Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Updated May 2008
Estimated population in (2004): Between 6.6 and 9.9 million est.
Ethnicity: Kabyle, Shawiya, Mozabites and Tuareg
First language/s: Tamazight
Religion/s: Islam, some Christianity and traditional beliefs
Berbers call themselves Imazighen, meaning noble or free born. The term ‘Berber’ derives from the Greek barbario and the Latin barbari from which Arabs derived the term ‘barbariy’, meaning primitive or foreign. The Berber-speaking population of Algeria constitutes a little over one quarter of the population and is concentrated in the mainly mountainous areas of Kabylia, Aurès, the M’zab and the Sahara.
The Berber culture is not homogenous. Its existing constituent subcultures have relatively little in common outside the common root of their spoken dialects. About half of the Berber-speaking population is concentrated in the mountainous areas east of Algiers – Kabylia – and this area and its language have been at the centre of most Berber issues in modern Algeria. Over time the Kabyles have moved in large numbers to the cities of both Algeria and France in search of employment. The second largest Berber group, the Shawiya, inhabit the rugged mountains of eastern Algeria. Two smaller Berber communities are the Mozabites of the area around Ghardaia and the Tuareg nomads of the south. The 12,000 Tuareg, who are nomadic Berbers, live almost exclusively in the mountainous massifs of Ajjer and Ahaggar in southern Algeria. Geographical dispersion of Berber-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 Berbers, except Mozabites, are Sunni Muslims.
Berbers are the indigenous inhabitants of the North African littoral, isolated from the rest of Africa by the Sahara Desert. Periods of control by the Carthage and Roman empires were interspersed with the establishment of Berber kingdoms. Most Berbers were Christian prior to the mid-seventh century, when waves of Arab migration into the region brought cultural changes and introduced Islam.
Although rural Berber 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, the Berbers refused to recognize central authority or to pay taxes.
At independence, Arabic became the sole official language of Algeria. Linguistic and cultural expressions of Berber were forbidden, and this created resentment among Berber-speakers, as did attempts to increase the numbers of Arabic-speakers in the administration. 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 Berbers had played a full part in that struggle. The 1990 Arabization bill projected the complete Arabization of the administration and schools by 1992 and of higher education institutions by 2000.
Although the government feared Berber separatism, there appears to be little support for separatism. There is support, however, for a greater recognition of Berber identity and rights for Berber-speakers within a more democratic and pluralist Algerian state. The most enduring form of Berber opposition has come from broader based cultural movements.
Opposition to Arabization
The Kabyle capital, Tizi-Ouzou, is the bastion of opposition to Arabization. Throughout the 1970s, Berber musicians and poets used a modernized form of traditional Berber music to implicitly criticize the Algerian regime. Although popular demand 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 Berber 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 Berber organizations have generally supported the idea of Algeria as a bilingual state, with recognition given to the Berber language and to colloquial Arabic, which, rather than literary Arabic, is the language of the majority of the population. As a result they have often allied themselves to non-Berbers who wish to achieve a more democratic and pluralist society.
In 1985 there were further arrests and imprisonment of Berber activists. The spontaneous nationwide protests of October 1988 in which Berbers participated in Algiers and in Kabylia 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 Liberation Nationale (FLN) to apply for registration and to compete in national elections. Among those parties that applied were the FFS and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), another Berber-based political organization. The new law however prohibited groups based ‘exclusively on a particular religion, language, region, sex or race’ and states that parties must use only the Arabic languages in their official communiqués.
Tuareg are nomadic Berbers. Raiding and the control of caravan routes were the traditional mainstays of Tuareg economic activities in pre-colonial times, but increasing French control limited raiding and necessitated the development 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, haratin, 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 system.
In 2001, years of Berber agitation for greater recognition of their Tamazight language, music and culture culminated in rioting, and dozens of deaths. The government amended the constitution in October 2001 to make Berber a ‘national’, but not an ‘official’ language. The implementation in January 2005 of further vague government concessions to Berber demands, stemming from the unrest in 2001, has been since been overshadowed by a deal between the government and Islamic extremists.
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 Berber organisations 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 Berber leaders over the previous 13 months.
Major Kabyle centres, especially the key wilaya (province) of Tizi Ouzou, have seen a growth in what one local commentator refers to as ‘militant apathy’ among the Berberophone electorate. This resulted in historically low turnouts in the legislative elections of May 2007, with a repeat looking likely in munuicipal elections due in November 2007. In addition, there has been 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 Berber and Arab gangs in May 2008.