Language and education – AlgeriaThe ongoing struggle of indigenous Tamazight speakers in the wake of the pandemic
When COVID-19 hit Algeria, the country was entering its second year of peaceful protests, globally known as the Hirak (Arabic for ‘movement’). Protesters first took to the streets in February 2019 calling for the removal of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who at the time was seeking a fifth term in office after two decades in power.
Although Bouteflika was removed in April 2019 by the army, the movement continued to push for a more fundamental transformation of the corrupt political system.
The controversial election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune in December 2019, a former prime minister under Bouteflika, did not meet the movement’s expectations. However, when in March 2020 the Algerian government announced a series of restrictive measures in response to the first registered death from COVID-19 in the country, the Hirak also decided to suspend their weekly Friday and Tuesday marches, led by the general public and by students respectively, as a civic duty to contain the pandemic.
Yet the government does not seem to have acted in the same spirit of solidarity towards the activists. This is illustrated in particular by its treatment of Amazigh organizations. According to a press release of the Congrés Mondial Amazigh, Amazigh communities in Algeria had already mobilized against COVID-19 back in February 2020, before governmental measures were introduced in March, by putting in place ‘vigilance committees’ to limit the spread of the virus in their areas. This autonomous approach, building on the strong cultural and geographical cohesion of many Amazigh, was also prompted by the weakness of the country’s public health infrastructure. The state, however, responded with suspicion, accusing committees of treason and dismantling some village checkpoints using military force.
A history of discrimination
Tamazight languages were originally spoken from the Canary Islands to Western Egypt (a region called Tamazgha by the Amazighs). Estimates of current Tamazight speakers in Algeria vary significantly, from 17 per cent to 45–55 per cent of the population (taking into account bi- and trilingual speakers) with some regions being heavily Tamazigh-speaking, such as Kabyle. 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 has dozens of thousands of speakers.
The decline of Tamazight in Algeria (mirrored in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia) was due to the spread of Arabic as the dominant language of religion and mainstream culture, and the rise of French as a prestige language during the colonial era. This erosion was further accelerated by assimilationist policies that even prohibited use of the language: for example, conferences in Tamazight were cancelled. In response, however, the 1980s witnessed a revitalization movement in the region, known as the Amazigh spring. This emerged in a context where, officially, repression of any languages besides Arabic was widespread: the 1989 Algerian Constitution recognized Arabic as the sole national and official language, for instance, while the 1991 Algerian Code on the Use of Arabic Language restricted the use of any language other than Arabic in various circumstances.
A major change came with the creation of the Haut Commissariat à l’Amazighité (HCA) in 1995, placed under the direct supervision of the president of the republic with the objective of promoting the Amazigh language. This followed a year of strikes by students and professors in Kabyle, who were protesting the lack of Tamazight teaching in this predominantly Amazigh region.
A 2002 constitutional amendment subsequently instituted Tamazight as a second national language, echoed in the provision of the 2016 Constitution which, while affirming Arabic as the official language, also states that ‘Tamazight shall also be a national and official language’, with a range of measures to support its promotion and development, including the creation of a dedicated language academy.
Estimates of current Tamazight speakers in Algeria vary significantly, from 17 per cent to 45–55 per cent of the population.
Tamazight learning and education: a casualty of the pandemic
In the 25 years since the launch of the HCA in 1995 and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been some progress in the rollout of Tamazight teaching in schools in many governorates, yet significant gaps have remained, hampered by limited funding allocations and insufficient planning. The precarious gains of recent years have also been undermined in the wake of the pandemic. To some extent, these challenges were experienced across the country’s entire education system, with primary and secondary schools closed from mid-March 2020 for more than seven months. As for universities, where online teaching remained in place in most cases until December 2020, when the HCA also reopened its doors for adult Tamazight courses, distance learning was undermined by poor internet connections and limited access to laptops and other equipment.
These problems by no means affected Tamazight teaching or the Amazigh people exclusively, as few citizens were left untouched by the crisis, but the long history of marginalization experienced by Tamazight speakers has meant that its impacts have been especially severe. According to Lounes Belkacem, formerly President of the World Amazigh Congress, ‘the state reduced the hours of Amazigh teaching from 3 to 1.5 hours per week. True, most classes were reduced by 50 per cent, however we need to look at the impact. If you divide a big sum into half, there is still a lot left, but if you divide a small one into an even smaller one, there is not much left. So it is not really equitable – everything seems to be made [so as] to suggest that it is not important.’
It is also important to situate these developments against the broader backdrop of rights restrictions that have been rolled out in Algeria during the pandemic. The new Constitution was criticized for the lack of a consultation process around it: though approved in a November 2020 referendum, it was boycotted by Hirak protesters and there was a very low voter turnout. Another major development was the amendment of the Penal Code in April 2020, including a law officially presented as a law against discrimination and hate speech, but which in reality threatens the work of human rights groups and Amazigh activists. The amendments imposed harsh penalties for organizations receiving foreign funding, increased penalties for contempt of public authorities and also added the crime of ‘spreading false news to harm security or public order’.
This came at a moment when several prominent figures in the Hirak, including Amazigh activists, were being imprisoned, such as Yacine Mebarki, sentenced to 10 years in prison in October 2020 (later reduced to one year) for online posts. While the 2020 Constitution celebrates the Hirak movement in its preamble, and the new president, Abdelmadjid Tabboune, has described it as ‘blessed’ on a number of occasions, in reality there has so far been little evidence of democratic change. Two years on from the movement’s momentous beginnings, Hirak activists and journalists continue to be imprisoned. In February 2021, people again took to the streets to mark the second anniversary of the Hirak, while the president announced the release of around 60 people imprisoned for their participation in the movement.
Towards a rights-based approach to the Tamazight language
There have also been recent signs of improvement with regard to the formal learning and use of Tamazight in Algeria. In 2019, for instance, Algeria won the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize for its National Strategy for Multilingual Literacy led by the National Office of Literacy and Education for Adults in Algeria. In the same year, the HCA established a collaboration with the African Academy of Languages, enabling the creation in 2020 of a commission for the Amazigh language under its auspices. The government has also reported an increase in the number of students taught Tamazight and plans have been put in place to expand access for potential learners. In May 2020, the HCA announced the need to develop an Amazigh linguistic map which would help establish a strategy for the development of Tamazight on the ground, with a national consultation scheduled to take place in November before it was postponed on public health grounds.
Yet many problems remain. According to commentators, one of the obstacles in the delivery of good Tamazight teaching is the lack of linguistic planning to accompany the legal guarantees and practical moves, such as allocation of the funding necessary for an increase in the number of teachers in primary, secondary and tertiary education, although there are a number of trained professionals who could take on positions if these were funded; moreover, law no. 2008 on national education, still valid today, provides it as an optional component only (unlike Arabic and French), and reforms have been requested by Amazigh activists and teachers. The secretary of HCA, Si El Hachemi Assad, has spoken repeatedly in support of demands to reform this law and to integrate the teaching of Tamazight into the national education system to give this language ‘its rightful place’ as the mother tongue of many Algerians. He has also noted that in some areas there has been an apparent dip in engagement in Tamazight learning at school. For example, in certain areas such as Jijel, some parents have reportedly protested against Tamazight being taught to their children, demonstrating that the historic stigmatization of the language has not disappeared.
In summary, despite some hard-won progress in recent years and the unavoidable pressures brought on by the pandemic, the ongoing shortfalls in the learning and revitalization of Tamazight in Algeria are also rooted in the ongoing struggles to secure equal rights and opportunities. Although there has been an increasing improvement of official Tamazight education in the last couple of years, this could be seen as part of a larger strategy of concessions, while keeping control centralized and away from the Amazigh communities themselves, which have been targeted by restrictive measures and have been less able to engage in informal community-based language teaching. For all of Algeria’s citizens, but particularly its Amazigh communities, emerging from the shadow of COVID-19 will also require a renewed focus on human rights and inclusion.
 Known also as ‘Berber languages’. MRG avoids using this term as it is an exonym (chosen by others) and often perceived as derogatory by the communities.
Photo: Amazigh women celebrating New Year 2970 in Sahel village, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers, 12 January 2020. Yennayer, the first month of the Berber Year, is marked as a national holiday in Algeria for the third time. Credit: EPA-EFE/STRINGER.