Estimated population (in 2004): Between 6.6 and 9.9 million
Ethnicity: Kabyle, Shawiya/Chaoui, Mozabites/Mzab and Tuareg
First language/s: Tamazight (different varieties)
Religion/s: Islam (mostly Sunni with some Ibadi), some Christianity and traditional beliefs
Amazighs are indigenous to North Africa. In Tamazight, the language spoken by Amazighs, Imazighen is the plural form, meaning ‘free people’. They are also known as Berbers, deriving from Greek for ‘foreigner, non-Greek speaking, barbaric’, though this term – used widely by invading forces and colonial authorities – is largely rejected by Amazigh themselves due to its negative connotations.
Estimates of current Tamazight speakers in Algeria vary significantly from 17 per cent to 45-55 per cent of the population (considering bi/trilingual speakers) with some regions being heavily Amazigh speaking, such as Kabyle. Other Tamazight-speakers are concentrated in central regions such as Ghardaia and the Sahara. Amazigh culture is not homogenous. About half of the Tamazight-speaking population is concentrated in the mountainous areas east of Algiers. Over time Kabyles have moved in large numbers to the cities of both Algeria and France in search of employment. The second largest Amazigh group, the Shawiya, inhabit the rugged mountains of eastern Algeria (Aurès). Two smaller Amazigh communities are the Mozabites of the area around Ghardaia and the Tuareg of the south. The 12,000 Tuareg, who are nomadic, live almost exclusively in the mountainous massifs of Ajjer and Ahaggar in southern Algeria. Geographical dispersion of Tamazight-speakers has hindered the emergence of a common identity. Kabyles are the most cosmopolitan and are more likely to speak French than other groups. All Amazigh, except Mozabites (who identify with Ibadism), are Sunni Muslims. Varieties of Tamazight are often mutually intelligible, and numbers of speakers vary considerably according to the community: in Algeria, Taqbaylit (the Kabyle variety) has millions of speakers, while Chenoua (the Chaoui variety) has dozens of thousands of speakers.
Amazighs are the indigenous inhabitants of the North African littoral, isolated from the rest of Africa by the Sahara Desert. Periods of control by the Carthaginian and Roman empires were interspersed with the establishment of Amazigh kingdoms. Most Amazigh were Christian prior to the mid-seventh century, when waves of Arab migration into the region brought cultural changes and introduced Islam.
Although rural Amazigh life remained largely unchanged, those living in the cities saw their language, tribal law and oral literary traditions meld with Arabic traditions. From the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, forced back into the mountain regions by the city-based sultanates, Amazighs refused to recognize central authority or to pay taxes.
The decline of Tamazight in Algeria (also in Morocco and Tunisia) was due to the spread of Arabic as the language of religion and culture in general, to the rise of French as a prestige language during colonization, as well as assimilationist policies that saw at times even the prohibition of using the language. After independence, Arabic became the sole official language of Algeria. Linguistic and cultural expressions of Amazighs were forbidden, and this created resentment among Tamazight-speakers, as did attempts to increase the numbers of Arabic-speakers in government offices.
In 1963, Hocine Ait Ahmed, a Kabyle leader of the anti-French resistance, led a revolt against the government. The revolt was crushed, and Ait Ahmed was arrested and sentenced to death; he later fled to France, where he formed the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS). Ahmed Ben Bella, independent Algeria’s first leader, linked the Arabization of the state to the success of socialism. Government policy aimed at centralization. The government’s authority and its claim to legitimacy was based upon its leadership in the struggle for independence, yet Amazighs played a full part in that struggle. The 1990 Arabization bill projected the complete Arabization of public administration, of the country’s schools by 1992, and of higher education institutions by 2000.
The Code on the Use of Arabic Language of 1991 was intended to prevent the use of any language other than Arabic in several circumstances. The 1989 Algerian Constitution recognised Arabic as the sole national and official language. A significant change came with the creation of the Haut Commissariat a l’Amazighité in 1995 (HCA, High Commissioner for ‘Amazigh-ness’). According to Decree no.147-95, the HCA was placed under the President of the Republic with the objective of promoting the Amazigh language. This came about following a year of strikes led by students and professors in Kabylie, who were demonstrating against not being granted Tamazight teaching in a predominantly Amazigh region. Two big changes followed, firstly with a 2002 constitutional amendment which made Tamazight second national language, and finally the 2016 Constitution, which states in Article 3 that Arabic will remain the official language and affirms in Article 4 that ‘Tamazight is equally national and official language’ and provides for measures for its promotion and development, including through the HCA.
When the plan for the teaching of Tamazight in schools and universities in Kabylie was introduced in 1995, the objective was to start with 24 governorates and gradually reach the whole territory (48 governorates at the time, now 58 following a reform of February 2021). According to some sources, in 2017, Tamazight was taught as a subject in some schools in mostly Amazigh-speaking areas across 37 governorates. However, the 2008 Law on National Education (still valid today) promotes the facultative character of Tamazight teaching at school level. Protests took place in 2017 because an initiative that would have formalised funding allocations for Tamazight teaching was rejected by Parliament. Many commentators argue that all these legal guarantees have not been accompanied by sufficient efforts in language planning and other practical moves, such as allocation of funding for the increase of number of teachers in primary, secondary, and tertiary education, although there are several trained professionals.
Although the government has feared Amazigh separatism, there appears to be little support for a separate state. There is support, however, for a greater recognition of Amazigh identity and rights for Tamazight-speakers within a more democratic and pluralist Algerian state. The most enduring form of Amazigh opposition has come from broader-based cultural movements.
Opposition to Arabization
The city of Tizi Ouzou is the bastion of opposition to Arabization. Throughout the 1970s, Amazigh musicians and poets used a modernized form of traditional Amazigh music to implicitly criticize the Algerian regime. Although popular demands eventually forced the government to allow such music to be broadcast, singers and groups were not allowed to perform in the Kabyle region. In 1980, when the government banned a lecture on ancient Kabyle poetry at Tizi Ouzou University, demonstrations and strikes took place throughout the region and other Amazigh areas, spreading to Algiers. These were met with violence by government troops; over 30 people died and several hundred were injured and arrested. The Berber Cultural Movement, founded in the late 1960s, and other Amazigh organizations have generally supported the idea of Algeria as a bilingual state, with recognition given to the Amazigh language and to colloquial Arabic, which, rather than literary Arabic, is the language of most of the population. As a result, these organizations have often allied themselves with non-Amazighs who wish to achieve a more democratic and pluralist society.
The spontaneous nationwide protests of October 1988, during which Amazighs mobilised in Algiers and in Kabylie, forced the Algerian government to support constitutional change including ending the one-party system. In July 1989, the national assembly passed a new law on political parties that allowed for groups independent of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) to apply for registration and to compete in national elections. Among the parties that applied were the FFS and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), both Amazigh-based political organizations. However, the new law prohibited groups based ‘exclusively on a particular religion, language, region, sex or race’ and states that parties must use only the Arabic language in their official communiqués.
The Tuareg are nomadic Amazighs. They speak a variety of Tamazight called Tamasheq and they inhabit the Sahara in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Raiding and the control of caravan routes were the traditional mainstays of Tuareg economic activities in pre-colonial times. Increasingly, French control limited the raiding of salt caravans to Niger. Independence brought the almost total disruption of Tuareg society with its large class of slaves (iklan) brought from Sudan and former slaves (haratin). Socialist ideology and nationalism committed Algeria to the assimilation of minority groups and the welding of the north and south into a unified state. Freed slaves began to rise against the Tuareg and refuse to pay their contract dues for cultivating land. Violent skirmishes resulted in the imprisonment of some Tuareg and a policy of promoting sedentary lifestyles through the construction of cooperatives. By the end of the 1960s the Tuareg had little choice but to assimilate into the Algerian mainstream.
In 2001, years of Amazigh agitation for greater recognition of their Tamazight language, music and culture culminated in rioting, and dozens of deaths. The government amended the Constitution and Tamazight was recognized as a national language in 2002.
In February 2006, the cabinet of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared a six-month amnesty for most Islamist militants who were involved in the civil war of the 1990s if they agreed to disarm, but by its expiration fewer than 300 militants had accepted the offer. The sweeping ‘law implementing the charter on peace and national reconciliation’ also criminalized discussion of the conflict. Some Amazigh organizations that favour a secular Algerian state, such as the Movement for Autonomy in Kabylie, feared that the Bouteflika government was getting too close to the Islamists, even as this relationship remained ambivalent. In October 2006, the president of the Popular Assembly in the Tizi Ouzou province of the Kabylie region was shot and killed. The government blamed Islamic militants for this and two other assassinations of Amazigh leaders over the previous 13 months.
Major Kabyle centres, especially in the key wilaya or province of Tizi Ouzou, subsequently saw a growth in what a local commentator referred to as ‘militant apathy’ among the Amazigh electorate. This resulted in historically low turnouts in the legislative elections of May 2007, with similarly low turnout in municipal elections later in November 2007. In addition, there was an increase in local tensions within nationally based parties including the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Socialist Forces Front (FFS). In the southern town of Berriane, three days of fighting erupted between rival Amazigh and Arab gangs in May 2008.
In 2016, following increasing demands, Tamazight was finally recognised as an official language. The Preamble of the Constitution states that the fundamental components of the identity of the Algerian people are ‘Islam, Arabity and Amazighity’. The text of the Constitution stipulates in Article 223 that any constitutional revision cannot affect Tamazight as a national and official language.
In January 2018, the 12th of January, which corresponds to the first day of the Amazigh year, was decreed a national day. This was perceived as a gesture of openness to and official recognition of the Amazigh dimension of Algeria.
In February 2019, the Algerian Hirak (the word means ‘movement’ in Arabic) commenced as millions of Algerians began to protest peacefully in the streets of the main cities, demanding that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down, opposing his candidacy for a fifth Presidential term. Many Amazighs joined the protests. Human rights violations have been reported by NGOs, including the disproportionate use of force by police to control the crowds as well as the arbitrary arrest of protestors. In June 2019, General Salah prohibited protestors from carrying the Amazigh flag during the protests, criminalizing its use, and leading to the arrest of hundreds of Algerians.
Updated January 2023
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