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Middle East

In Algeria, Arab-Berber Conflict Recalls Plight of Kurds

By Harvey Morris 22/3/2014
Kawa Botani, a Kurdish man from Duhok joined Amazigh protests in Morocco in January, demanding their rights. Photo: Kawa Botani
Kawa Botani, a Kurdish man from Duhok joined Amazigh protests in Morocco in January, demanding their rights. Photo: Kawa Botani

LONDON – It is gearing up to be an abrasive election campaign in Algeria, where pre-poll tensions have already flared into inter-communal violence involving Arabs and Berbers, whose history of persecution and cultural marginalization recalls that of the Kurds.

Thousands of police were this week deployed in the city of Ghardaia, 350 miles south of Algiers, after the latest in a series of clashes between Arab and Berber youths left three dead, 200 injured and shops burned and destroyed.

Reports from the region, a UNESCO World Heritage site in which the two communities have lived side-by-side for a thousand years, did not identify a specific motive for the latest violence. However, there was speculation that an influx of Arabs to the majority-Berber region might be an element in the rising tension.

Other theories point to possible property disputes, political machinations among the security forces, and even a spill-over from the illicit North African drug trade.

The unrest comes ahead of a presidential election campaign that officially opens on Sunday in which the ageing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has sparked widespread political dissent by announcing he will stand for a fourth term.

The 77-year-old Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke last year. However, with the backing of the ruling National Liberation Front and sections of the army, he is widely tipped to beat a divided opposition to secure a further five-year term. Five other candidates are also standing.

The country over which he has presided, since the final years of a bloody civil war against Islamists that ended in 2002, includes one in four people who identify themselves as Berber, or Amazigh, in their language and cultural traditions. There is an even higher proportion of Berbers in neighboring Morocco and smaller communities in Tunisia, Libya and other regions of north Africa.

They were prominent in the Algerian war against the colonial French and, in Libya, they were among the first to join the struggle to oust Muammar Gaddafi and many there are now demanding self-rule.

Like the Kurds, the Berbers are an indigenous group that long predates the arrival of Islam and Arabisation.

The parallels are not lost on the Berbers. The pro-independence Movement for Self-Determination in Kabylia, the mountainous Berber region of Northern Algeria, condemned the tendency of the international community to “turn its back on oppressed peoples” when it denounced the killings in Paris last year of three activists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

And the self-styled Kabylia Provisional Government in exile last year issued a statement supporting Kurdish autonomy in Syria. “Like the Kurds of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, the Kurds of Syria who have suffered so much from Syrian oppression, also aspire to an independent Kurdistan,” it said.

In neighboring Morocco, Berber student demonstrators carried Kurdish flags during protests in 2012 and Kurds responded by hoisting the Berber flag in Syria.

As with Kurds, many of the demands of Berbers have been focused on linguistic and cultural recognition in Arab-dominated states. Both have also called for greater democratization within a secular framework.

In 1980, in a period that became known as the Berber Spring, several months of demonstrations demanded that the Berber language, Tamazight, be made an official language in Algeria. Thousands of protestors were detained.

In 2001, similar demands and repression by the security forces led to bloody riots that left 50 dead. As part of an agreement to settle that round of unrest, President Bouteflika agreed to designate Tamazight as a national language, although not an official one.

The protestors had been demanding the reversal of a 1998 law that mandated the exclusive use of Arabic in public life. Berbers saw the move as an attempt to appease Islamists. Ironically, that law was passed under President Liamine Zeroual, himself a Berber.

The former general this week issued an open letter that added his voice to those opposing a fourth term for President Bouteflika and in which he urged a change of leadership.

Divisions over the forthcoming election have raised tensions beyond the Berber homelands, prompting demonstrations in the capital and elsewhere.

In Ghardaia, meanwhile, the authorities’ priority appears to be on calming Arab-Berber conflict as the election day approaches.



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Dilok Bakure
Dilok Bakure | 23/3/2014
The Amazigh(Berbers) are our most trusteble brothers and sisiters. Biji Azadi Kurdistane & Biji Azadi Berberistane.
Kurd | 23/3/2014
The Berbers have my full support for their struggle against the arabisation of their land from illegal arab immigrants, who came from Saudi desert. Never give up and fight against the occupiers like the Kurds do, your identity and land is your god given right.
Salim | 23/3/2014
Harvey Morris, you don't know anything about the subject. I am Chaoui myself, the tension began between M'zabs and Touaregs who are both berbers and has nothing to do with Arabs. You have to know that Chaouis, Mzab, Touaregs are proud to have an Arab heritage and don't accept the Kabyle way of thinking. During the war with France the only people who are allowed besides the French to go university (only one small university in the whole of Algeria dedicated solely to Christians and very few Kabyles) are Kabiles, and the rest of us if the French knew that we have achieved a certain standard of education they murder us so we have to keep it secret. On independence 1962 they were over 80% of the Algerian population who are illiterate, the Algerian government has put over 35% of its budget on education and by the 70s over 50 big universities were created. So the Kabyles weren’t anymore the only ones with high position. If you go to Tizi-Ouzou today and speak in Arabic they won’t serve you, but if you ask in Kabyle or French you will be served. There are a lot of misinformation, but you have to know Harvey, that all berbers in Algeria are proud to be part of the Arab Ouma except the Kabyles.
Salim | 23/3/2014
I am voted down, you don't like it but truth hurt, so could you please tell me which part of my story is not true and i want facts too..lets have a real debate an not just the way I was born in Arris town which is the the heart of the chaoui Ouma
Bver | 24/3/2014
The truth is the Arabs used Islam and the book to take over the all Middle East , all North Africa , using the same Alqaeda / SISI style of killing people for no reason what so ever except to take over their land and wealth, we see it today happening in Syria , all in the name of Islam, but the truth is stronger than what some idiot think , it does not matter how much you can lie and deceive people, soon or later your true color will come out as it is happening today, all the bastared who identify them selves as Arabs such as the once in Lebanon, Syria , Iraq, North Africa , let them go and check their DNA, and find out who are they, not claiming to be an Arab, to have protection,and benefits. The whole truth is coming out and that is the way nature is telling every body that the truth is stronger and will come out. The Kurds and the Berbers will shine soon or later, and no one has the right to deny us freedom.
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