Between Impoverishment and Bullets: Algeria’s Berber Population


Algeria is a culturally diverse country. However, as a result of the country’s colonial heritage, such a diversity has now become a synonym to cultural contradictions. During the period 1830-62, education was oriented toward French and spending on the study of Arabic declined drastically (See US Congress, Algeria: A Country Study, 1993). Since the latter was cut off from contemporary intellectual and technological developments during the colonial era, it consequently failed to develop the flexibility and vocabulary needed for modern bureaucratic, financial and intellectual affairs. Furthermore, as part of a divide-and-rule policy, the Berbers (namely the Kabyles) of Algeria were favored in education and employment in the colonial system and were represented in disproportionately large numbers in the French elite. Consequently, in the years after independence, they moved into all levels of state administration across the country, where they remained a large and influential group (See US Congress, 1993).

As a result of this, the leaders of the War of Independence (1954-62) and successive governments committed themselves to reviving indigenous Arabic and to establishing it as the national language. The aim, as pointed out by the US Congress (1993), was to recover the precolonial past and to use it, together with Arabic, to restore (if not create) a national identity and personality for the new state and population. Such a policy of Arabization, was consistently supported by the vast majority of Algerians. However, since such a policy does not consider the Berber language as an integral part of it, the Kabyles have since 1980 intensified their efforts to slow down, if not halt, the process of Arabization.

The main instruments to achieve this have been political protests, massive demonstrations and general strikes. In sharp contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, however, the number of such protests, massive demonstrations and general strikes has increased dramatically since 1992. Since such protests have completely paralyzed economic life in Algeria, it is necessary to answer the question of what is cultural and what is not about them.

In general, there are two main competing theories as to why ethnic violence has recently struck the Berber regions of Algeria: Berber leaders, or the democrats, have attributed such violence to political repression or lack of democracy, while foreign missionaries are arguing that the Berbers are struggling against a nation of Islam. This article argues that the democrats do not exist while foreign missionaries are stuck in an old-new mentality that goes back to the old days of the Muslim-Christian crusades.

The Berber Culture According to the Irish Times

While Algerians are still debating as to what exactly constitute an Arab or Berber culture, foreign missionaries seem to have already concluded such a debate for them. In the semi-popular Irish Times newspaper (Tuesday, May 8, 2001), for example, Victoria Bruce identifies, in her “long struggle against a nation of Islam”, the Berbers and their culture as follows.

(i). The Berbers are a meant to constitute a section of Algeria’s population (20 per cent, according to her own estimates), who are seeking independence from the rest of Algeria. As she put it, “the Berbers are a proud, independent people who have maintained their culture and identity despite successive invasions by Romans, Turks, Arabs and French.” One wonders how she concluded that the Berbers were seeking independence from the rest of Algeria given the fact that the Berber leaders themselves (as well as their population) have never talked of ‘independence’ as being their target, goal or motive. All they have been saying is that they felt that there has been some kind of injustice against their culture and, therefore, what is needed is recognition that respects the Berber culture and equates the Tamazight language with Arabic.

(ii). Victoria Bruce equates the Berber culture with Christianity. As she phrased it, “their symbol of independence is the amazight or ‘freeman’, two half-circles placed head to head with a vertical line down the centre. It is rather like a stylised cross and is perhaps evidence of the Berbers’ Christian heritage before the Arabic invasion in the 7th century”. While it is true that there have recently been reports of mass conversion of Berbers in some parts of the Kabylia into Christianity, the vast majority have never identified themselves as Christian. If Algeria’s civil conflict is the result of religious fanaticism, as people would love to argue, then why on earth should the Berbers of Algeria get converted to another religion which would lead to another kind of fanaticism?. Did the Christians not suffer on the hands of the priests and that today’s struggle in the West is how to firmly maintain a separation between the state and the church?!.

(iii). Victoria Bruce identifies the Berbers with their hatred towards the Arabic language. As she put it, “the Berbers speak their native language, the tamazight, first, and then French. They speak Arabic only if absolutely necessary. They deeply resent the government-enforced ‘Arabisation’ of their country and fervently defend their language, music and traditions.” The question is this: if the Berbers of Algeria want recognition of their language, should they not also respect the Arabic language since it is the Arabs of Algeria from whom they are seeking recognition?. And if the Arabs were as invaders as the French, then why should the Berbers not speak French ‘only when it is absolutely necessary?’.

(iv). Victoria Bruce implies that the Berbers have been living in striking poverty while the non-Berbers were living in palaces. This, of course, is utter nonsense since the whole population has long been impoverished. There are many places and regions in Algeria where poverty is seven times more acute than one would find in a Berber region. Victoria Bruce’s claim of “20 years ago, animals and people lived under one roof in traditional houses without running water or electricity”, does not only apply to the Berbers alone, but to the whole population.

(v). Victoria Bruce would like to picture the young Berber women as those who “prefer Western attire”. The question that pops to everybody’s head at this stage must be this: if the Berbers of Algeria are seeking recognition for their culture, why on earth should they seek Western culture instead?. Victoria Bruce seems to suggest that Berbers are of western origin; a hypothesis, if was true, would uncover the long mystery of who the Berbers actually are.

(vi). Victoria Bruce asserts with no evidence that the Berbers “who grew up under French rule were forbidden to attend school — the French were cautious about educating the natives.” Had Victoria Bruce taken enough time to consult mainstream historical work (e.g. the US Congress: Algeria — a country study, 1993), she would have found that the French were undoubtedly very eager to educate the Berbers (namely the Kabyles) because they thought that they could easily share common ideologies with them if trained properly since the Arabs were more concerned about Islam and Arabic.

(vii). Victoria Bruce challenges the notion that the Berbers of Algeria are Muslim. As she put it, “nominally, Berbers are considered Muslims, although many are non-practicing. Most villages have small mosques, but none save a few old people pay any heed to the five daily calls to prayer. Few of the men observe the Ramadhan fast; the women do so out of tradition rather than belief.” While it is true that even some non-Berbers will not observe the fasting of Ramadhan and may not pray, one is wondering about the source of Victoria Bruce’s religious statistics. Did she conduct a survey while having mint tea in Kabylia or simply invented the numbers?. This is important because official statistics indicate that 99 per cent of Algeria’s population are Muslim. It seems that Victoria Bruce belongs to a new school of thought which will soon claim a revisionist heritage along that of David Irving.

(viii). Victoria Bruce states that “many Berber men are vocal in their rejection of Islam, equating it with a narrowing of the mind and the opposite of free-thinking and tolerance. They do not want Islam to take over their lives in the form of the state-enforced ‘Arabisation’ of their Berber society”. Of course, such utter nonsense should not go unchallenged. First, Victoria Bruce does not seem to understand that Arabic is a language and Islam is a religion; so they differ from each other. Second, she forgets that the Berber cultural demands have absolutely nothing to do with Islam per se. Not only that the basic demands (at least at this stage) are linguistic, but also that most Berbers would not insult Islam in the way Victoria Bruce has already done. While some Islamist terrorists have undoubtedly given a bad name to Islam, most Algerians still subscribe to that Islam that preaches tolerance and fairness, and stresses the need for education and technological development. More importantly, Islam has answers to racism, effective protection from infectious diseases and so forth. Evidently, Victoria Bruce has no idea about what Islam is all about, and this is no surprise because she certainly has no idea about what Christianity is all about let alone Judaism as one of the most wonderful religions of all times.

But Victoria Bruce is right to assert that “the Berbers [of Algeria] have a long way to go.” As she correctly put it, “Arabic is the only officially recognized language in Algeria; [and] Berbers are not allowed to call their children by their traditional Berber names.”

Democrats or Opportunists?

Algeria’s Berber leaders make attempts to try hard to convince the international community as well as the Berber population that the riots are all about democracy. Of course, there is no real democracy in Algeria and even Mr Bouteflika will admit to it. The reason is that: there are no real democrats. Here are the explanations.

First, the rise of ‘Berberism’ since 1980, while surely has a strong and appealing cultural element, it is mostly about political struggle. This suggests that the Berber population is merely copying the discourse of the Berber leaders without verifying the fact that the motives may be purely political. In this case, the Berber rioters, while truly honest about seeking cultural recognition, the Berber leaders have a totally different aim in mind and that aim is purely political.

The main tactic used here, as suggested by John Entelis, a prominent scholar on North Africa, is to seek to force the government into an intra-civilisational debate on the basis of democracy-related slogans. This is in sharp contrast to reports equating Berberism with democracy on the basis that the Berberists did not resort to violence. This slogan of democracy is, of course, ridiculous since the Berberists (or Berber leaders) were among the first to urge the government in 1992 to cancel the results of the 1991 democratic elections in which they miserably lost. More importantly, there is the fact that throughout history, the Berberists are well-known for their communist tendencies which casts doubt on whether a communist regime would have championed democratic principles.

The second theory is due to political openness at the end of the 1980s. The idea here is that the collapse of the one-party system in 1989 has made it possible for the Berbers to voice their claims through political protests, massive demonstrations and general strikes. This, however, does not explain why the Chaouia, Tuareg and other Berber groups did not act in a similar fashion. Even more challenging to this assertion is the fact that Houari Boumedienne, Algeria’s president from 1965 to 1978, who himself was a Berber, is the architect of the Arabization Law by which Arabic became the official language in the 1960s. This Law, which supposedly strikes at the heart of the ethnic division, is, therefore, not the product of recent years as commonly understood.

Another explanation is based on the Diaspora theory which is linked to the existence of a large Berber population in France. According to official statistics, most of Algerian immigrants residing in France come from the Kabylie region. The existence of such a large Diaspora may have been responsible for financing the growing number of Berber movements in Algeria.

Between Impoverishment and Bullets

In 1998, William Quandt, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, wrote a book entitled “Between Ballots and Bullets” that soon become the major source for explaining why Algeria has since 1992 descended into a murderous strife. According to Quandt, to understand the violence in Algeria, past and present, it is necessary to examine the social, economic and political context which has spawned it. Quandt discussed these factors in detail to conclude that the events of 1992 must have been positively correlated to the sudden and unexpected collapse of the old authoritarian system — the so-called state failure hypothesis.

This hypothesis is indeed very valid since Quandt relate the collapse of the state to the collapse of the economy. The problem, however, is that without sufficient emphasis on economic factors and shifting the economy from the background to the centre of the picture, the state failure hypothesis can result in misleading conclusions — that the lack of democracy has led to today’s turmoil and that a full-fledged democracy will certainly lead to economic revivalism. Since it is the economic situation that was the initiator of the conflict, and that the lack of democracy from 1962 to 1985 did not create any instability-related problems, it must be that, what Algeria needs right now is a Marshal Plan that puts the economy at the centre and, therefore, provides the answer to the non-cultural element of the current ethnic riots.

Algeria Needs a Marshall Plan

More than fifty years ago, George C. Marshall delivered a speech that ranked as one of the greatest speeches in world history. Marshall outlined the problem as follows: “Europe’s requirements are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social and political deterioration of a very grave character.” The significance of Marshall’s plan was immediately recognized.

Today, Algeria’s requirements are so much greater than her ability to survive and the country is already suffering economic, social and political degradation of a very grave nature. The reason is that Algeria’s conditions before the start of the civil conflict in 1992 were as worse as the economic conditions of European countries during the Great Depression of the 1930s leading to the Second World War and are now far worse than Europe’s conditions after that war.

To get a sense of magnitude of what was happening in Algeria before and after 1992, one should compare the unemployment rates in Algeria for 1987-98 as a percentage deviation from those registered in Europe during the most difficult years of the Great Depression (i.e. 1930-8). The results are striking: in 1990, the unemployment rate in Algeria was 40 per cent higher than the average for Europe during the Great Depression. This percentage deviation, however, is calculated on the basis of government estimates. There are reports that the latter may have been significantly underestimated for political reasons. In fact, some reports have provided an estimate of the unemployment rate that is 2.5 times higher than the official rate. If this was taken into account, then the unemployment rate in Algeria would be 100 per cent higher than the average for Europe for the Great Depression period 1930-8.

What these estimates are saying is that Algeria’s economy is virtually bankrupt. With an active population growing at 4 per cent a year, the World Bank estimates that it would take a sustained 6 to 8 per cent GDP growth trend over a decade to stabilize and then reverse this alarming situation. One decade to stabilise unemployment at the existing rate and another or two to start reversing the situation!.

Unemployment is not the only problem here. Inflation is a problem too. In 1990, for example, Algeria’s inflation rate was 18 per cent; in 1992, this was 32 per cent. Although this rate has decreased in 1998, this decrease in itself is a cause for concern. This is because this decline in the general price level has been achieved at extremely high social costs. In particular, the general level of government spending on goods and services has decreased dramatically, to ensure a decrease in aggregate demand. In short, while the severe loss in employment meant no income for the large number of the unemployed among Algerians, high inflation rates and/or reduced government spending implied a significant reduction in the purchasing power for the few who were lucky enough to keep their jobs.

Given such a situation, the average Algerian can only be expected to be poor. It is thus estimated that in 1988, more than 12 per cent of the population were living below the national poverty line. At the same time, the richest 10 per cent of the population were controlling 33 per cent of the national income while the poorest 10 per cent controlled only 2.6 per cent. In 1992, the percentage of the population living below the national poverty line increased to more than 15 per cent which in 1999 reached 23 per cent.

The situation has not improved; in fact it has got far worse. In a report by Le Soir d’Algerie, an Algerian newspaper, the number of the poor in February 2001 has reached 12 million. About 17 per cent of these live on about 40 cents a day. About 33 per cent live on about 55 cents while the other 50 per cent live on about 70 cents a day. Given such a situation, Algerian household now spend most of their income on food (about 60 per cent). They spend 4.4 per cent on health and hygiene and only 1.7 per cent on education. It is also estimated that at least 50 per cent of households have reduced their consumption of meat and vegetables; a significant reduction indeed.

It is this situation that has led to today’s ethnic riots; and it is this kind of situation that will prolong the duration of Algeria’s suffering. Democracy- and ‘nation of Islam’-based hypotheses are deliberately misleading. One should not take joy at the suffering of a WHOLE nation.

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