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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Rising tide of Berber unrest
Demonstrators wave Berber flags, signs and a banner reading Power murderer in a march of Berber supporters in Paris, attended by about 5,000 people
The unrest began with outrage over a student's death
By regional analyst Heba Saleh

The wave of protests that started almost two months ago in Algeria's Berber-speaking region of Kabylia has spread to towns elsewhere in the country.

Riots over poor social conditions have been reported in places including the north-eastern towns of Guelma, Batna and the main port of Annaba.

Berber youths marching in Kabylia
Demonstrations last week ended in violence
Kabylia, however, remains the hottest spot.

The unrest started with rioting in the region by youths enraged by the killing of a local student in gendarmerie custody.

But it has now mushroomed into a protest movement that has drawn in almost the entire Kabyle community and threatens to engulf other areas of the country.

Gendarmerie behaviour

Arbitrary and abusive behaviour of the gendarmerie and local officials is the main complaint.

But other frustrations, such as unemployment and a shortage of housing, have also come to the fore.

Although most Algerians are descendants of the Berbers - the original inhabitants of North Africa - agitation for recognition of Berber culture has been mainly a Kabyle affair

The initial response of the authorities was to try to put down the riots by firing live ammunition at demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of 50 to 80 people.

These killings have ignited a wave of anger in the region that has yet to subside.

Women, lawyers, doctors and civil servants have all organised their own protests on the streets of the main towns in the region.

Kabyle community

Kabyle organisations have also taken their protests to Algiers.

A massive demonstration called by Kabyle community leaders last week ended in violence when protestors at the head of the march clashed with the security forces who blocked their route to the presidential palace.

The marchers wanted to present a list of demands, including the withdrawal of the gendarmerie from the region, punishment of those responsible for firing on the crowds, a programme to relaunch the region's economy, and a long-standing demand for official status for the Berber language.

The most politically involved of all Algerians, the Kabyles have a history of agitation against the central government since the 1960s, soon after Algeria became independent from France.

Berber Spring

In the 1980s, young Kabylians led a movement for official recognition of the Berber language and culture, which drew a repressive reaction from the regime that has lasted for many years.

The anniversary of the "Berber Spring" is still celebrated in the region with marches and demonstrations.

The repression of Kabyle cultural demands gave way to manipulation of the language issue by a regime determined to play the Berberists off against the Islamists

Although most Algerians are descendants of the Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa, agitation for recognition of Berber culture has been mainly a Kabyle affair.

The inhabitants of Kabylia, along with other Berbers living in remote, mostly desert or mountain areas, were never fully Arabised and succeeded in holding on to elements of their culture and identity, despite conversion to Islam.

Other Berbers in Algeria who have retained their language are the Shawiyya in the east, the Mzabis in the northern Sahara and the Tuareg in the far south.

Urban elite

But it is the Kabyles living close to the capital and strongly represented in the urban and administrative elite and in the emigre community in France who produced an active Berberist movement contesting the regime for imposing an Arab identity on what it argues is essentially a Berber country.

Demonstrator painted with the Berber symbol
Demanding more rights

In recent years, the repression of Kabyle cultural demands, which marked the period before 1989, gave way to manipulation of the language issue by a regime determined to play the Berberists off against the Islamists who had started to pose a challenge.

Political parties

Kabylia has given rise to two regionally based political parties, Hocine Ait Ahmed's Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy, (RCD).

Both champion the cause of the Berber language, even if they take diametrically opposed positions on most of the important national issues.

The RCD, which is staunchly secular, has recently withdrawn from the government coalition in protest at the killings in Kabylia.

The FFS, which has always refused compromise with the military-backed authorities, has been trying to channel the anger in Kabylia into pressure for democratisation.

It argues that only dialogue between all Algerians, including the Islamists, can give the country stability and resolve both the language issue and the conflict with the armed Islamists.


Islamist uprising

Berber struggle

Economic hardship

Background
See also:

21 May 01 | Middle East
03 May 01 | Middle East
01 May 01 | Middle East
01 May 01 | Middle East
30 Apr 01 | Middle East
30 Apr 01 | Middle East
28 Jun 98 | Middle East
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
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