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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Berbers battle for recognition
Demonstrators run away from tear gas fired by anti-riot police in Bejaia
The protesters were mostly young men
By Algeria correspondent Heba Saleh

Algeria's Kabylia region was already tense before a week of violent clashes between security forces and Berber-speaking demonstrators left an estimated 50 or more people dead.

April marked the 21st anniversary of the "Berber Spring" which signalled the beginning of overt activism for official recognition of the Berber language and culture.

Although most Algerians are descended from Berbers - the original inhabitants of North Africa who predate the Arabs - the inhabitants of the mountainous region of Kabylia have never been fully Arabised.

Pro-Berber demonstrators in Paris
Pro-Berber demonstrators in Paris on Sunday
Despite their conversion to Islam, they have managed to hang on to elements of their original identity.

The anniversary of the Berber Spring is generally celebrated in the two main regional towns, Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, with marches in which demonstrators chant vehement anti-regime slogans.

Riots

The killing of a youth, along with police mishandling of two young students arrested in another village, sparked off a week of rioting in the five provinces which make up the Kabylia heartland in north-eastern Algeria.

Map of Algeria
Angry demonstrators, almost all young men in their late teens or early twenties, cut off roads with burning tyres.

They overturned and set alight lorries, destroyed government offices and tried to storm police stations and gendarmerie barracks. The security forces responded with teargas and live ammunition.

Reports speak of scenes of devastation in the town of Bejaia, where the railway station has been destroyed, the government cultural centre sacked, street lighting smashed and barricades erected.

Inequalities

Although the arrogance of the gendarmerie may have been a main cause of the explosion of anger, the rioters also felt frustration at a range of perceived injustices.

They include:

  • high unemployment and perceived corruption in the allocation of scarce government housing
  • the authorities' rejection of the regional demand to make Berber an official national language
  • an end to "hogra" an Algerian word which means being excluded and held in contempt
It is a word Algerians frequently use in describing their situation and the attitude of both military-backed authorities and local administrations to the people.

Official response to the unrest has been tardy and when it came, observers in Algiers say, it failed to address the issues raised by the demonstrators.


The authorities no longer have any means of communicating with the people, not even the parties

Opposition politician
In his first remarks on the violence, a week after it had started, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced the creation of a commission of inquiry which he said would work "freely and transparently" to shed light on what had happened.

Critics of the regime, however, say the military-backed authorities have been unable to deal with the violence because they have built a political system which isolates them from the people.

Since it interrupted elections eight years ago to prevent an Islamist party from winning, the army has been tightening its grip on political power.

Civil war

A series of elections, denounced as fraudulent by opposition political parties but billed by the regime as the only means of restoring democracy, have failed to extricate Algeria from a low-level civil war in which 100,000 people have been killed.

President Bouteflika
President Bouteflika has announced an inquiry into the violence
In the meantime, the social situation has worsened, there are persistent rumours about power struggles within the military leadership and lingering doubts about responsibility for many of the killings of civilians which are routinely blamed on armed Islamic groups.

"What can the authorities do? They can do nothing," said an Algerian opposition politician.

The unrest "is an inevitable result of the political situation. The authorities no longer have any means of communicating with the people, not even the parties."

Indeed, the demonstrators appear not to have even spared the local offices of the two regionally based parties, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD).

The two organisations have traditionally been perceived as Berber parties emanating from the region and championing demands for recognition of the local culture.

But the latest events prove that their credibility has been another casualty of the political crisis in Algeria.

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See also:

30 Apr 01 | Middle East
Berber riots shake government
29 Apr 01 | Middle East
Clashes rage in Berber region
28 Apr 01 | Middle East
Algerian military suffers heavy blow
28 Jun 98 | Middle East
The Berbers: fighting on two fronts
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Algeria
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