Algeria does not need a fresh eruption of Berber nationalism after a debilitating decade-long ‘civil’ war waged by the secular establishment, dominated by the military, against the country’s Islamic movements. But that is exactly what it has on its hands at the moment, and the fault lies with the generals and politicians, who have taken a leaf out of their Turkish counterparts’ book, declaring war on the only culture capable of unifying Algeria’s diverse groups. The ruling elite ought to consider, if only for its own good, why and how the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been able to take the sting out of Kurdish nationalism in its territory , while Turkey has failed totally to do so, and Berber unrest has resurfaced in the country it has been misruling since July 1962.
The current unrest follows the shooting in custody on April 18 of a youth who had been arrested by the gendarmerie, the force responsible for keeping order in the countryside. The incident coincided with the anniversary of the “Berber spring” in 1980 that marked the beginning of open agitation for the recognition of Berber language and culture. This may explain the ferocity of demonstrations that swept the five provinces of the Berber region of Kabyla for two weeks, resulting in the deaths of more than 60 people. Protesters, mainly youths, targeted riot-police and public buildings, turning the streets of Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, the two regional capitals, into “war zones”, according to local media-reports. Even the local buildings of the two parties that speak for Berbers — the Front de Force Socialites (FFS) and the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie (RCDO) — were burnt to the ground.
Berber-speakers, who comprise about 20 percent of the population, have sought from time to time official recognition of their cultural identity. As Algeria’s independence from France approached, they hoped that their full participation in the 1954-62 war of liberation would help their dream to come true. But the country’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, set official policy on the issue when he declared on 1962 that Algerians were Arabs. “We are all Arabs,” he said in an imperious tone that could only offend. Had he said that all Algerians are Muslims he would have been nearer to the truth and less offensive. Even then the Berbers did not erupt into open confrontation with the authorities, and continued to seek official cultural recognition discreetly until 1980. It was in March of that year that Berber resentment first exploded into a series of strikes and demonstrations in Kabyla, continuing well into April. But the government managed to contain this unrest without making significant concessions.
But in their current protests the Berbers are demanding an end not only to the official rejection of their cultural identity but also to their economic deprivation. The demands of the young protesters centre on the lack of housing and of employment as well as educational opportunities. In fact most Algerians have the same problems, despite their country’s rich gas and oil resources, as the civil war, official corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement have brought the economy almost to a halt. It is interesting to note that hundreds of university students in Algiers, the capital, came out to demonstrate their sympathy with the protesters in Kabyla: this suggests that, given the right government policy, the shared economic hardship and resentment of official neglect could well be harnessed to defuse the Berbers’ anger before it develops into a movement for a separate state.
Unfortunately, so far the government has proven unequal to the task. In the initial stages of the protests the authorities saw fit to ignore them, although many demonstrators had been killed by rubber bullets fired by riot-police. President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, for instance, made a speech that lasted five hours, yet failed to mention the unrest. The only official statement came from Yazid Zarhaouni, the interior minister, who sided totally with the police and showed no sympathy whatsoever for the demonstrators’ position. “In all of the cases resulting in loss of life, the members of the security forces were cornered and forced to preserve the safely of the people and property, faced with demonstrators who were out of control,” he said.
It took a week of demonstrations and many deaths to force Bouteflika to make a statement. During a televised speech on April 30 he expressed sympathy for the demonstrators and their suffering, but he could not resist the temptation to blame unnamed troublemakers both inside and outside Algeria for fanning hatred and divisions. “These events did not happen by chance,” he said; “there are people who are deliberately fomenting divisions and separatism —we know who they are and they will be unmasked.” Bouteflika also promised to appoint a commission of enquiry and even suggested that the constitution could be amended to address the issue of the Berber language. But the president said nothing really new, and Algerians are fed up with successive regimes making unfulfilled promises and blaming external troublemakers for events for which they are mainly responsible. In any case, Bouteflika is president only in name, his attempt to end the civil war having failed, and his government being subject to the approval of the generals. That is why his suggestion that the constitution could be amended to accommodate Berber demands for recognition of their language is likely to prove a passing remark designed to defuse a dangerous situation temporarily. The generals can hardly be expected to allow his suggestion to be translated into official policy.
Contrast all this with the policy of the Islamic Revolution in Iran on minorities. Article 15 of the Constitution allows minorities to be taught in their own languages at school. Extensive decentralisation and additional rights for minorities have defused regional resentment of the central government in Tehran, and led to the growth of publications in other languages. There is even a film, Time for Drunken Horses, that is in Kurdish and is shown in cinemas with Farsi and English subtitles. Moreover, Islamic reforms have largely eliminated corruption in the public and commercial sectors, removing the sort of cronyism and malpractice that encourage competition for ill-gotten gains among members of different groups.
The Algerians can only profit from looking to the Iranian reforms for guidance. But the first step is to halt the war and hang or shoot the generals, their foreign bosses and their local puppets, which the present regime cannot do.