Berber protests reflect general disillusion and anger with Algeria’s brutal and repressive secular elite

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Heavy-handed police tactics succeeded in preventing a protest-march by thousands of minority Kabyle Berbers in Algiers, the Algerian capital, from taking place on July 5, the 39th anniversary of the country’s ‘independence’ from France. Yet, despite its success in averting another potential flashpoint in the three-month-old popular uprising, the military-backed regime continues to teeter on the brink of total collapse.

In an effort to block the march and enforce a ban on demonstrations, paramilitary troops and gendarmes with police-dogs mounted roadblocks at the entrances to the capital, stopping and turning back cars and buses with license-plates from the troubled, mainly Berber-speaking, Kabyle region east of the city. The heavy security prevented some 7,000 delegates representing Kabylian towns, villages and tribes from reaching the presidential compound to present a 15-point manifesto that lists their cultural, social, political and economic demands to president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The demands include withdrawal from Kabyle of the brutal and corrupt gendarmerie forces, ending punitive search-and-ransack raids by security forces against homes and businesses, and a special economic and social programme to boost the well-being of the region.

The government imposed a ban on demonstrations in the capital shortly after a massive rally in mid-June, when an estimated one million people crowded the streets of the city. This was the largest protest in the country since the “Black October” protests of 1988, when security forces mowed down hundreds of people during demonstrations gainst apolitical repression and the state’s chronic failure to satisfy socioeconomic needs. The size of the turnout on June 14 and the fact that protesters came from various backgrounds and walks of life had clearly unnerved the authorities.

The unrest first erupted on April 20 after a Berber high-school student, Guermah Massinissa, was shot dead while in police custody in Beni Douala, a small mountain hamlet on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Tizi-Ouzou. At first a localized Berber affair, the unrest blossomed into a nationwide uprising against the military-backed government. Demonstrations spread to other areas of the country as young people took to the streets to vent their frustration over endemic economic hardships, police abuse and rampant official corruption. Civil society groups, such as those representing women, lawyers, doctors and civil servants, have also organized their own protests on the streets of a number of main cities and towns. Scores of people have lost their lives and thousands of others have been injured by gunfire in clashes between the trigger-happy security forces and rock-throwing protesters, some of whom were carrying knives and hatchets, and who at times torched government buildings and shops believed to be owned by government officials.

There is no shortage of conspiracy theories to explain the uprising or the resulting violence. There is a strong belief among some observers that events were “engineered,” and that neither the unrest nor the accompanying violence, vandalism and arson were spontaneous. Some Berber activists argue that government agents provocateurs have infiltrated their demonstrations to provoke fighting and looting and turn public opinion against them. On the other hand, some analysts have argued that one faction of le Pouvoir (‘the Power’) actually provoked the Berber unrest to tarnish Bouteflika’s image, undermine his programme of political and economic reform, and highlight the army’s role in maintaining law and order. In the Byzantine labyrinth of Algerian politics, le Pouvoir is the shadowy army-dominated military, political, bureaucratic and business clique that has effectively ruled Algeria since 1962.

For its part, the Algerian regime proffered its own conspiracy theory. Bouteflika raised the spectre of “an internal and foreign plot to smash the unity” of the country, while prime minister Ali Benflis alleged that there are “destabilization campaigns waged from abroad” fomenting trouble within Algeria. He also pinned the blame for the rampant graft pervading the government on foreign multinationals paying bribes to corrupt officials.

The futile attempt to find an external “enemy,” a convenient scapegoat on whom to pin blame for events, can by no means obscure the real causes of the uprising. The attempt of the Algerian government to exploit accusations against outsiders is an old trick to distract attention from popular frustrations and absolve itself of responsibility for the crises.

The killing of Massinissa was only a match thrown into the tinderbox of the Algerians’ accumulated fury against the government. By growing into a countrywide uprising, the Berber revolt indicates that the main Berber demands are shared by the rest of the population. The uprising sends a clear message that the Algerians have had enough of the cobwebs making up the military-political-economic “iron triangle” that has dominated the country since independence. The protesters have clearly directed their anger at le Pouvoir. Their slogans denounce the generals as “butchers” (al-generalat saffahah, “the generals are butchers”), and express resentment of their arrogance in power (hogra) and rampant official corruption (al-dawla ta’a al-tashibah, “government of bribery”). They also made it clear that they resent the arbitrary and abusive conduct of the security forces and public officials.

Socioeconomic dissatisfactions have also come to the fore. The protesters denounce widespread unemployment, housing shortages and official corruption. In this respect, the demonstrations highlight the fact that the Algerians have lost any semblance of faith in Bouteflika’s unfulfilled promises of economic reform. In fact, the economic conditions of the vast majority of Algerians have not improved despite the recent phenomenal rise in the prices of gas and oil on the international market. Although Algeria currently has a favourable balance of payments, thanks to its sales of oil and gas, some 50 percent of the population remain mired in poverty. The official rate of unemployment stands at 30 percent, but the figure among people under 25 is thought to be a staggering 80 percent. Algeria is also short of about two million homes.

Virtually all the profits of the country’s oil-wealth stay in the hands of le Pouvoir. The army controls the Algerian economy and market. The humorous Algerian public calls the various top generals by the commodity they monopolize: there is the “wheat general,” the “banana general,” the “tyres general,” and so on. Little wonder, then, that the recent sharp increase in the country’s oil-revenues has not been enough to help the Algerian economy.

The recent irruption of the Berber people only darkens the already blood-soaked political landscape in Algeria. The Berbers, who comprise about 20 percent of the country’s population of 30 million, have voiced growing complaints about perceived discrimination since independence, when victorious nationalists, especially under presidents Ahmad Ben Bella and Houari Boumedienne, set about implementing a thorough Arabization programme. In the 1980s, Kabylian Berbers demanded equal recognition of the Berber culture and language known as Amazighe. This drew a harsh reaction from the government. The recent spiral of violence in the Kabyle region creates a new rift in the ruling establishment. Since the coup in 1992 to annul parliamentary elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win, le Pouvoir has been trying to manipulate the language issue to place the Berbers against the ‘Islamists’. The recent Berber uprising points to a growing rift between the largely Francophone le Pouvoir and isolationist trends in the Kabylian community, which exhibits higher rates of Francophobia than the rest of the population.

But the uprising sends a clear message that the Berbers have lost faith not only in the political system but also in their political parties. The unrest took the two main predominantly Berber political parties, Hocine Ait Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and its rival Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) headed by Said Saadi, by surprise. Both have long championed the cause of Berber language and culture. The RCD withdrew from the coalition government in May in protest at the authorities’ brutal crackdown on the first wave of demonstrations, which took place mainly in the Kabyle region.

The protests are being directed by traditional village and tribal networks known as tajammu’at (assemblies) that are enjoying a rapid revival of influence, indicating the growing distance between the Berbers and their political parties. The assemblies have managed to bring hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Algiers and other cities. For instance, the march on June 15 and the thwarted July 5 march were organized by the Coordinating Committee of Arches (tribes), a loosely-structured Berber network bypassing traditional political parties, with no known leadership and a rotating presidency. It was set up after the clashes in April.

The uprising is a severe blow to Bouteflika’s much-touted promises of greater peace, prosperity and democracy. When he came to power in 1999, Bouteflika managed to restore a fleeting degree of hope. He promised to rid Algeria not only of the cycle of violence that has gripped the country since 1992, at the cost of an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 lives, but also of poverty. The security dimension of Bouteflika’s programme, the broad “civil concord” programme, is in tatters. Although the plan succeeded in neutralizing FIS’s armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army, it has failed to crush the ‘Islamist rebellion’, as fighting between the army and pockets of ‘Islamists’ festers on. Large segments of the armed Islamic opposition refused to take advantage of the government amnesty to lay down their arms, recognizing the “civil concord” plan as a government-imposed measure. Some people also believe that there was a secret pact between the government and FIS for the government to grant a limited amnesty in exchange for not demanding investigations into repression by the armed forces.

The recent unrest shows that the military oligarchy needs more than state repression and national mythology to remain comfortably in power. Governance cannot continue to be forever based on a repressive apparatus legitimizing its absolute political and economic control by resorting to nostalgic memories of the past.

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