The Berber Question: Nationalism in the Making?


The Berber seems to be content to be drawn gradually into and assimilated by his country’s general ethos, to lose his identity in Arab society. Berber nationalism has become an outmoded doctrine, if it ever existed in the first place. The Berber of today may remember the tales of his father’s father, of the glory of the Berber tribes; but he will not attempt to emulate his forebears. Instead, when asked his identity, he will say he is an Arab or an Algerian or Moroccan. Imazigher [sic] is a forgotten word.
The original inhabitants of North Africa between Egypt’s Western Desert and the Atlantic Ocean have been known to the outside world since antiquity by the once contemptuous epithet “Berbers� (from the Greek word barbaroi, meaning “barbarian�). Their social organization was traditionally tribal; their defining characteristic remains their various spoken dialects of a single language, whose origins remain obscure, but which seems related to the language of ancient Libya, Libico-Berber, an Afro-Asiatic (formerly Hamito-Semitic) language. Berber dialects are often incomprehensible to speakers of other Berber dialects from different regions. Despite the problems involved in the very term Berber, it has been gradually adopted by the people who speak variants of the Tamazight language, although many also use the term Amazigh (free man).

Berbers present special problems for any analysis of minorities in the modern Middle East, for they defy neat definitions according to well-established categories. Unlike the Copts or the Christian minorities of the Fertile Crescent, the Berbers were thoroughly Islamized over the course of centuries of Arab conquests. Today, nearly all are Sunnis of the Malikite school, as are their non-Berber Arab compatriots in North Africa. The Kurds “semidiffuseness� partially resembles the Berbers territorial concentration in a few main areas. However, the degree of Arabization experienced by the Berbers, while varying from place to place, was greater, on the whole, than comparable processes of Arabization, Persianization, and Turkification experienced by the Kurds. Moreover, the Kurds, while constituting a majority in their mountainous habitats, remained an ethnolinguistic minority amidst their neighbors. In North Africa, the vast majority of the population descends from the original Berber stock. Perhaps half of all North Africans have been so thoroughly Arabized over the centuries that they have lost all semblance of their Berber origins. Neither Libya nor Tunisia, for example, contain Berber communities of any significant size. The remaining substantial Berber communities in Algeria and Morocco are products, in varying degrees, of an Arab-Berber fusion or synthesis, linguistically, politically, and socially, thus further complicating any efforts to pin down the essence of being Berber and forcing one to employ the very term minority with great caution, depending on the particular context.

Their modern experience, dating from France s occupation of Algeria in 1830, is an additional defining characteristic. Initially in Algeria and later in Morocco, French colonial policy was directed toward distinguishing Berbers from Arabs, to consolidate French control. Politically, this effort was an utter failure: in Algeria, in particular, Berbers played central roles in the 1954-1962 war for independence, whereas in Morocco, the infamous Berber dahir (decree) of 1930, which established a system of customary law tribunals for Berbers separate from other Muslims, served as a rallying cry for Moroccan nationalists of all stripes. Socially, economically, and culturally, however, the impact on Algerian Berbers of both specific French policies and the colonial experience per se were profound. To be sure, this is true for Maghreb societies as a whole, as exemplified by the centrality of the French language in public life and the influence of French culture even today, notwithstanding decades of Arabization policies. The lasting influence of the French experience in North Africa contrasts vividly with both Britain s legacy in Egypt, where the British carried with them nothing comparable to France s mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), and the Fertile Crescent, where French penetration was less far-reaching than in the Maghreb. Writing in 1972, Ernest Gellner declared that “in his heart, the North African knows not merely that God speaks Arabic, but also that modernity speaks French.� Nonetheless, questions regarding language and cultural orientation resonate differently for Berbers than Arabs, particularly in Algeria.

Still, another complicating factor for any analysis is the fragmented nature of Berber society: on the microlevel, many tribal fractions lived, until recent decades, a relatively autonomous existence in remote mountainous regions with only minimal reference to their wider surroundings. On the macrolevel, modern Algeria alone has four distinct Berber communities with different geographic “home bases,� each speaking a distinct dialect, each having a particular history and socioeconomic configuration. Berbers in Morocco, who constitute more than 40 percent of the population, present a similarly varied picture. What distinguishes Morocco from Algeria in this regard is that regime policies in Morocco have been somewhat more flexible toward contemporary manifestations of Berber culture.

Given these unique features, one may ask whether the Berbers constitute a minority at all. It is clear that they do not meet all of the conventional categories associated with minorities in other states. At the same time, it is probably not useful to go the other extreme, as some Berber activists do, and define Algerians and Moroccans as overwhelmingly Berber, whose identity merely needs to be reawakened. A more nuanced and in-depth understanding of North African societies compels one to pose a different set of questions: How do the historical, socioeconomic, and cultural dimensions of Berber life affect contemporary realities, both among Berbers and between Berbers and the state? In what ways have the processes of modernization and political upheaval promoted the integration of Berbers with their wider surroundings? In what ways have they stimulated or enhanced a particular Berber self-consciousness?

It is the intention of this chapter to address the relationship of these issues to the ongoing existential crisis in Algeria, focusing on a number of critical questions. Can one speak, for the first time, of an emerging proto-nationalist, or even explicitly nationalist, movement among the Berbers, whose appeal extends beyond a small circle of Berber intellectuals based in France and North America? If so, what forces are shaping its emergence, and how are they related to the experience of previous decades? What is the relationship between the movement s cultural and political aspects? What is its agenda, and what are its prospects?

A Brief Profile of Algerian Berbers

Most estimates place the number of people in Algeria speaking Berber, either as a first or second lanaguge, at 25 percent to 30 percent, although a recent study views these figures as inflated, and speaks of perhaps 20 percent at the most. Historically, Berber dialects were almost exclusively oral. More recently, some preliminary practical steps have been undertaken toward standardizing the language with a common script and dialect. Much discussion has accompanied this matter, which is far from merely academic, as it touches on core questions of Berber and modern Algerian identities. Whereas Berber activists favor the adoption of a Latin-based alphabet, both Islamists and many Algerian officials insist on the use of the Arabic script.

Approximately two-thirds of Algeria s Berbers are Kabylians, from the Kabylia mountainous region southeast of Algiers. The second largest group, slightly less than one-third of the Berber population, are Chaouias, from the mountainous Aures area further eastward, south of Constantine. They are separated from Kabylia by a fairly narrow Arabic-speaking zone. The two remaining Algerian Berber groups are the small Mzab (Ibadi Muslim) community in the area around Ghardaia in the south, and the Touareg nomads of the Sahara Desert, cutting across the boundaries of Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The latter two are insular communities with little effect on national life. The regime is generally unsympathetic to their needs, especially in the case of the Touaregs. The Chaouias are “compact� and less cosmopolitan than the Kabylians; they emigrated from their home region in fewer numbers and are French-speaking to a lesser extent. Kabylians, in contrast, constitute the heart of the Berber community and are an integral part of Algerian society as a whole, having had the greatest degree of contact with the outside world (Arab Algeria and France) through both emigration and commerce. Thus, the Berber question in Algeria has been, for the most part, synonymous with the Kabylia question. However, one must also take note of increasing manifestations of Berber cultural activism in recent years among the Chaouias as well.

Like the term Berber, Kabylia, the “land of the Kabylians,� is European in origin (French, in this case), coming into usage in the sixteenth century. Prior to the French conquest, the Kabylians defined themselves mainly through their membership in various tribes; indeed, qaba il is the Arabic word for “tribes.� Kabylia is commonly divided into two areas, Greater and Lesser Kabylia, the former being topographically more rugged and thus less accessible to invaders. Kabylia s rough terrain was an ideal refuge for dissidents. Consequently, Berber manners and customs, social mores, communal structures, and the practice of Islam remained more fully intact in Greater Kabylia than elsewhere. The process of cultural and linguistic Arabization, which was stimulated in Algeria by the immigration of the Banu Hilal Arabian tribes during the eleventh century, occurred more slowly and more partially in the Kabylia heartland than elsewhere. Similarly, France was able to impose its rule on Kabylia only in 1857 and after much resistance, twenty-seven years after its troops landed in Algiers.

Despite Kabylia s topographic, climatic, and sociohistoric similarities with parts of Lebanon and Syria, Kabylian Berbers did not develop into a compact minority like the Druze or Alawis. The harshness of temperatures, rocky terrain, dense forests, and poor soil quality of Greater Kabylia stimulated both emigration to more hospitable climes among the Arabs of the plains and coastal areas, and the development of a Kabylian trade network involving the manufacture and sale to the Arabs of commercial crafts, spearheaded by members of the Rahmaniyya religious brotherhood. The Rahmaniyya was the most important religious brotherhood in all of Algeria and provided the leadership and organizational backbone of the failed revolt against French rule in 1871. This duality-strong manifestations of Kabylian particularism and social, economic, and political interactions with surrounding currents-has been an enduring feature of the Kabylia reality up until the present day.

The Impact of Colonial Rule

Notwithstanding, or perhaps even owing to the Kabylians fierce resistance to French rule, France quickly developed a “Berber policy,� based on the Berbers real and supposed distinctiveness vis-à-vis Algerian Arab Muslims, to consolidate French rule. It was a classic case of France s traditional divide-and-rule strategy throughout the Middle East. The Berbers, so went French thinking, had been Islamized only superficially, and could thus be weaned from their essentially primitive, naturalistic folk religion in preparation for “civilizing� them. To this end, Islamic courts were abolished in Kabylia beginning in 1874, and the application of customary tribal law was encouraged. Islamic courts would be reinstituted alongside the French-inspired judicial system only after the attainment of Algerian independence. Similarly, in Morocco, the French authorities were to remove all Berber regions from the jurisdiction of the sultan and the shari‘a (Islamic law). To be sure, Kabylia itself did not witness French-inspired development, and on the eve of World War II was more poverty stricken than ever. Nonetheless, present-day Algerian Arab and Islamist opponents to the Berbers accuse them of having received preferential treatment from the French, thus calling into question the Berbers nationalist and Islamic credentials.

The impact of French policies on the Kabylians was far reaching, though not entirely as had been intended. The Kabylians disproportionate participation in the newly established French educational system resulted in French becoming the Kabylians second language to an even greater extent than among the rest of Algeria s Muslims. Kabylian emigration patterns were also reoriented toward France, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, and became numerically significant in the years after World War I. Exposure to modern education also directly affected the Kabylians place within Algerian Muslim society. The Kabylian diaspora in the coastal Algerian cities came to include an important stratum of merchants, capitalist farmers, and white collar professionals such as doctors, lawyers, administrators, and teachers. Decades later, this would be translated into an overrepresentation of Kabylians in the Algerian state apparatus. Indeed, between 1891 and 1950, nearly all of the state-recruited teachers for Algiers were Kabylians.

By the mid-1920s, the number of North African workers in France totaled about 100,000. Of these, the vast majority were Algerians, most of whom, in turn, were Kabylians. Their politicization soon followed: in 1926, the North African Star (Étoile Nord Africaine), the first permanent Maghrebi political organization in France, headed by Messali al-Hajj (who himself was not a Kabylian), was founded with the support of the French Communist Party. By the mid-1930s, it had divested itself of the Communists internationalist agenda in favor of an explicitly nationalist one. Messali began to attract followers inside Algeria as well, and the seeds for Algeria s war of independence were planted.

An essential component of the nationalists rejection of French domination was the articulation of a modern Algerian identity, based on territory, Islam, and affiliation with the Arab world. This formula remained the guiding theme of Algerian nationalism throughout the anticolonial movement. Still, it was not entirely bereft of controversy. In the late 1940s, Kabylian intellectuals and activists challenged Messali s domination of the nationalist movement, with some of them rejecting the dominant formula of Arab-Muslim Algeria in favor of Algerian Algeria. Algerian identity, they declared, was intimately linked with the population s employment of Berber dialects and Algerian colloquial Arabic, as opposed to the modern standard Arabic being developed in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, with which most Algerians were not familiar. Some of the group also rejected an explicit Muslim religious orientation, preferring secular and Marxist criteria as a basis for national identity. Algerian ulema responded by calling for the repression of Kabylia media outlets, saying that the Kabylians would not be real Algerians so long as they continued to speak the “jargon� that “burns our ears.� Messali felt threatened enough by the opponents of Arab-Muslim Algeria to condemn their ideas as “Berberism.� As it happened, the advocates of Algerian Algeria won little following in Kabylia or elsewhere and played no role in the struggle for Algerian independence. It is noteworthy, nonetheless, as a precursor to developments in the years after attaining independence.

Juxtaposed with the Berber extremists in 1949 was another Kabylian, Hocine Ait Ahmed, who subsequently attained the status of one of the historic chiefs of the revolution. Ait Ahmed had impeccable familial credentials: the house he was born in was a pilgrimage site, owing to his late grandfather, Cheikh Mohand el Hocine, one of the spiritual leaders of the Rahmaniyya and known for his resistance to French rule. His mother s family possessed similar anticolonial credentials. Ait Ahmed s challenge to Messali was on the grounds of the latter s excessive monopolization of power and unwillingness to adopt more militant action against the French, not on the basis of an explicitly Berber or Kabylian agenda. He subsequently wrote that conservatives and legalists used the pretext of accusing more radical elements of the nationalist movement of Berberist tendencies in order to remove them from power. Nonetheless, Ait Ahmed s power base would remain overwhelmingly Kabylian. During the years of struggle against France and the subsequent decades, Ait Ahmed s activities, guided by the notion that Kabylians were the avant-garde of Algerian patriotism, would reflect much of the complexity and ambiguity of the Berbers place in Algerian society.

From Resistance to Independence

Kabylians played an essential role in the struggle for independence, at both the elite and mass levels. The first spasm of revolt against French rule occurred in Kabylia in 1945. From 1947 onward, a small group of Kabylians, under the leadership of Belkacem Krim, clandestinely organized anti-French activities. Ait Ahmed joined them in 1949. They became the core group of the 1954 revolt, which began in Kabylia and spread throughout Algeria. It would seem that Greater Kabylia s importance as a center for resistance to Algerian rule reinforced the prominent place that Kabylians already had in all strands of the Algerian independence movement.

By late 1956, Kabylians held commanding positions or were disproportionately represented in nearly every political and military grouping involved in the struggle against French rule. It was only following the catastrophic defeat in the battle of Algiers (autumn 1956 to summer 1957) that the Kabylians lost their hegemony over the movement.

To be sure, as William Quandt has stated, a Kabylian leadership group with close ties to the Kabylian population at large never developed during the 1950s, and other sources of intra-elite cleavage, such as personal relations, were more important than Berber-Arab distinctions. This continued to be true during the early days of independence. However, as Quandt himself takes care to point out, there was a Kabylian dimension to the power struggles that engulfed the Algerian elite in the aftermath of independence. What came to be known as the Tizi-Ouzou group, established in July-August 1962 and led by Belkacem Krim, was initially the largest armed group opposing Ahmed Ben Bella s and Houari Boumedienne s efforts to consolidate power in newly independent Algeria (Tizi-Ouzou is the largest town in Greater Kabylia, although neither the group s leaders nor its followers were exclusively Kabylian). That Kabylia was a problematic area for Algeria s new power bosses was demonstrated by the fact that it registered the lowest percentage of voter participation in the September 1962 referendum confirming Algeria s independence and new political system. This pattern repeated itself in the September 1964 legislative elections. Interestingly, the radically different context notwithstanding, it did so again in the 1996 presidential elections.

Hocine Ait Ahmed belonged to the Tizi-Ouzou group in 1962. His opposition to the Ben Bella-Boumedienne group led him to establish a party, the Forces des Fronts Socialistes (FFS), in 1963 and to mobilize his supporters in armed revolt, not, to be sure, in the name of Kabylia or Kabylian rights, but in the name of opposing the emerging hegemony of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). As Charles Micaud puts it, “the revolt had . . . no separatist objective; Kabyle peasants were used by some Kabyle leaders in Algiers as a power base to increase their authority in the central government. There was no attempt at opting out of the political system-but rather at demanding greater participation and integration in the new nation-state.� 22 Moreover, the FFS did not speak for all Kabylians: half of the Kabylian deputies in Algeria s national assembly condemned their actions. 23 Nonetheless, at least some of the new ruling hierarchy were convinced that the Kabylians were secessionists, and favored a policy of isolation of the region and then afterward destruction.

Ait Ahmed s efforts were in any case a failure. His arrest, October 1964 death sentence (which was commuted to life imprisonment in April 1965 by Algeria s president Ben Bella), and escape from prison and flight to Switzerland on 1 May 1966 seemed to mark the end of the Berber question in Algerian political life.

Writing in the late 1960s, Quandt suggested that Algerian political life during the next decade would not be seriously colored by Berber-Arab rivalries. Moreover, he hypothesized that the combination of existing government policies promoting economic development in rural Berber regions and the avoidance of overt discrimination against Berbers in political and administrative life was likely to lead to the integration of Berbers into the Algerian nation without major conflicts, and the probable decline, over time, of Berber particularism among the masses. At the same time, he held open the possibility of Berber “ethnic particularism� emerging as a consequence of modernization and the creation of a Berber leadership with links to the masses. This might be given further impetus, he suggested, by governmental policies of rapid Arabization, economic neglect, and discrimination in hiring practices for administrative posts. Overall, however, the regime s apparent sensitivity to the potential for Kabylian discontent-manifested in enhanced development projects for the region and its relatively strong, centralized authority-seemed to preclude any serious Berber problem in the foreseeable future.

The Reassertion of Kabylian Identity

As it happened, the regime s policies of socioeconomic development and vigorous repression of linguistic-cultural expressions of Berber particularity, even including a ban on giving Berber names to children, combined to move Berber-Arab relations along a different course. The authorities efforts to promote development in Kabylia contributed to a boom of sorts in Tizi-Ouzou, whose population almost doubled between 1966 and 1977 (from just under 27,000 to 45,000), and to a greater degree of economic and social integration within the region. The ironic twist was that the regime s efforts to centralize its authority and promote national integration had the contrary effect of strengthening a collective Amazigh consciousness, stimulating what Anthony Smith calls the processes of historical reappropriation and vernacularization of political and cultural symbolism. But this would have been attenuated had the government been more attuned to Kabylian sensibilities in the cultural sphere. Ahmed Ben Bella s declaration upon returning from exile in 1962 to assume the presidency of newly independent Algeria that “nous sommes des Arabes� (“we are Arabs�) had been adopted without serious debate as the regime s guiding ideological formula. Its implementation, through a more strident policy of Arabization, posed both cultural and material threats to the Kabylians, particularly owing to their disproportionate status in public administration and the educational system.

Thus, by the early 1970s, there were a number of manifestations of Berber (i.e., Kabylian) disquietude with the state of affairs. New Kabylian popular songs reiterated and expanded on existing collective sentiments. In 1974, when Arab singers replaced Berber singers at the annual Cherry Festival in Laiba-Nait-Iraten, they received a hostile reception from a Kabylian audience that turned into a riot (perhaps premeditated), which had to be suppressed by troops and police. In 1977, at the final game of the national football championship pitting a team from Kabylia against one from an Algiers suburb before a mostly Kabylian crowd, the Algerian national anthem was drowned out by the shouting of Kabylian nationalist slogans such as “A Bas les Arabes� (“Down with the Arabs�), “Imazighen, Imazighen,� and “Vive la Kabyle� (“Long live Kabylia�). The scene was repeated at the end of the game during President Houari Boumedienne s presentation of the cup to the victorious Kabylian squad.

These outbursts were linked, at least ideologically, to an amorphous Berber Cultural Movement (MCB), made up largely of Kabylian students supported by Berber intellectuals in France, whose agenda was both Berber/Kabylian and national: opposition to compulsory Arabization, insistence on official recognition of the Berber language and culture, including its teaching in the educational system, and a demand for Western-style political liberalization and democratization. As explained by one author sympathetic to the Berber agenda, the repressive nature of the Boumedienne regime necessitated confining their demands to the cultural sphere and avoiding, at that stage, overt political challenges to the regime s authority. Doing so also “had the added advantage of being attractive to Berbers across the political, ideological and social class spectrum.� At bottom, however, the Berberists saw democratization as the only way to guarantee their cultural and ethnic rights within the Algerian state.

Ait Ahmed, for his part, was fully in accord with the emphasis on democratization and human rights, and made them central planks of the FFS s published platform in 1979. Demands for the recognition and promotion of the Berber language were also included in the platform, an indication that Ait Ahmed was cognizant of the changes that Kabylia had undergone and determined to remain firmly ensconced in his core constituency. 30

Apart from the hostile incidents directed against the Algerian regime, the politicization of Kabylian Berbers gathered steam away from the public eye. But in March 1980, it burst forth in open confrontation with the authorities in what came to be known as le Printemps Berber (the Berber Spring), an evocation of the cultural flowering in Prague in 1968 before the Soviet crackdown. Mezhoud argues that it was “by far the most important, perhaps most revolutionary event� in the history of independent Algeria up to that time. As such, it inaugurated “a new era of opposition to the Algerian regime,� and thus prepared the ground for the October 1988 riots and ensuing events that have shaken the Algerian state to its core. One may take issue with his categorical linkage between the two episodes, but the Berber Spring was nevertheless a seminal development in the history of Kabylian-state relations.

The immediate background to the disturbances was an official commission s decision in December 1979 to Arabize entirely primary education and the social sciences and humanities in the universities, increase the process of Arabization in the secondary schools, and place greater emphasis on religious education in primary schools. Implementation remained another matter. Nonetheless, the Berber/Arab-Islamic cultural and linguistic battle lines were being drawn more sharply. Concurrently, the demise of the “last tolerated symbol of Berber culture,� a Kabylian Berber-language radio program, was rumored to be imminent. The spark came with the authorities banning of a scheduled 10 March 1980 lecture by Mouloud Mammeri, a well-known Berber writer and anthropologist, on Berber poetry, at Tizi-Ouzou University. The students went on strike and demonstrated in protest against cultural repression of the Berbers. Sympathy protests were organized in Algiers and other areas, as well as strikes in Tizi Ouzou. In the early hours of April 20, the police began cracking down against both students and workers in Tizi-Ouzou. Between thirty and fifty persons were killed and hundreds wounded in five days of clashes between activists and the police.

The regime spoke of colonialist plots and agitation by the exiled Ait Ahmed, who denied any responsibility. At the same time, it sought to mollify the Kabylians: those arrested during the unrest were released, and promises were made to address the Berber cultural agenda, including increased Berber-language courses, the creation of university chairs in Berber studies, and the allowance of popular culture programs. In general, their implementation was short-lived, and the regime restored its authority with seemingly little difficulty.

On the surface, then, the Berber Spring appeared to have been merely a spasm. But appearances were deceiving. A number of factors combined to politicize growing numbers of Kabylians during the 1980s: the legacy of Kabylian self-assertion embodied in the Berber Spring resonated with increasing vigor; the regime failed to draw the proper conclusions from the 1980 events and remained inattentive toward Kabylian grievances; and Algerian society as a whole became increasingly polarized along a number of fault lines (e.g., rich/poor, regime/opposition, and religious/secular). One especially important factor for Berber activists was the increasing Islamization of Algerian society, in which the regime sought to relegitimize its rule by competing with newly assertive Islamist trends for the possession of Islamic virtues. “Islam in Algeria,� wrote one scholar, “[had] been nationalized exactly like the land and the industry.� The growing current of Berber particularism and self-consciousness, and the emphasis by Berber activists on the priority of democratization of Algerian life, was clearly a response, in part, to the increased Islamization of Algerian society. In turn, this response left them open to charges that they were “enemies of Islam.�

Manifestations of a developing civil society among Kabylians, apart from, or even in opposition to the regime, included the establishment of the Committees of the Children of Martyrs, the Berber Cultural Association, and the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights. 38 Consequently, the Kabylian activists were well placed to take advantage of the sudden opening up of Algerian political life in 1989, in the aftermath of the October 1988 riots. Ironically, the upheaval in Algeria s main urban centers did not extend to Kabylia, as Berber activists reportedly chose to avoid provoking the regime s contingency plan for a brutal crackdown in the event of disturbances.

The Berbers and the Implosion of Algeria

A leading expert on Kabylia had written at the time of the Berber Spring that there was “not the slightest basis for separatism in Kabylia,� and that what was at issue was “the participation of the Kabyles in Algerian cultural, economic and political life at the national level. . . . The essential objectives of the Berberist movement can be seen to be entirely assimilationist in nature.� This remained true a decade later, if by “assimilationist� one avoids the connotation of losing one s individual and collective identity in the larger whole, and limits the term to encompass political and cultural pluralism within a unified entity. But the struggle for Algeria s soul inaugurated by the democratic explosion in the wake of the October 1988 intifada, followed by the implosion of both state and society beginning in mid-1991, placed the Berber/Kabylian question in a very different context. To what extent did the old maxims still apply?

Two parties have articulated the Berber/Kabylian agenda during the past six years and competed for the support of the Kabylian populace. The leading party was the FFS, led by the aging but still formidable Ait Ahmed, who returned from exile in December 1989. Ait Ahmed s continued appeal was based on what one Berber activist called “his pristine record of honesty and historical prestige.� The second group, the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD), was headed by Dr. Sa‘id Sa‘di, one of the leading Berber activists as far back as 1980. It lacked the broad social base of the FFS, constituting a much narrower strand of intellectuals, artists, white collar professionals, and activists. Whereas the FFS continued to promote a national agenda from its Kabylian base, the RCD s agenda, by contrast, was more explicitly modernist-secular Berber. To the RCD, Ait Ahmed was sadly out of touch with Algerian contemporary life.

Despite, or perhaps even owing to, their competition, the Kabylian/Berber cause was significantly advanced. On one level, the activities of the two groupings denoted an effective division of labor. Concurrently, expressions of Berber identity and culture between 1989-1991-festivals, colloquiums, journals and newspapers, and university activities-proliferated in the newly liberalized atmosphere of Algerian public life.

The two Kabylia-based parties took diametrically opposed positions regarding the countrywide 1990 municipal and provincial elections. The FFS boycotted the process, calling it a farce, because the elections were to be conducted according to the ruling FLN s interests. In Ait Ahmed s view, the proper method of exercising popular sovereignty at this juncture was to dissolve parliament and elect a new constituent assembly that would define the power of all institutions. Democracy, in Ait Ahmed s view, had not yet been properly ingrained into Algerian life. Without fundamental changes such as the ending of the virtual slavery of women, massive investments in education, and the guaranteeing of free trade, Algeria s democratic experiment, he feared, could prove to be a false dawn. In a show of strength, up to 200,000 persons marched in Algiers on 31 May in support of the FFS s boycott, condemning the violence against women and bars serving alcohol, which was perpetrated by the Front Islamique du Salut s (FIS) shock troops, and demanding the abrogation of the 1985 family law. Ait Ahmed s diagnosis was trenchant, but his preoccupation with the regime s manipulation of events caused him to underestimate the strength of the FIS, which he called “completely artificial.� The boycott of the municipal elections was partially observed but constituted a tactical error, for it left the field open to the RCD, which opposed the boycott and, more importantly, the FIS. The possibility of the FFS becoming a true third force on the Algerian political scene was thus weakened.

The real story of the elections was the sweeping victory of the FIS candidates, who won approximately 55 percent of the just under eight million valid votes cast (61 percent of the more than thirteen million eligible), giving them 853 of 1539 municipalities and 32 of 48 provinces. Candidates of the formerly hegemonic Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) finished a distant second. The RCD s candidates received 5.65 percent of the votes in municipal elections and 2.08 percent of the provincial election votes. The RCD s support was, as expected, concentrated in Kabylia, where they won a majority in 87 municipalities and one provincial assembly, that of Tizi-Ouzou. Sa‘di was quick to call the FFS boycott a mistake. His opposition to the FLN, which still dominated parliament, was no less vehement than Ait Ahmed s. But his concern with the FIS s success led him to again differ with Ait Ahmed on the proper course to pursue during the subsequent months. Postponing the upcoming parliamentary elections, even if it meant maintaining the current FLN-dominant Parliament, and establishing a government of “national transition� was, in Sa‘di s view, the only way to forestall the FIS from attaining power. Ait Ahmed, however, favored a continuation of the electoral process in which he was now prepared to participate (having recognized the error of his ways in boycotting the municipal balloting).

The confrontation between the emboldened Islamists and the hard-pressed Benjedid regime steadily escalated during the remainder of 1990 and throughout 1991, and tore further at the already tattered fabric of Algerian society. The Algerian constitution, issued in 1989, had declared Arabic to be the sole official language of the state. In a move clearly designed to counter the FIS s appeal by demonstrating fidelity to Arab-Islamic values, the FLN-dominated Parliament passed a measure in late 1990 insisting that official institutions be fully Arabized by July 1992, and all institutions of higher learning by 1997. For good measure, it forbade the importation of computers, typewriters, and any other office supplies that did not have Arabic-language capabilities, and threatened the closing of businesses that employed French in advertising or labeling of merchandise.

The regime s accelerated measures of Arabization occasioned a large-scale protest demonstration in Algiers organized by the FFS. Nonetheless, the regime s promotion of Arabization further reinforced the outsider status of the Kabylians of both the FFS, with its more national agenda, and the RCD, with its more explicit Berberophone emphasis. Appearing at great risk was their common vision of modern Algerian culture: the Kabylian synthesis of village customs and rituals, many undoubtedly pre-Islamic in origin, an attenuated Islam, Tamazight (the Kabylian version is known as Taqbaylit), and French-centered modernity, epitomized by the French language spoken by much of the intelligentsia and middle and upper classes.

Throughout 1991, Ait Ahmed refused to take sides between the FIS and the authorities. Thus, he sharply condemned the regime s postponement of the June 1991 parliamentary elections, the crackdown on the FIS leadership, and reported large-scale human rights violations against detained Islamist activists. At the same time, he insisted that the FIS should not be allowed to maintain a monopoly on public life. “Nous refusons,� he told an interviewer, “le faux choix entre la république intégriste et l état policier. Nous voulons casser ce dilemme en redonnant la parole à la population.� (“We refuse the false choice between the fundamentalist republic and the police state. We want to rescind this dilemma and restore the voice of the population.�) He viewed with favor the appointment in the summer of 1991 of a government of technocrats, headed by Ahmad Sid Ghozali, for it took power out of the hands of the FLN s old guard and included at least one overt FFS supporter: the new economy minister, Professor Hocine Benissad, one of Algeria s better-known economists, who would have been an FFS candidate for Parliament.

Sa‘di, however, supported the crackdown on the FIS and postponement of the June elections. The FIS, he told an interviewer, should be dissolved, for it “uses democracy to organize civil disobedience . . . [and] believes that violence is a strategy to take power.�

The two Kabylia-based parties also differed, at least in nuance, regarding the role of religion in public life. Unlike Sa‘di, Ait Ahmed refrained from explicitly advocating the formal separation of religion and state. Instead, he evoked a religion that promoted “de culte et de méditation, de tolérance et de fraternité� (“veneration and meditation, tolerance and brotherhood�).

Ait Ahmed s vision of a pluralist, tolerant democratic Algeria was swiftly overtaken by events. Nationwide parliamentary elections, finally held in late December 1991, produced an overwhelming triumph for the FIS, which won 188 out of the 231 seats decided in the first round of elections, with a total popular vote of 3.2 million out of 6.9 million valid ballots. One hundred ninety-nine seats remained to be contested in runoff elections in mid-January. With the FIS only 28 seats short of an absolute majority after the first round, its domination of the new Parliament was assured. FLN candidates garnered 1.6 million votes, but only 15 seats. The FFS received 510,000 votes. However, owing to their overwhelming concentration in Greater and Lesser Kabylia districts, it won 25 seats, making it the second largest grouping in Parliament, with the prospect for a few additional gains in Algiers in the second round. The RCD fared poorly, garnering only 160,000 votes (2.9 percent) and winning no seats. Sa‘id Sa‘di was himself defeated in Tizi-Ouzou by an FFS candidate.

The crucial question for Algeria at this juncture was whether the FIS would be allowed to gain control of parliament through the completion of the electoral process. True to form, the two Kabylian parties differed on the next step. Sa‘di was openly in league with those sections of the Algerian political, military, economic, and cultural elites who favored a nullification of the process, which, if carried forward, would “bury� Algeria and condemn it to chaos. Ait Ahmed, however, declared that the cancellation of the second round of elections would make Algeria look like a banana republic and insisted that one couldn t destroy a democracy in order to save it. On 2 January, an FFS-sponsored demonstration, attended by over 300,000 persons, called for the strengthening of democratic institutions, including the presidency and the Constitutional Council, which would oversee the numerous challenges to results in specific elections districts. Only thus could the threats posed by both the hard-liners in the regime and the Islamists be rebuffed.

Yet as has so often been the case in modern Algerian history, events took a different course than that advocated by Ait Ahmed. The military s deposition of President Benjedid on 10 January, the nullification of the electoral process, and the banning of the FIS inaugurated a new, more violent epoch in Algerian politics, one whose outcome, six years later, continued to be undetermined. What is certain is that the no-holds-barred struggle between armed Islamist movements and the security forces has apparently cost more than 60,000 lives, broken Algerian society asunder, and left the populace terrorized.

Throughout the civil war, the FFS doggedly stuck to its established principles. The only alternative to the regime s “scorched earth logic,� declared Ait Ahmed (who had returned to dividing his time between Switzerland and France), was a “dialogue for historic reconciliation.� Direct dialogue with the Algerian Army, the only possible guarantor of a democratic solution, was absolutely essential. FFS demands from the regime included lifting the state of emergency, the release of political prisoners, the abrogation of special courts and laws, and guaranteeing freedom of political activity. Following a transitional process to be monitored by a national parliamentary committee, it favored parliamentary elections under a system of proportional representation, underpinned by a democratic constitution. 56 The most recent manifestation of the FFS s all-Algerian posture was its participation in a January 1995 conference of eight opposition parties, including FIS representatives, in Rome, which concluded by recommending the restoration of the rule of law and the democratic process in Algeria and the re-legalization of FIS in return for the cessation of violence.

As Algerian society as a whole became more polarized, the Berber aspects of the crisis were brought into sharper relief as well. Kabylian Berber artists were physically attacked during the years of civil war by the Islamists, not as Berbers as such, but as symbols of a decadent, evil culture that they promised to eradicate. The fact that some of the artists were militantly opposed to the Islamists made them even more inviting targets. However, ascribing a Kabylian dimension to these attacks is unavoidable. Two prominent examples were the murder of Tahar Djaout, a Kabylian writer and polemicist, and the kidnapping and ultimate release of the singer Lounes Matoub. The latter incident brought 100,000 Kabylians into the street in Tizi-Ouzou demanding his safety. Following his release, Matoub gave an interview in which he characterized Ait Ahmed s participation in the Rome conference as tantamount to supporting terrorist operations in Kabylia against the Berbers.

Notwithstanding the criticism of Ait Ahmed, a process of convergence between the FFS and RCD, under the rubric of the MCB was also underway. Their common interests were highlighted anew by President Liamine Zeroual s attempts to initiate a dialogue with the Islamists during 1993 and 1994, which the Kabylians feared would result in a deal at their expense. The dialogue, said Sa‘id Sa‘di, “was merely a relentless pursuit of the same old policy. If it is to enable the [political] clans to survive by plunder, we know where that will lead us.� What was needed, he insisted, was for the government to step down and “free the state from the clans,� and comprehensive resistance by all forces in Algerian society opposed to both the government and the fundamentalists. Strikes, boycotts of schools, and armed self-defense were all means to be employed.

In Kabylia, his call increasingly fell on receptive ears. Kabylian villages organized their own self-defense militias against the Islamists. Three widely observed general strikes during the fall of 1994 were conducted in Kabylia in support of the longstanding Berber demand for official recognition of Tamazight and Berber culture, the last in protest against President Zeroual s failure to refer to Berber grievances in a nationwide television address.

Most impressive was the extended school strike throughout Kabylia, begun in the fall of 1994, on behalf of Tamazight. Berberism as a political and cultural agenda could be ignored no longer. Testimony to that came in the Rome declaration in January 1995, in which Ait Ahmed participated, and whose other provisions the RCD opposed: “The components of the Algerian character are Islam, Arabism, Tamazight [my emphasis] and the two cultures and languages contributing to the development of that character. They should have their place and should be strengthened in the institutions, without any exclusion or marginalization.� Three months later, the legitimacy of Tamazight was publicly acknowledged by the ruling authorities as well. Following weeks of negotiations to end the school strike in Kabylia between President Zeroual s representatives and a broad spectrum of Berber groups, the government announced that it would create a “body with executive powers, attached to the presidency, [and] charged with the rehabilitation of Tamazight [culture] . . . one of the foundations of the national identity, and the introduction of the Tamazight language in the systems of education and communication.�

The declaration was a milestone in the Berbers long struggle for recognition. It came only a few days after massive demonstrations in Kabylia had commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the Berber Spring, a show of force that cut across the Kabylian political spectrum. Nonetheless, satisfaction with the declaration was not universal. Sa‘di s wing of the MCB (MCB-Coordination Nationale) supported the statement and its accompanying call for an end to the school boycott. Yet the FFS wing of the MCB (MCB-Commission Nationale) and the autonomous Union of Education and Training Workers withdrew from the talks before they were concluded. Ironically, it was the FFS that was now the more militant proponent of Berber rights, declaring that the government had not gone far enough in giving official recognition to the national character of Tamazight. The opposing stands of the RCD and the FFS derived from their contrary orientations vis-à-vis the regime: the RCD continued to maintain a common cause with the authorities in the struggle against the Islamists, whereas the FFS remained part of the political opposition to the regime. As is so often the case, culture and politics were intimately intertwined.

Subsequently, however, the regime s newfound openness regarding the Berber agenda proved to be limited at best. Efforts by Zeroual to institutionalize and legitimize his rule through presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections, and through constitutional reform, were met with increasing opposition in Kabylia. In November 1995, while the FFS boycotted the presidential election, Sa‘di ran as a candidate, winning 9.3 percent (1,115,796) of the vote. However, in 1996, the RCD refused Zeroual s entreaties to join the regime and renewed its strident opposition to what it called a “presidential dictatorship.� Although the new draft constitution recognized that Amazighité (Berber identity) was part of Algeria s common heritage, along with Islam and Arabism, it failed to recognize Tamazight as Algeria s official second language. Moreover, it insisted on not using the three components of national identity for party propaganda or for politicking. The constitutional amendments were overwhelmingly approved in November 1996; however Kabylian opposition was palpable: the voter turnout in Tizi-Ouzou was only 25 percent, 63 percent of which voted against the amendments. 61 Algerian political life was clearly perceived in Kabylia as falling far short of the desired genuine pluralist order.


Given the FLN regime s utter failure during a quarter-century of rule to forge a modern Algerian political community on an exclusively Arab-Islamic, socialist basis, the fact that “Berberism in Algeria remains on the defensive� in the face of regime policies and demographic shifts, and the special place Kabylia and Kabylians have held in Algerian history and society, it is hardly surprising that Kabylian Berbers have acquired many of the attributes of a modern ethnie: a “named unit of population with common ancestry myths and historical memories, elements of shared culture, some link with a historic territory and some measure of solidarity, at least among [its] elites.� Algeria s current crisis, now existential in nature, has sharpened matters further. To be sure, one finds Berber-speakers and Kabylians, all across the Algerian political spectrum, from the so-called hard-line eradicators in the Algerian security forces to the Groupe Islamique Armé, the most vicious and uncompromising of the Islamist armed groups. Nonetheless, the Amazigh appear to fit the definition of a “national minority� ethnie coexisting uneasily with state authorities, with groups and parties that articulate its needs.

To be sure, one might argue that the promotion of Berberism is, at best, a matter of proto-politics. After all, the demand for political autonomy, a feature common to the programs of many national minorities, has been almost completely absent up to now from the Kabylian agenda. Given Kabylia s paucity of resources, the intertwining of Kabylians within the larger fabric of Algerian society, and the FFS s consistent articulation of a national agenda in which Berber grievances could be properly addressed, the proposed ideal formula of one leading Berber scholar, “un projet autonomiste dans un cadre fédéraliste� (“autonomy within a federal framework�), let alone separatist demands, would be difficult to sustain, at least under current conditions. Thus, Algeria is not a case in which the dynamics of majority-minority relations pose a threat, in and of itself, to the state s territorial integrity. Rather, the Berberist agenda operates within the existing state framework, while seeking to institute a liberal, democratic, multicultural order in which their own cultural identity can be developed unhindered. If the Kabylians are practicing a secular form of taqiyya, then it is of the subconscious variety. At the same time, one must take into account the existential crisis of the Algerian state and the fluidity of its circumstances. One possibility is the de facto breakup of the state into various regions controlled by different authorities-the military, the Islamists, local groups, or various combinations thereof. One can envisage in this scenario a set of common interests between Kabylians and officials in the security services seeking to combat the Islamists and maintain their dwindling power wherever possible. There is already considerable evidence of Berber militias enjoying the regime s support. A sweeping triumph by the Islamists might have much the same effect. In the meantime, the continued escalation of violence and overall political stalemate promises to further politicize the Kabylian community and sharpen its collective self-consciousness. Writing in 1987, a leading scholar of the Berber language and culture was pessimistic about the prospects for Berber culture to develop unhindered, in light of what he called “Arab-Islamism s totalitarian tendency . . . [and its] inability to tolerate the existence of the Other.� However warranted his pessimism (and the proposition itself is at least debatable), it is clear that at this point, any serious efforts to pull Algeria back from the abyss, achieve a modicum of civil peace, and begin the herculean task of reconstructing Algerian society will have to take the Kabylian/Berber agenda into account. The Berber “genie� cannot be simply stuffed back into the bottle, a fact that seems to have been acknowledged, however grudgingly, by important components of both the regime and the opposition (even including some more moderate Islamists).

A final note: the Algerian Berber revival is paralleled, in a less politicized fashion, to be sure, in Morocco, and has stimulated activities among the Berber diaspora in Europe and North America. Pan-Berberism, in the sense of political unity at the expense of the current state framework, is unimaginable. But the political dimension of the Amazigh revival is now manifest in Algeria, and latent in Morocco. Its contours are still evolving, and its course will depend on developments too numerous to predict. To be sure, the Algerian Berbers strategic goal of a liberal, democratic, and multicultural order appears to be, for now, beyond the horizon. In any case, whatever direction events in Algeria take, the degree to which the Berbers exploit the partial opening provided by the regime to further crystallize their collective identity and promote their agenda will no doubt play an important part in determining the future relationship between the Amazigh and the Algerian state.

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

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