The Kabyle Riots: Repression and Alienation in Algeria
Heba Saleh*, MERIP Press Information Note 56, May 11, 2001
Ten days of rioting, beginning in late April, in the Algerian Berber-speaking region of Kabylia have led to the death of scores of demonstrators — all killed by the security forces’ gunfire. As ever in Algeria, there are no definitive figures. The military-backed authorities put the death toll at 42, but reports in the local press say that between 60 and 80 people were killed, as riot police and the gendarmerie fired live ammunition at crowds of young men who ransacked government buildings, cut off streets with burning tires and set vehicles on fire. The riots quickly spread across the five provinces which make up the Kabyle heartland in northeastern Algeria, and turned the streets of the two main provincial capitals, Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, into battle zones. Day after day, youths clashed with the security forces, ignoring appeals for calm from local associations and political parties as well as government officials. The length and severity of the riots highlights deep political crises in Algeria beyond the ongoing conflict between the government and Islamist rebels.
The youths’ anger was sparked by the death in custody of Massinissa Guermah, a Kabyle youth who had been arrested in the village of Beni Douala by the gendarmerie, the force responsible for keeping order in the countryside. Guermah died from his injuries after he was reportedly hit by 12 shots from a machine gun. It is not clear why he was killed. In a tardy explanation which clearly failed to convince Kabyle public opinion, the Algerian authorities said a machine gun had accidentally gone off after slipping out of a gendarme’s hands. They promised to punish the man responsible.
Shortly after Guermah’s killing, the gendarmes arrested and mistreated three youths at Amizour, to the east of Beni Douala. These two incidents were enough to ignite the wrath of the Kabyles, who have long harbored deep resentment of the gendarmerie. The soldiers are considered arrogant and abusive towards the local people, helping themselves to goods in shops without paying and extorting money from local businessmen. The withdrawal of the gendarmerie from Kabylia was one of the main demands of the rioters.
But the Kabyle riots were not just about the gendarmerie, nor were they, as some media tried to portray them, about Berber calls for official recognition of their language, even if that was one of many themes of the demonstrations. The anger of Kabyle youth was essentially targeted at the entire military-backed regime, which they perceive as repressive and oblivious to their interests. Demonstrators chanted familiar slogans of « pouvoir assassin » and « gouvernement terroriste, corrompu » — the authorities are assassins, terrorists and corrupt. These slogans are more than mere rhetoric in Algeria, where inexplicable massacres and suspicious assassinations of political opponents are routinely blamed on Islamist rebels without any open investigations.
The rioters also called for an end to hogra, an Algerian expression which means being excluded and held in contempt. In recent years, the term has been often used to refer to the attitude of the ruling elite towards the majority of Algerians, who find themselves deprived of the wherewithal for a dignified life, and whose destiny lies in the hands of the secretive clique of military officers controlling the country. Like Algerians everywhere, the Kabyles are angered by a range of political and social ills: soaring unemployment, a severe shortage of affordable housing and despair of a better future.
The demonstrators’ invocation of hogra was underlined by the slow official reaction to the events in Kabylia. When President Abdelaziz Bouteflika finally spoke, it was a full week after the start of the riots. He promised a fair and transparent investigation, and declared that the issue of Berber language would be addressed in a forthcoming revision of the constitution. Bouteflika also accused unnamed forces inside and outside the country of trying to sow discord among Algerians and warned that they would be unmasked. Apart from the commission of inquiry, there was nothing concrete in the presidential address. Algerian observers point out the dismal government record with past commissions of inquiry. Some reports are never made public; some are simply a whitewash.
Kabylia is the most politicized region in Algeria, with a heightened awareness of its distinct identity. The region has a history of agitation against the central government dating back to the 1960s, soon after Algeria became independent from France. In the 1980s, young Kabyles led a movement for official recognition of the Berber language and culture which drew a repressive regime reaction lasting for many years. The recent riots occurred around the twenty-first anniversary of the 1980 « Berber Spring, » which marked the start of overt activism for recognition of the Berber identity. Every year the region celebrates this occasion with marches in which demonstrators chant anti-regime slogans and call for the elevation of the Berber language, Tamazight, to the status of an official and national language on a par with Arabic.
Although most Algerians are descended from 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 pockets of other Berbers living in remote, mostly desert or mountain areas — the Shawiyya in the east, the Mzabis in the northern Sahara and the Tuareg in the far south — were never fully Arabized and have retained their language. But it is the Kabyles, living close to the capital and strongly represented in the urban population and in the emigre community in France as well as in their densely settled mountains, who have given rise to an active Berberist movement that contests the regime for imposing an Arab identity on what it argues is essentially a Berber country.
In recent years, the repression of Kabyle cultural demands which marked the period before 1989 gave way to manipulation of the language issue by the regime, which was determined to play the Berberists off against the Islamist challenge. Analysts surmise that the regime was also concerned to neutralize the democratic implications of developments in Kabylia for the rest of the country.
Two political parties, Hocine Ait Ahmed’s Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), draw their support from Kabylia. Both champion the cause of the Berber language, though they take diametrically opposed positions on most other important national issues. But, in what observers regard as a worrying sign of popular alienation, the FFS and RCD appear to have been completely overtaken by events during the riots. Demonstrators burnt several local offices of both parties and paid little heed to their calls for calm. Critics of the regime say alienation is the natural outcome of the blocked political situation in place since the army cancelled elections in 1992 to prevent the FIS — an Islamist party — from winning. The army’s intervention plunged the country into a low-level civil war from which it has yet to emerge. All of the country’s political parties lost credibility as the military rigged a series of elections aimed at building a democratic facade behind which the army commanders continue to monopolize power.
As Algerians came to lose faith in politics, the two Kabyle-based parties have lost much influence in the region. The virulently anti-Islamist RCD, which joined the government coalition last year, is widely seen as a puppet of the hated regime. There were even allegations last year that prominent RCD figures conspired with military security in June 1998 to assassinate a leading Berber singer, Lounes Matoub, whose killing was initially blamed on the armed Islamic groups. The killing sparked a wave of demonstrations across the region, and some analysts saw the unrest as having been deliberately provoked as part of a factional fight between the army and then-President Liamine Zeroual, who was forced to stand down shortly afterwards. The FFS has been unsuccessfully calling for democratization and dialogue with the Islamists, and is regarded by many as ineffective.
In an effort to limit the damage to itself following the riots, the RCD has now withdrawn from the coalition, saying that a government which fires on its people could not be supported. For its part, the FFS has been organizing peaceful marches to try to channel public anger away from violence and presumably to regain some of the ground it had lost. FFS leaders have also alleged that at least some of the rioting was provoked by forces within the regime engaged in a power struggle.
FACTIONAL POLITICS AND MANIPULATIONS
Conspiracy theories are never long to be invoked when there is a significant political development in Algeria. The regime is so opaque, and there are so many credible reports of factional struggles within the ruling military security establishment, that it is difficult to discount the possibility that the events in Kabylia were manipulated to serve the interests of one faction or another. Some observers think the excessive force used by the gendarmes to put down the riots was intended to provoke and then prolong the unrest, in order to undermine political opponents within ruling military circles.
Recently there have been more signs of discord at the top, with newspapers reporting that the all-powerful military security chief Mohamed Mediene was about to be forced out by colleagues. Although this has been denied, some speculate that the regime may be planning to sacrifice the general as way of easing pressures within top military circles. There is already a power struggle going on between President Bouteflika — who has been seeking to assert his authority — and the generals who brought him into office to improve the regime’s image, which was being tarnished by allegations of serious human rights violations. Bouteflika has proven less docile than expected, while his vaunted peace initiative, the law on « civil concord, » has failed to bring peace to the country. At the same time, the regime has come under mounting pressure from human rights groups over its conduct during the last ten years. Allegations of horrific abuses have been rekindled with the recent phenomenal success in France of a book called « La Sale Guerre » (« The Dirty War »), written by a former Algerian officer who testifies to the army’s involvement in torturing and massacring civilians.
Efforts to counteract the negative publicity backfired when a retired Algerian general and former defense minister, Khaled Nezzar, went to Paris to launch his own memoirs. Algerian torture victims living in France filed charges against Nezzar, forcing him to rush back to Algiers on a private plane with the help of the French authorities. This development is likely to open the door to similar actions by victims in other European countries, adding yet more pressures on a regime which, while still powerful, is increasingly perceived as fragmented and isolated.
* Heba Saleh is a freelance journalist who has covered Algeria since 1993.