Berber Boycott in Restive Region Signals Continued Struggle

by Zighen Aym

After more 200,000 people dead, 10,000 missing and over 100,000 displaced, the North African country of Algeria held a referendum vote on a reconciliation peace plan on Sept. 29, 2005. The plan—officially dubbed the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation—was proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a political oligarch from the country’s first post-independence government. It not only grants amnesty to thousands Islamic militants but also exonerates the security forces of any of human rights abuses committed during the last fifteen years.

Although Algerian government official reports indicated that an overwhelming 97% of the voters approved the plan, many independent news sources failed to back up these numbers. Instead, they reported the trickling of voters to the polling places, contradicting the 80% participation claimed by the Interior Minister, Nourredine Zerhouni, a former ambassador to the USA.

But there is a cultural and regional dimension to the question which has generally been overlooked in media accounts—that of the Berbers, who make up some 30% of Algeria’s population. The Berbers, known to be the first inhabitants of North Africa, are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Arab majority, and have been carrying out an intermittent civil struggle for the past generation for official recognition of their cultural rights. Their heartland in Algeria is Kabylia, a mountainous region located about 60 miles west of the capital. Its main cities are Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia, on the Mediterranean coast. The inhabitants call themselves Kabyls, and their identity has been perceived as a threat by both sides in the civil war that tore Algeria apart in the 1990s: the military regime and the Islamist guerillas alike.

Hocine Ait-Ahmed, the leader of the Front of the Socialist Forces (FFS), a Berber-based opposition party, himself a veteran revolutionary leader from the war of independence from France, denounced the vote as a “Totalitarian Tusnami,” and criticized France for claiming the vote was democratic.

Said Saadi, the leader of the other Berber-based political party, the Rally for Democracy and Culture (RCD) called the vote a farce from the beginning to the end. He charged that the vote results were multiplied by four and that electoral fraud has been virtually continuous in Algeria since independence in 1962. He also charged that in Kabylia people from other regions were bussed in to local schools where the voting was taking place to inflate the poll return numbers from.

In total three parties—the FFS, RCD, and Movement for Society and Democracy (MSD)—called for the boycott of the referendum. They accused the president of seeking to consolidate a new dictatorship, and a future plebiscite that will allow him to modify the constitution and remain in power for a third time after 2009. As a result of the boycott, the abstentionism rate was near 90% in Kabylia. Participation levels as low as 7% in Bejaia and 9% in Tizi-Ouzou were reported in the French newspaper Liberation.

In France, where more 700,000 Algerians are eligible to vote, Khaled Sid Mohand of Free Speech Radio News reported no rush to cast ballots. He interviewed an Algerian resident who provided an explanation for the vote: “To forgive the Power in general.” The Power—le Pouvoir—is popular shorthand for the ruling political elite in Algiers, generally ensconced in the military.

The question also remains of whether the vote for the charter will protect Algeria’s rulers and generals from being judged by International Tribunal at The Hague in the years to come.

Several independent newspapers in Algeria called for public debate on the matter. In contrast, government-owned newspapers, TV stations and airwaves were in full campaign swing for the Yes vote. And so was the president’s political alliance, made up of the long-ruling National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Rally for Democracy (RND, an offshoot of the FLN which won a parliamentary majority in 1997, three months after its creation), and the Society of Peace Movement (MSP), a pro-government Islamist party.

Opposition party members and human rights groups denounced the restraints on public debate of the pending charter. The National Association of the Families of the Disappeared was not allowed to campaign against the charter in Algeria and was therefore forced to do so in France. The French paper Liberation reported that a 75 year-old man, Mouloud Arab, the father of one of the disappeared, was arrested and accused of “distributing illegal tracts” for hanging out a brochure that was critical of the charter.

Since the vote, the Algerian government has continued its intimidation and attempts to silence the families of the disappeared, who have been protesting to demand accountability since 1998. The Oran office of SOS Disparus, another advocacy group for the families of the “disappeared,” was reportedly searched Sept. 17 by three police officers who did not show a search warrant. The organization’s leader Fatima Nekrouf has been receiving threatening phone calls warning her to leave Algeria.

Confusing Voters

The vote comes six years after the Project for Civil Concord, also reported to have been approved by 98% of the voters, which gave partial amnesty to the members of armed Islamic groups. This 2005 charter seals it the amnesty definitively. In addition, under the new charter any person or group attempting to bring charges for crimes committed by either fundamentalists groups or the security forces can henceforth be accused of “threatening peace and national security.” The penalties for this crime are to be determined by legislation.

When interviewed by reporters, citizens seem to have misunderstood what they were voting for; many apparently believed they were being asked simply whether they were for or against peace. The details of the charter were generally not addressed in the public debate permitted by the government.

The charter seems to close a dark chapter of Algeria’s post-independence history. But it also asks the still-grieving families to forgive the murders of their family members, the rapes of their daughters and mothers, andthe destruction of their lives. In contrast to the situation in post-apartheid South Africa, the perpetrators have not come forward to ask for forgiveness; they remain unknown and will remain unknown. They are effectively vindicated by being granted immunity.

Critics ask what would prevent them from repeating the same actions in the future? To forgive, it is necessary to know whom you are forgiving. The referendum sought to sweep under the rug the barbaric atrocities committed against Algerian civilians over the past 15 years. Not returning bodies of the disappeared to their families does not bring their grief to an end. It just prolongs it.

Kabylia and its Challenges

Since the “Berber Spring” of 1980, the year the Amazigh (Berber) culture became a popular issue in Kabylia, several obstacles to open political life in the region have been removed. Long gone are the days when the gendarmerie—the paramiltary rural police—could enter a high school and look for Berber inscriptions inside students’ notebooks as they did in 1976 at the Technical High School of Dellys, a coastal city north of Tizi-Ouzou. Several of my follow students were arrested that day. One of them we never saw again.

Long gone are the days when people were arrested for owning Berber-language books, which were only printed at a Berber Academy in Paris. This happened to my neighbor, Ferhat S., in my village in Kabylia. He jumped from the moving military jeep, and got away. He hid for a week in a nearby orchard. His grand-father, a village elder, contacted the gendarmes and promised that his grandson would stop reading or writing in the Berber language. When Ferhat showed up a few days later, his face and arms were covered with wounds and scratches, probably by his fall from the moving jeep onto the gravel road.

The Movement for Berber Culture (MCB), which started out as an underground movement in the early 1970s, was brought into the open with the events of 1980—which began in April with widespread protests after the government prevented Mouloud Mammeri, a renowned Algerian anthropologist and writer, from travelling to Kabylia to deliver a lecture on ancient Amazigh poetry at Tizi Ouzou University. He was stopped at a roadblock and sent back to Algiers.

The political opening in Algeria in the early 1990s saw the creation of the RCD among other opposition parties. But internal divisions weakened the movement for cultural rights in Kabylia. Two RCD leaders affiliated with the Berber Cultural Movement (MCB), Ferhat M’henni and Said Saadi, proclaimed the RCD to be the sole representative of the Berber demands. This was contested by Hocine Ait Ahmed’s Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), Algeria’s oldest opposition party, which broke with the regime shortly after independence. The MCB split into two groups in 1992. The RCD sympathizers in the MCB formed a faction called the MCB-National Coordination. Those politically close to the FFS, formed the MCB-National Commissions. Four years later, Ferhat M’henni left the RCD and created his own MCB faction known as the MCB-National Rally.

Since then, Kabylia has endured series of a year-long of school boycott in 1994, in protest of the government’s refusal to recognize the Berber language, Tamazight, as one of Algeria’s official languages. In 1998 came the assassination of Lounes Matoub, the legendary Berber folksinger who had become a symbol of the cultural struggle—nobody was brought to justice for the slaying, and it remains uncertain if it was carried out by government agents or Islamist guerillas, who had kidnapped him four years earlier. Finally, April 2001 saw a sequel of the events of Berber Spring, with a wave of protests following the death of a Berber youth at the hands of the police in Tizi-Ouzou. Again, the protests were harshly put down. This time, the death toll was more than 100 dead and over 3,000 injured.

These events saw the birth of a popular movement called the Arouch—the plural of Arch, a Berber word referring to a traditional Kabyle form of village-based democratic assemblies. The revitalized movement also saw the drafting of the 15-demand El Kseur Platform. These demands included the full withdrawal of the gendarmerie from Kabylia, compensation to the victims for the behavior of the authorities during the protest marches, awarding the status of “martyr” to the victims, clarification about the crimes committed by the security forces during these events, the drawing up of a regional program for the economic and social development of Kabylia, and official recognition of the Tamazight language.

Under international pressure for the killing of unarmed demonstrators, the government requested an investigation by Mohand Issad, an Algerian Berber who is a respected expert in international law. When he handed in his report, Professor Issad found that the security forces’ version of the deaths were “not satisfactory,” and blamed the gendarmerie units for their use of excessive force against the peaceful demonstrations. No charges were brought against any member of the security forces; instead the government proposed financial indemnities to the families of victims and detainees.

Economic Difficulties and Political Games

The increase of poverty in Kabylia adds to discontent over the Algerian government’s continued refusal to deal with the Berber cultural and language demands. As a result, Kabylia seems set to remain a permanent power-keg that can be easily lit by security agents—serving the political games played the nomenclature in power in Algiers. Unfortunately, the RCD, the FFS, and the recently-created Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia, headed by Ferhat M’henni, instead of uniting forces, seem to fall into that game.

In the past, when the FFS would participate in legislative, local or presidential elections, the RCD would boycott. And when the RCD would participate, the FFS would boycott—as if they were getting asynchronous orders from the higher-ups in the le Pouvoir in Algiers.

President Boutelfika made Tamazight a “national” language in 2002, allowing its use in media and broadcasting, but refuses to cede to demands that it become an “official” langauge, equal with Arabic, allowing its use in public education. The fifteen demands have yet to be fulfilled. The economic situation in Kabylia has deteriorated, and with the lack of employment, many young Kabyls continue to seek opportunities outside of their native region. France, Canada, and the USA became their dream destination. In France, the number of illegal young Kabyls has been estimated at 100,000. Many perceive that Kabylia is being purposely deconstructed, and its strong community ties torn by this surge in emigration.

During a visit to Algeria in the summer of 2002, I was impressed by a modest youth center that had opened a year earlier in my hometown. I visited the center the next day and found about ten children in a classroom attending a Tamazight summer class. On the second floor, I saw a rehearsal of a theater play in Tamazight. The next day, the chorus group improvised a performance and sang several songs about exile that brought tears to my eyes. When I returned two years later, the building was still there—but the center had closed. Instead, I learned that several wine and beer places had opened, and alcohol was widely available for consumption. The antagonism between the FFS and RCD had entered village life, pitting fellow villagers against each other.

Now, poverty, alcohol, and emigration all add to Kabylia’s troubles. Since the official return to democracy in 1995 after three years of direct military rule, the Algerian government has held 11 elections and plebiscites–but the same political elite centered around the military has held power for the last 40 years. The new charter reinforces this entrenched system rather than breaking it up. Despite the government’s claims, it represents progress neither for Kabylia’s special dilemmas or Algerian democracy generally.


“North African Berbers and Kabylia’s Berber Citizens’ Movement,” by Mohand
Salah Tahi,, June 2001,

“‘The Rebel is Dead. Long Live the Martyr!’: Kabyle Mobilization and the
Assassination of Lounès Matoub,” by Paul A. Silverstein, Middle East
Report, Fall 1998

“Armed Violence and Poverty in Kabylia,” by Meredith Turshen, Centre for
International Cooperation and Security, November 2004

Algeria Watch on threats against SOS Disparus

Related story, this issue:

“Algeria: Will Referendum Wipe the Slate Clean?” by Rene Wadlow

From our weblog:

Al-Qaeda announces Algeria franchise

See also our review of Zighen Aym’s book, Still Moments: A Story About Faded Dreams & Forbidden Pictures


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution