360° Analysis

The Politics of Identity: A Berber Spring in Algeria?


August 03, 2012 16:03 EDT

Algeria recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, but for those who are not Arab, repression continues. Fair Observer's Casper Wuite spoke to two members of the Movement Autonome Kabylie, a Berber movement that fights for cultural autonomy, in Algeria.

Algeria marked the 50th anniversary of her independence on July 5. Every Algerian city and village sustained casualties during the 8-year independence war, therefore, the agenda has been full of commemoration activities. It signifies a well-founded pride in a liberation that has come at an immense cost to the country. But until today, the ideology of the state remains a prisoner of the independence war, mute to its citizens' cultural and economic disquietudes.

The Native Berber Population

As such, Algeria's youth is increasingly divided between pride in their country's liberation and a sense of betrayal by a string of army-backed leaders who have failed to live up to the sacrifices of those who died. Meanwhile, the concept of a historically Arab Algeria that has emerged in the passing of French Algeria, has done much to marginalise Algeria's native, Berber population.

As the Arab Uprisings took root in North Africa last year, Berbers in every country in the region took advantage to advocate for their political and cultural rights. In Mali, a renewed Tuareg uprising is pushing for recognition of their identity and an independent state, while in post-rebellion Tunisia and Libya, the Berber community has mounted campaigns to secure recognition of their cultural rights and Tamazigh language.

Some of the fiercest resistance to Arab assimilation has come from Berbers in Algeria, widely credited with founding the modern Berber movement in the 1960s. The Arab Uprisings have galvanized Algerian Berbers into a renewed effort that has culminated in a number of protests. The biggest of these, saw tens of thousands take to the streets of Tizi Ouzou, the centre of a Berber revolt in Algeria, in April this year.

This begs the question – how is the Berber movement looking to redefine the governance of Algeria? And, will the revival of the Amazigh identity throughout North Africa over the past year help redefine governance in the region as it is currently taking place?

“Algerians and Muslims, but not Arabs”

I meet Ahmed Ait Bachir in a cafe in the centre of Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylie. It is two weeks before the 2012 parliamentary elections and it is relatively quiet in the cradle of Berber Algeria. In his fifties, he introduces himself as “an activist for human rights, freedom of expression, and the Berber language”. Ait Bachir is a founding member of the Mouvement Autonome Kabyle (MAK), the separatist Berber movement led by folk-singer Ferhat Mehenni.

“We are Algerians and Muslims but we are not Arabs”, begins Ait Bachir. He refers to the idea of an exclusive Algerian identity that began to take shape in the 1930s when the Arabic language and Islam were proclaimed as integral to the Algerian identity by the emerging national movement in opposition to French colonial rule. "Colonization brought the genocide of our identity, of our history, of our language [and] of our traditions," President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said on Algerian television in 2006.

Under the leadership of the National Liberation Front (FLN), this concept of an indivisible Algerian identity – nationalist, Muslim, and Arab – was further consolidated. The Berber minority in Algeria, estimated at between 6 and 10 million, have always maintained a strong determination to preserve their distinctive cultural identity and language. “Efforts to force us to use Arabic are a form of Arab imperialism”, explains Ait Bachir. Although Berber became an official — but not a national — language in Algeria in 2002, the Tamazigh language is still not to be taught in public schools or in university. “Our community is traumatised – we feel like our body parts have been amputated”.

Although Ait Bachir brands the MAK “as activists for the autonomy of the region”, he stresses that the Berber problem “is a cultural problem”. According to Ait Bachir, the struggle of the MAK is one of “cultural re-vindication”. “We need to re-found the state, reconfigure the nation – define a common space with rules that bind us all”, argues Ait Bachir. For the MAK, the revision of the constitution, in order to guarantee the Berber's cultural rights, is the first step.

Over the past year, the Algerian government has been careful to connect such Berber aspirations to the broader discontent percolating in the country. As far as the regime is concerned, the election and the subsequent process of constitutional reform, initiated by President Boutefilka to quell social unrest in the country, should not be seen as opportunities for advocating more de-centralisation of any kind.

“Through repression and intimidation, and with a lack of money, it has been hard to operate”, says Ait Bachir. The recently enacted Law for Political Parties only allows competing political parties to organise meetings during the election period, and has been hurting the MAK particularly.

“The law limits our activities to social media, internet, and demonstrations. Even the Berber TV and radio stations are run by those loyal to the regime”, laments Ait Bachir.

In any case, in a country that does not allow political parties to be based on religion or regional affinity, it seems impossible for a movement like the MAK to gain political power to advance its cause. Moreover, given the strategic importance of Algeria as an oil and gas supplier and a front against terrorism, there is no hope for foreign intervention. “Foreign countries are being manipulated by the regime”, says Ait Bachir. A letter by the MAK to the UN Human Rights Council has been left unanswered since 2008.

“A Revolution Within the Revolution”

“Algeria's independence has been confiscated – we need a revolution within the revolution”, argues Ait Bachir. Several historic leaders of the FLN came from this region, including Hocine Aït Ahmed, Abane Ramdane, and Karim Belkacem. But over time, such leaders have proven to be of little worth to the Berber cause. The question now is whether the goal of such a peaceful revolution would be to revolutionise Algerian society or to actually secede from it.

Founded in 2001, the MAK has been advocating the latter, regional autonomy, a reflection of the lack of faith in the current political system to bring (cultural) justice. Although the MAK claims to be the largest Berber movement, it has been hindered by the politics of the wider cultural Berber movement. Outside this movement, the MAK's separatistposition has politically isolated them. As Webster Brooks, a former senior fellow at the University of Denver, argued: “the Berbers have very few friends”.

Secular parties in Algeria that traditionally have had ties with the Berber movement, such as the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), have been reluctant to promote Berber cultural rights, fearing political blowback from the Algerian electorate. To many in Algeria, the violence of the ongoing Arab Uprisings and the Islamist popular take-over in neighbouring countries is the triumph of the Algeria model with which the ideas of the MAK have little in common.

Islamists refuse to fight for the Berber's political and cultural aspirations, under the guise of the so-called "Kabylie Myth", the narrative that Berbers are anti-Arab and anti-Islamist separatists. At the same time, according to Brooks, “the ruling elites seek to diminish or crush Berber demands in an effort to prevent them from uniting with democratic seculars and Islamists; mortified at the prospect of a majority opposition movement emerging against their authoritarian rule”.

The 2012 parliamentary elections have proved once again that rather than truly setting forth on a course of responsible and gradual reform, the regime is using the Arab Uprisings as an opportunity to solidify its own power base. The only public soul-searching that is part of this exercise is one of perpetually rediscovering the same old truisms that form Algeria's identity. That there is no common public space to defend, but that which excludes the Berber minority, is a testimony of the the Berber minority’s lack of trust in the current political system.

However, the shape of the current political landscape indicates that Algeria's ”revolution within the revolution” will not be ushered in by a separatist Berber uprising, by Western intervention, or through the ballot box. How canthe revival of the Amazigh identity throughout North Africa over the past year help redefine governance in the Middle East, particularly in Algeria, as it is currently taking place?

Breaking the Isolation

Over the past half century, a small group, better known as “le pouvoir”, has been able to monopolise power in the absence of clear checks and balances. The main strategic mistake of groups such as the MAK is that in advocating their cause, they have preferred to settle their own scores and alienate the mainstream, paving the way for the regime's divide-and-rule strategy.

In the words of Adam Shatz in an article for the Boston Globe in 2003, the question is whether the Berber movement realises that they can only achieve their goals as the embryo of Algerian democracy rather than as a growing and unappeasable separatist movement. They simply do not have enough clout on their own to force a secession. However, what goes for the Berber movements goes for all other opposition parties: Islamists and secularists alike, they must forge a common ground.

Thus, if the Berber revival is to mean anything for the plight of Berbers in Algeria, it must mean something to everyone else. This is the challenge of fighting authoritarianism – to commit

everyone to fighting for a new state in which all groups are able to express themselves and compete. It is a movement bound only by an opposition to a regime that prefers to settle its differences in a common political space with common rules rather than by making backhanded deals with the regime. This is what the regime is desperately trying to avoid.

For the Berber movement this a two-fold exercise. It must tap into the secular stream of thought of many of Algeria's opposition parties to frame its cultural rights rather than portray this as an ethnic issue. At the same time, as Brooks rightly argues: “they must become mainstream leaders in the fight for economic improvement and anti-corruption measures that fuelled the Arab Spring uprisings”. These should be the pillars of common resistance against the regime's stronghold. In Algeria's current political landscape, characterised by paralysis and apathy, this is a formidable task.

As such, breaking the isolation of the Berbers in Algeria should have a profound international dimension. Now is the time for the Berber Diaspora, particularly in France and the United States, to escalate public opinion about the historical struggle of Berbers for freedom and cultural recognition. International policy-makers are squeezed between their commitment to the values of the Arab Uprisings and their dependence on the geopolitical realities on the ground – oil and terrorism predominantly. The vision of a culturally re-vindicated Berber population leading a front for a culturally Islamic, politically secular, economically social, Algeria, will be hard for them to resist.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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