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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Berbers in Algeria

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Algeria Facts
Area:    2,381,741 sq. km.
Capital:    Algiers
Total Population:    30,481,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

Algerian Berbers possess several risk factors for rebellion. These include persistent protest in the past decade, territorial concentration, and high levels of group organization and cohesion. While Berber citizens have not been subject to harsh government repression, many Berbers hold the government responsible for not protecting them from attacks by Muslim fundamentalist militants. Despite these risks, Berber rebellion seems unlikely in the near future. Berber political organization is overwhelmingly conventional, with Berber political parties and cultural organizations focusing their energies on nonviolent protests, electoral politics, and national and international public awareness campaigns. Continued democratization of Algerian politics will also alleviate the risk of Berber rebellion.

Berber protest will probably continue so long as Berbers remain underrepresented in national politics and Tamazight remains an unofficial language. This is despite the fact that, in 1995, and again in 2002, the government recognized Tamazight as a national language. In addition, in 2000, the government created the National Pedagogic and Language Centre for the Teaching of Tamazight, and in 2005, Algerian state television launched a Berber-language television station. Nevertheless, Berbers still cannot participate fully in Algerian society without knowledge of French or Arabic. Algeria’s new and unstable democracy provides ample opportunities for Berbers, particularly those in Kabylia, to protest. The issue of the Berber language is not going away and is driving a wedge between the Berbers and the secular government. This estrangement leaves the Berbers in a very difficult situation. If Islamic fundamentalists come to power, the Berbers are sure to suffer greatly. Conversely, the more the government tries to play the Arabic national card, the more the Berbers are going to suffer. For the situation to improve, the establishment of a real democracy is needed. As such, most organizations representing Berbers advocate for democratic reforms. Moves towards an electoral representation alone may result in the language issue becoming even more potent as an issue around which to garner votes.

Although Berber protests since independence have been primarily nonviolent, recent events also demonstrate that violence results from certain catalysts. The assassination of Berber entertainer/nationalist Matoub Lounes in 1998 sparked riots, and annual protests (with limited instances of violence) have been held each year since. The death of a Berber youth being held in police custody in spring 2001 also sparked three months of riots, in which several dozen Berbers were killed by security forces. The incident and its aftermath mobilized several hundred thousand Berbers to take to the streets. In the lead up to the 2004 presidential election, a protest turned violent, with protestors throwing rocks and security forces using tear gas on the crowd. These violent outbursts highlight the tension underlying Berber-Arab tensions in Algeria and are a potent warning of the possibilities for Berber rebellion if their grievances are not addressed in a meaningful way.

Although Islamic fundamentalism has been forced into a retreat, it remains a threat to Berber lives, identity, language and culture. Islamic fundamentalists consider the Berbers secular, at best, and some go so far as to call them heretics. Should the Islamic fundamentalists gain power, their campaign to Islamicize the Berbers is likely to be bloody. Given Berbers’ continued identification with secular culture in Algeria, and the move for Berber political parties to push for a separation between Islam and the state, the Berbers continue to be important targets for the Islamic fundamentalist movement. In October, 2006, the president of the Provincial People’s Assembly in Tizi Ouzou and Socialist Forces Front (Front des Forces Socialistes) member Raba Aissant was murdered, most likely by Islamic militants.

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Analytic Summary

Berbers (Amazigh) are the descendants of the original inhabitants of North Africa, going back at least to the fifth century B.C. Punic settlement was the first challenge to Berber culture. Roman, Vandal, Byzantine and Arab rule followed. The Arab invasion of the seventh century brought about the Arabization of several cities and most of the coastal area, but most of Algeria’s countryside remained Tamazight-speaking well into the 12th century. The Arabization of the countryside accelerated during the invasion of Arab nomads from Egypt in the late 11th century and by the late 18th century Berber speakers were limited to the least accessible parts of the country – high mountains, distant oases and desert plateaus, and mountain areas where the vast majority of Berbers live today. These areas include: Kabylia (Djurdia Mountains) southeast of Algiers, the Aures Mountains southeast of Constantine and Ouarseni Massiv, southwest of Algiers.

Berbers have a long history of resisting Arab rule, despite being converted to Islam in the 8th century. They were periodically able to maintain independent kingdoms and empires from shortly after the time of the Arab invasion until the 16th century. They resisted the rule of the Ottoman Turks. They also opposed French colonial rule despite a policy of preferential treatment by the French. In 1857, almost 30 years after conquering Algeria from the Ottomans, France finally took administrative control over Kabylia (AUTLOST = 1). Even once the French took control, the Berbers in Kabylia continued to resist, In 1876, 1882 and 1897, the Berbers in Kabylia staged massive uprisings against French forces. Kabylians also participated heavily in the Algerian War of Independence.

The majority of Algerians have at least some Berber heritage, and many are descendents of Arabized Berbers (RACE = 0). However, only roughly 20 percent of the population identify themselves as Berber (GPRO06 = 22). Due to their shared heritage, the primary distinguishing characteristic of Berbers is linguistic, although some cultural traits are also relevant (CUSTOM04-06 = 1). Linguistic distinctions, along with territorial concentration, have resulted in a strong identity forming among Berbers.

The ruling Arab majority decided to Arabize Algeria following independence in 1963 to counter the French colonial influence on their state. This included making Arabic the only official language of Algeria. While the Berbers were not the direct target of this policy, they suffered from it. Linguistic discrimination became the driving force behind the formation of Berber political parties. In 1963, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) split off from the National Liberation Front (FLN), which has been Algeria’s dominant political party both during the revolution and for most of Algeria’s history. The FFS, which continues to be a Berber-dominated party, consistently calls for official status for Tamazight (the Berber language) and for a secular, pluralist polity. The FFS also calls for greater autonomy for Berber-dominated regions and more Berber input into central policy decisions (POLGR06 = 3). The FLN, which has controlled Algeria’s government since independence, has virtually excluded Berbers from high-ranking positions within the party. This policy has effectively excluded Berbers from high-ranking positions in Algeria’s government.

In 1989, the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) was formed as a Berber political party, focusing on Berber cultural rights as well as broader democratization issues. The RCD and the FFS have also jointly formed the Berber Cultural Movement (MCB) as an umbrella organization under which the two parties undertake joint action. In 1999, RCD joined the coalition government, marking the first time since independence a Berber-dominated party has been part of a ruling coalition. While this is an important signal of increased Berber inclusion, the RCD has not been successful in pushing Berber linguistic issues (CULGR04-06 = 2). Since the violence of 2001, the FFS and the RCD have been joined by two more influential parties, the Berber Citizens Movement and the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK), which is based primarily in France due to its illegal status (GOJPA04-06 = 2).

During the 1980s and 1990s, the challenge to the Algerian government by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and other Islamic parties constituted a new challenge for the Berbers. These parties call for the Islamization of Algeria which includes the mandatory use of Arabic in schools and government. This has resulted in both governmental concessions in that area and sporadic direct confrontations between the secular Berber parties and Islamic fundamentalists. While the fundamentalists were forced into a tactical retreat by the late 1990s, they still constitute a major threat to Berber populations and aspirations for several reasons. First, their appeal is strong among the Algerian population. Second, several fundamentalist militants retreated into the Berber-dominated Kabylia region, one of the more inaccessible regions to security forces and also one of the most staunchly secular regions. Sporadic attacks, which have resulted in the deaths of several Berbers, have continued up through 2006 (CCGROUPSEV106 = 3).

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References

CIAWorld Fact Book, 2004-2006.

Country Studies – Library of Congress, 2004-2006.

The Christian Science Monitor, 1990-1994.

"The Distant Voices of France" The Economist, 1.29/94. pp. 89-90.

Fischer, Eric Minorities and Minority Problems, New York: Vantage, 1980.

Joshua Project, 2004-2006.

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990-1994.

Lexis/Nexis, Reuters News, Factiva, 1990-2006.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce “The Berber Question in Algeria” in Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor (eds.) Minorities and the State in the Arab World, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1999.

Ruedy, John Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1992.

Tissas, Kusyel "Berber By Any Other Name" Index on Censorship, 21 (5), 1992. p. 21.

The Washington Post, 1990-1994.

Zartman, I. William & William Mark Habeeb (eds.) Polity and Society in Contemporary North Africa, Boulder: Westview, 1993.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006