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Game of Mustaches: A Song of Mustache and Technocracy

[An image of Ahmed Ouyahia, current Algerian prime minister. Image from Wikimedia Commons] [An image of Ahmed Ouyahia, current Algerian prime minister. Image from Wikimedia Commons]

It was the second unexpected sacking of an Algerian prime minister in less than three months. After Abdelmalek Sellal, Abdemajid Tebboune's turn came with no going-away party. The prime ministers fell one after the other, and one wondered who could be next to take the challenge. But, with hardly time to ask the question, he has appeared.

The Man in the Iron Mustache, Ahmed Ouyahia, is back.

In the black-suited trappings of a technocrat, he is round and smiling, yet still harsh. At a time of economic emergency, he has jumped to the front lines, and this is no laughing matter.

The Rise of the Bureaucratic-Military Mustache

In an activity as marked by appearances and virility as is politics, the issue of facial hair is not to be taken lightly. It is a euphemism. Hair is a sign—and not only in the so-called Arab world. In France, for example, politicians who find themselves voted or pushed out of office usually sport a five o’clock shadow as a way to express their newly acquired freedom and hint at the possibility of a come-back (the day that they shave...). In the United States, a clean face has become the rule, which is telling in terms of desirable representations of masculinity. 

Beyond pure communication, facial hair has a completely different signification in a tense political configuration. During the 1970s in Turkey, for example, police profiling tactics notably relied on various types of mustaches. At the height of the crisis that shook the country, the political meaning of this feature could have potentially catastrophic consequences. 

Turkish mustache politics aside, the issue of facial hair is often discussed by focusing on variations of the Islamic beard: it can be clean and even-trimmed in a “Brotherly” fashion, or shaved above the lips, at times dyed with henna, in a Salafi-like style. From Abderrazak Mokri's executive-manager beard, to Abdelmajid Menasra's teacher's-pet fringe beard or even Abdallah Djaballah's Salafi/Muslim Brother combination,  the facial hair choices of Algerian Islamists leave plenty to comment on (and question). But this is not the most original topic of discussion, and it would moreover neglect the fact that the beard has never really been hyped among the top echelons of the Algerian state. There were certainly a few attempts coming from the Islamist trend inside the former single party, sometimes nicknamed “barbéfèlène” (Beard-FLN). But Abdelaziz Belkhadem's disgrace did not only put an end to his career as a mediocre Iago, it also sounded the death knell of this conservative emblem at the highest level.

Thus, in Algeria, it is not the beard, but the mustache that reigns. And not just any kind of mustache, mind you. Not the thin line of hair above the lips of old-school modernist intellectuals. Certainly not the goatee of leftist activists. The mustache is large, trimmed, virile, authoritarian. It is often called a nationalist mustache (although the group of six that started the 1954 insurrection preferred the thin mustache of the intellectual, and the five National Liberation Front (FLN) leaders who were arrested while traveling from Rabat to Tunis in 1956 were unanimously shaved). Indeed, as much as a political position, the dominant mustache points to a social group. Maybe even more so. It is a bureaucratic-military emblem, situated at the crossroads of the two groups that ruled the country since independence in 1962: the colonels who later became generals, obviously, but also high-ranking technocrats, among which are the former students of the National School of Administration (ENA). Indeed, this is the elite school where Abdelaziz Bouteflika's last three prime ministers were trained.

The Time of the Facetious Mustache

The head of the government from 2012 to 2017, Abdelmalek Sellal is certainly a faithful representative of this generation of technocrats, who were raised in socialist development and then caught up in structural adjustment in the 1990s. A product of the ENA's diplomacy section, Sellal is a genuine public servant, dedicated to the stability of the state and mastering the art of government. Between 1998 and 2012, he ran no less than five different ministries, which were often of key strategic importance (Interior, Youth and Sports, Transportation, Public Construction, Water Resources). While compatible with bureaucratic standards, his mustache is nonetheless facetious. His tenure at the head of the government was punctuated with jokes, in sharp contrast to the catastrophic tone that usually characterizes Algerian politics. Of course, from time to time, a particularly poor zinger would spark outrage, revealing the “language of the stick,” a discourse tinted with contempt and paternalism often echoed by Algerian ruling elites.

Yet, it was not his lack of success on stage that led to Sellal's departure, but his failure to produce concrete economic results. Since 2013, Algeria has faced a budgetary race against time. With a hard drop in hydrocarbon prices, the government has been trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. In one fell swoop, it has attempted to reduce deficits, maintain social peace (and redistribution), progressively liberalize the economy in order to please foreign partners, and, finally, to maintain a form of state control that would ensure benefits for local capitalists enriched by monopolies. To cushion the economic blow, the government’s strategy aims to develop local production capacity by drawing on foreign investments. The jobs and wealth resulting from this economic diversification were meant to compensate for the state’s withdrawal. Nevertheless, the expected results are still lacking.

Consequently, during the early months of 2017, the renewal of social unrest, linked to the approval of an austerity budget, and the first signs of a conflict between capitalists and government, led to the dismissal of Sellal's facetious mustache. The time for joking around had ended. A few days after legislative elections, at the edge of spring, the guillotine fell.

It was now Abdelmajid Tebboune's turn to lead the struggle to save the nation’s economy.

The War of the Mustache-less

In terms of pedigree, Tebboune certainly has no reason to envy Sellal. A product of the economy section at the ENA, he also has extensive ministerial experience (Local communities, Culture and Communication, Housing and Urbanism, Trade), to which is added almost twenty years serving in various wilayas. Therefore, he adopted the statutory bureaucratic mustache for a while, the one that orders the state to intervene in the economy in the name of national interest. This circularity is meaningful: it marks the difference between a technocrat and a communist.

Yet Tebboune was not one of these simple beings, whom you can definitively put in the “lackluster technocrat” drawer. He did not have Sellal's sense of humor, but he had something better: he shaved his mustache.[1] With this symbolic gesture, he announced his support for a new philosophy, the one of austerity for everybody, including for prominent capitalists. This was quite a statement. Indeed, from this perspective, Tebboune seemed to have been honest. His plan of action was certainly not that different from the shock treatments recommended by a German minister of finance, but he added the promise of a war against corruption and profiteering, and Tebboune waged this war. Moreover, he waged it with a remarkable obstinacy that earned him a form of political recognition. Nevertheless, he also lost it in record time (less than three months). Like a Young Wolf trapped in the Palace of Government, the circumstances of his elimination might be rewarded with a lasting place in political memory.

Tebboune took no one by surprise. During his first month in office, he called for a national dialogue, with the participation of parties and unions, to foster the largest possible consensus for his plan of action. At the same time, he announced a moralizing campaign with the noteworthy goal of “separating money from power.” While the idea was certainly appealing on paper, it rapidly faced the reality of the Algerian politico-economic equilibrium. With remarkable courage, Tebboune started by taking on the most challenging opponent: Ali Haddad, the chief economic officer of the construction company ETRHB, the king of Algerian capitalists and close friend to Saïd Bouteflika (himself brother and counselor of the president). Tebboune versus Haddad: the face-off was at least original. Not only did it clearly take place in the economic ring, both contenders were mustache-less. 

By mid-July, a gutsy offensive led by the prime minister surprised everybody. In an improbable double-maneuver, the technocrat destabilized the capitalist. First, in a series of cease and desist orders sent to ERTHB, the government demanded that construction works, which had been unlawfully delayed, recommence immediately. Second, in the same move, Tebboune added public humiliation to administrative pressure: He requested that Haddad leave the room before his arrival during a visit from the National Center for Advanced Social Security Studies in Algiers. Nonetheless, these blazes of glory were not sufficient to topple the king of Algerian capitalists. After the Forum of Business Leaders (FCE) complained, Saïd Bouteflika himself entered the arena. He, also, was clean-shaven. 

The choice of place and behavior sometimes tells more than a long speech. On 30 July, during the funeral of Reda Malek, the spokesperson of the FLN's delegation during the Evian negotiations in 1962, Haddad and Bouteflika appeared to be having a ball, two steps away from a Tebboune full of gravitas. By acting in this way, the two cronies hammered home this simple message: “Power and money will not be separated.” The clean-shaven prime minister was running out of time.

The Comeback of the Iron Mustache 

Late support from independent trade unions on the heels of a call for dialogue did not save Tebboune. He was sacked on 15 August. To say his successor, Ahmed Ouyahia, is a seasoned veteran of Algerian politics is an understatement. While Sellal and Tebboune were responsible for sectoral management, Ouyahia never strayed from the sovereign’s circle. After graduating with a specialization in diplomacy from the ENA, the Man in the Iron Mustache entered El Mouradia (the presidential palace) at the end of the 1970s. He then started a career as a high-level diplomat, first at the UN and later as the head of African Affairs. During the Black Decade, he came back to the presidency as Liamine Zeroual's chief of staff, before becoming the head of the government for the first time in 1995. The following decades saw him alternating tenures as minister of state (1999-2003, 2014-2017) and prime minister (2003-2006, 2008-2012). In short, Ouyahia is not a technocrat who became a politician. He is the essence of political technocracy.

Ouyahia's bureaucratic-military mustache could have been a transplant from Houari Boumédiène himself. Large and authoritarian, heavy but not drooping, directing and yet serene, it is a mustache that commands and never feels the need to justify itself. When it talks to the people, it is with either paternalism or annoyance. Unsurprisingly, it is not a mustache for tender hearts. Ouyahia recently demonstrated the limited depth of his Pan-African solidarity, with the very subtle declaration that undocumented migrants “bring crime, drugs, and other plagues.” This matters little; the new-old prime minister likes to think of himself as the right man for “dirty jobs.” Was he not the head of the National Democratic Rally (RND) for fifteen years, the party created during the Black Decade as a tool to support Zeroual's strategy? The RND is the second party of the regime after the FLN. It is the party of the administration, secular nationalists, and “patriots” who fought the jihadi groups during the civil war. It is the party of state interests and of national salvation, by drawing on exception. The RND is, in the Latin sense, the party of dictatorship.

Thus, the oldest mustache in the world is back to run the Algerian government. In the context of economic emergency, it arrives to put the administration and the security apparatus at the service of Ordoliberal reform. In his call for social dialogue, Tebboune made no secret of the government's priorities: reform the labor code and the retirement system. Competitiveness and austerity, the evil duo. Of course, Algeria will never be a country without a state or a system of redistribution. It is simply impossible given the legacy of the Revolution. But the transition toward a market economy and global competition is underway, and those who dare interfere in this process can only be enemies of the nation.

Thus, after Ouyahia's appointment, top Algerian capitalists do not hide their enthusiasm. Le Temps d'Algérie, a private daily newspaper owned by Ali Haddad, trumpets: “Win or die.” With Ouyahia, it is finally time for “true reform.” The struggle against corruption and profiteering can wait. It is time to mutualize losses. The people should march in a straight line. If, by some chance, the Iron Mustache happens to fail, there will always be the mustache in uniform, and it is highly uncertain that this would be beneficial for anyone.

[This article was originally published in French on Jadaliyya and translated by the author.]


[1] One could probably object that Tebboune kept a thin mustache above his lips. To this fair observation, there is only one response: do not take this mustache nonsense literally. This is simply a pretext to tell a story that happens to be almost entirely true.