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The politics of being Berber

Amazigh Berber flag [Bakrim2000/Twitter]
Amazigh Berber flag [Bakrim2000/Twitter]

Demonstrations, strikes, school boycotts, riots and arrests have been the norm in a cyclical manner in relations between the ruling Arab authority and the Berber region in Algeria for the past two decades. What has become an unbridgeable schism separating the two divides is tension often exploited by the tribes themselves and the regime to further their respective political objectives.

The waves of violence over ten years have often been depicted as an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Berbers, who make up roughly twenty-five per cent of the Algerian population. However, tensions between the two groups have been grounded by a deep sense of cultural, social and political marginalisation on one side and disputes over land, jobs and housing on the other.

Berbers and assimilation

Although the Berbers largely became Muslims in the late seventh century through the Arab conquest of the region, their resistant nature meant that any attempts at assimilation were usually met with opposition.

Furthermore, the divide and conquer strategy of the early years of French colonialism was used to control the Algerian population by cultivating ethnic divisions to legitimise French involvement with its insistence that there was no “Algerian nation”. This tactic by the French was influenced by the view that Arabs were seen negatively as despotically-inclined outsiders whilst the Berbers were more democratically oriented and “almost European” in their love of freedom.

The use of such policies, however, helped to ignite the complex processes of territorial unification and national integration which would later strengthen the subsequent national movements in opposition to colonial rule.

    Amazigh is the Tamazight for Berber. Kabyle is the Arabic term derived from the word for “tribe”

Shortly after independence in 1962, Algeria began directing its educational and cultural nation-building efforts toward the global east, cementing the country’s social roots in the introduction of Islam and the spread of Arabic-language civilisation. Berbers perceived this enforced Arabisation of society as unacceptable, not least in the way that the public administration and schools rejected the use of the Berber language, Tamazight. They soon found themselves in opposition against the same government that they had helped during independence. The start of a rebellion was born.

Though lasting only a few weeks, the Berber Spring in 1980 cemented the Berber region into a symbol of revolt based on the defence of cultural roots and freedom. Since then, such tensions have transitioned into an overtly quasi-permanent confrontation with a number of key crises accounted for throughout the years.

The state and nation-building formulas thereafter became inadequate in addressing the specific Berber components of society for the sake of general comity. As a result of decades of tension defined by civil revolt and confrontation between the regime and the territorial core of resurgent Berberism, the Berber movement in Algeria is viewed as the most overtly political in North Africa.

Identity politics

Hundreds of people gather to commemorate the anniversary of the Berber Spring on 20 April 2015 [Menouar Yanes/Youtube]

Hundreds of people gather to commemorate the anniversary of the Berber Spring on 20 April 2015 [Menouar Yanes/Youtube]

The Berber Culture Movement has played a major vanguard role in challenging the hegemony of the Algerian pouvoir since the Berber Spring. Though extremes exist within the movement, the consensus amongst Berbers is to advocate for greater autonomy in preservation of identity and control of their natural resources. Advocating for this autonomy and federalism is mainly fronted by the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK), although they do not wholly represent Berber aspirations and are viewed as treasonous and separatist by many Algerians.

An improvement in attitude to Berber political agitation has, however, unfolded over the years; in 1996, Algerian state officials adopted a constitution that acknowledged Tamazight as one of the three “fundamental components” of Algerian identity, alongside Islam and Arabism. In 2002, the government granted Tamazight status as a “national” language following large-scale rioting after 2001’s Black Spring. Finally, in 2016’s constitutional amendments, Tamazight became one of Algeria’s national languages.

Election and constitutional reform processes have largely been adopted in order to quell social unrest in the country and to sink any opportunities for dissenters to call for decentralisation.

Algerian authorities have responded by pursuing a variety of strategies over the past few decades. For Algiers, Berber nationalism was there to be mobilised as a way to counter the Islamist and Salafi-jihadist currents emanating from the Middle East. This mainly included arming Berber village militias against Islamist bandits during the bloody civil war of the 1990s; gradually conceding a limited number of the movement’s demands; and viewing internal divisions within the movement for opportunistic gains.

Exacerbating the situation in the Berber region is the high unemployment and the disenfranchised youth with no future job prospects despite the region’s wealth of natural resources. It is no surprise, therefore, that the appetite for protesting against such conditions are most apparent among Berbers, but is important to note that it is not exclusive to them. Unresolved tensions and distrust have also been manifested between the Arab and Berber communities, with each feeling marginalised by the other.

The Berbers accuse the Arabs of benefiting from preferential treatment from the government, including better job and housing opportunities. In turn, the Arabs accuse the Berbers, generally perceived as wealthier given the investments of their kinsmen living abroad, of hindering poorer Arabs’ integration within their exclusive social structures.

The idea around autonomy has raised concerns that Algeria will be divided and become weakened should the government relinquish its stance and make concessions. However, the hope is that autonomy will make Algeria stronger, encouraging the type of economic development that has traditionally bought the country’s social peace.

Moving beyond the schism

Instead of creating long-term solutions for the unresolved tensions, the government in Algiers has sought to contain them locally. The hard-handedness of the security forces and management of such manifestations are too often not investigated adequately. In refusing to provide solutions for local grievances, the Algerian government has adopted the paranoid narrative that the violence is the result of a foreign hand trying to destabilise the state.

Up to now, the regime has been trying to appease dissatisfied citizens with generous subsidies; as long as the price of oil was high, it was able to pursue this strategy. However, now that the economy is no longer so buoyant, Algiers hardly has the means to mitigate social tensions or buy a peaceful society.

Working actively towards social peace by accommodating its citizens and extending to the Berbers their full civil and human rights would be in the country’s best interests. Tensions left to fester will only antagonise Algeria’s vulnerability to terrorism with the potential for the violence to spread. A militarised solution in attempting to deal with the Berber question will always fail and maintain current tensions and instability. Offering compensation for the families of victims in riots and proposing extra buildings to increase local development only goes so far before the same cycle of violence ensues.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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