam and the blood of the martyrs. We pass on the history of resistance from one generation to the next. We demonstrate every Friday against this regime. Not as ultras but as Algerians.”

Joining forces against the regime

The ultras have attracted many young men with their anti-authoritarianism and heightened masculinity; they have also brought a political dimension to the terraces. At the Algerian Cup final in May 2018, JSK supporters protested against the government, the forces of law and order, and the then–prime minister, Ahmed Ouyahia. Algerians were later impressed by the presence on the protest marches of highly organized young supporters wearing team colors and chanting protest songs. Since the movement began, Algiers’s ultras have set aside their sporting rivalry and joined forces against the regime.

On March 14, USMA and MCA met on the pitch in a “derby of enemy brothers,” as clashes between them are known. Both clubs’ supporters come from the same districts, Casbah and Bab El Oued, and their derbies are well known for the fervor in the stands and spectacular tifos. But on the morning of the match an anonymous flyer with the MCA logo appeared on walls around Algiers: “You cannot go to a wedding when your mother is ill….Let’s boycott the terraces for the sake of the country and the sake of the club. We ask all supporters to follow the same path and let no idea separate us. We will support Algeria tomorrow [Friday, the day of demonstrations] on the streets.”

At kickoff, three-quarters of the 80,000 seats were empty—unprecedented in Algerian soccer. Just a few hundred Ouled El Bahdja sang “La Casa del Mouradia” as the players came onto the pitch. The founders of Ouled El Bahdja said, “We canceled the tifo we’d planned because the beauty of the stands at previous Algiers derbies has been co-opted by the state to present a distorted image of social reality in the country. Soccer must not be a means of hypnotizing and distracting the people.” In the last five minutes of the match, the crowd chanted anti-regime slogans and voiced support for the Palestinian cause from both stands.

USMA supporters have never accepted businessman Ali Haddad, who has owned and run the club since 2010. He is one of Algeria’s richest men and has close ties to the Bouteflika clan. Until he resigned on March 28, he was also the head of Algeria’s Business Leaders Forum. In 2015 he was involved in a huge corruption scandal over the construction of an east-west motorway in Algeria; he was arrested on April 3 at the border while attempting to flee to Tunisia. “Ultima Verba” (“Last Words”), a song that Ouled El Bahdja put online in February just before the first protest march, predicted, “Time is on our side. The state will fall along with those who built the motorway.”

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