Bordj Bou Arreridj, Algeria – A new phenomenon has gripped anti-government protests in Algeria. It all started with an abandoned building in downtown Bordj Bou Arreridj, a city located 200km east of the capital, now known as “The People’s Palace”.
Previously considered an eyesore, the building took on the new appellation in mid-March when a group of protesters decided to hang a “tifo”, or a large banner, over its facade.
Hundreds of thousands of Algerians have been protesting for more than two months against former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the country’s ruling elite.
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While the ailing 82-year-old leader was forced to step down, demonstrators are sceptical of those around him, known as le pouvoir or the powers that be, being serious about effecting the change they have called for.
In Bordj Bou Arreridj, it has become a weekly tradition to finish the Friday protest at “The People’s Palace” and celebrate the march with the unfurling of a new tifo.
The unfinished building has, in fact, become a site of great pride and joy for residents of the province.
The messages displayed have varied over the weeks. One cartoon depicted a football match in which a player with “people” emblazoned on his kit is scoring a goal against the “regime”.
Another portrayed the scales of justice, with a slogan in bold: “Justice is the basis of governance.”
As videos of the artworks did the rounds on social media, Algerians from other cities made the journey to protest in front of Bordj Bou Arreridj on Fridays, giving the former garrison town a new name: “The Capital of the Hirak”, or the capital of the popular movement.
Protesters from Djelfa, Adrar, Tissemsilt, Algiers, Skikda and Chlef were present last weekend, as the call to Friday prayers sounded in the early afternoon.
Last Friday, a white van pulled up to The People’s Palace in the city centre. Several dozen volunteers crowded around the vehicle before opening the trunk and pulling out the week’s banner.
‘No one financing us’
One of the volunteers, sporting a yellow vest with an “Ouled El Djebasse” (Children of El Djebasse) insignia patched onto his chest, takes a moment to explain what is happening.
“This week, our tifo is going to impress everyone,” he says as he points to his vest.
“El Djebasse is the oldest neighbourhood in Bordj Bou Arreridj. It is a place that is emblematic of our city.”
Another member of Ouled El Djebasse, Zahreddine, ensures the tarp is not ripped as it is pulled to the top of the building.
“We all chip in to buy material for the banners. No one is financing us,” he says in a terse tone as he climbs seven flights of stairs. “We don’t belong to a political party or association. We don’t have a political opinion. We are just organised.”
On the roof, about 50 volunteers scamper around with paint brushes, applying the finishing touches on a sky-blue 15x13m tifo. Clad in black overalls, the main artist, Abdelmadjid Selini, is seen instructing the volunteers.
“It wasn’t until the fifth Friday that we decided to do a tifo. Before that, we were just marching and holding up signs with different slogans. But if there are a thousand signs, there will be a thousand messages. We wanted to unify our message,” he says, his eyes continuing to monitor the work.
“We borrowed the idea of a tifo from football supporters, from the ultras.” Selini said with a wry smile. “Is there an Algerian who isn’t a football supporter? We all love football.”
In Bordj Bou Arreridj, congregation in front of a building in construction they're calling 'the People's Palace'
A tifo will come down in an hour. On the loudspeaker a minute of silence for Ramzi Yettou, followed by a chant of 'Casbah Chouhada' pic.twitter.com/v35Y0XmDlP
— Maher Mezahi (@MezahiMaher) April 26, 2019
Mark Doidge, a sociologist at the University of Brighton, sees the appearance of tifos in Algerian protests as nod to the ultra movement, which originally brought politics to the football stadium.
“The origins of ultras were the political protests in Italy in the late 60s and 70s. They took the protests in the piazzas into the stadium,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is interesting to see it go the other way.”
Berangere Ginhoux of MetroPolitics claims the ultra groups compete with their displays.
“Ultra groups are engaged in a competition based primarily on the quality of the displays and actions they organise within their stands in the stadium. They compete in terms of numbers of fans, the volume of chants and how spectacular their displays are.”
The competition between the tifos of the Hirak (movement) takes place on social media. Immediately after Friday’s tifo was revealed at The People’s Palace, it was shared on all platforms.
“Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook give more opportunities to show off these big choreographies. Social media is a big factor,” said Doidge.
Other cities following the lead
If you ask Ouled El Djebasse, they would never have imagined their tifos having this kind of influence.
“We did not know that it could become this big. We started by sharing the first few tifos on Facebook and then it grew and grew,” one the volunteers tells Al Jazeera.
To the surprise of many in Bordj Bou Arreridj, cities around Algeria followed their lead and made tifos of their own. Six other cities hung tifos on main boulevards for public viewing.
The tifos in Touggourt, Relizane and Algiers criticised the French interference in Algeria. Chlef’s tifo depicted a soldier and a banner showing Article 7 of the Algerian constitution, which says the “power belongs to the people”.
M’Sila and Djelfa tifos addressed the corruption cases against several oligarchs around the country.
The tifo in Bordj Bou Arreridj, however, was the largest and the most impressive, according to the protesters. Selini drew two landscapes: a lush forest and a barren desert.
The Algerian people are in the desert, riding a camel, an animal that symbolises patience. The camel is slowly heading towards the forest. The government is represented by a three-headed snake in the desert.
Three words punctuated the illustration: ‘Nation. Hope. Consciousness’.