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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 22:59 GMT
Language victory for Algeria's Berbers
riot in Kabylie
Berber unrest erupted into violence last year
The language spoken by Algeria's main ethnic minority, the Berbers of Kabylie, is finally to be given recognition by the state.

When we speak about Tamazight, we mean the identity of the entire Algerian people

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Tamazight will be recognised as a national language, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced in a speech to the nation on Tuesday.

"I have decided in total freedom and with total conviction to include Tamazight in the constitution as a national language," he said.

"When we speak about Tamazight, we mean the identity of the entire Algerian people.

"The national character of Tamazight cannot be questioned, whether the issue relates to Tamazight as a language or to Tamazight as a culture."

Boycott threat

The move comes just days after Berber leaders called for a boycott of the parliamentary election in May, saying the state had failed to address the community's concerns.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
President Bouteflika faces pressure to reach agreement with the Berbers

The authorities in Algeria have long faced unrest among the Berbers who demand recognition for their distinctive identity.

Violent protests against police brutality in Kabylie last year left 60 people dead and 2,000 injured.

Tamazight, which encompasses several regional dialects, is spoken mostly by Berbers and by other ethnic groups in Algeria and Morocco.

Berbers are believed to make up about 17% of Algeria's population, but at present Arabic is the only official state language.

Political demands

While recognition of their language was a key demand of the Berber community, the protesters had many other complaints as well.

The BBC's North Africa correspondent, Stephanie Irvine, reports that they have deep-rooted grievances over unemployment, bad housing and perceived abuses by security officials.

Last June the protesters drew up a 15-point list of demands for improving living conditions in their poor and mountainous region, known as the "El-Kseur Platform".

These include the withdrawal of the despised paramilitary gendarmes, greater democracy and accountability, and a programme to re-launch the region's economy.

Only moderate Berber leaders were present at Tuesday's meeting with President Bouteflika.

The other, more radical, wing of the protest movement - which commands greater popular support in Kabylie - rejected an invitation to attend the meeting, saying the 15 demands were non-negotiable.

If these demands are not met in full by President Bouteflika, the radical wing of the protest movement says it will continue with its active boycott of the elections on 30 May.

And it seems unlikely the demands will be met since the government has already stated that a full-scale withdrawal of the gendarmes is out of the question.

See also:

13 Mar 02 | Middle East
Will concession to Berbers be enough?
25 Feb 02 | Middle East
Algeria sets poll date
06 Dec 01 | Middle East
Berbers clash with police at protest
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Algeria
04 Oct 01 | Middle East
Algeria's Berbers get language rights
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