Berbers boycott Algerian polls ‘to honour martyrs’

Berbers boycott Algerian polls ‘to honour martyrs’

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, The Independant, 10 October 2002

« Let’s not betray the memory of the martyrs of the Black Spring, » screams the editorial in the Berber newspaper Racines as it calls for a boycott of today’s local elections in Algeria. « Let’s honour the blood of our valiant martyrs. »

The martyrs are the 117 young Berbers cut down by police gunfire in riots earlier this year, and the headline of the editorial is one word: « Treachery ».

Divide and rule may have controlled empires but it still exists in Algeria. Hocine Ait Ahmed, the leader of the largely Berber Socialist Forces Front (FFS) is urging his supporters to vote in the elections for the 1,589 municipal and provincial councils across the country, and telling the government and army to prevent a « bloodbath » in the mountainous Kabylie region south of Algiers.

Vote for the FFS, he says, and Berbers can prevent Algeria’s profiteers from grabbing the most lucrative jobs in local government. Vote at all, say the radicals, and you will be providing the equally corrupt central government of President Abdulaziz Bouteflika with an excuse to make the fraudulent claim that Algeria is a democracy.

Already 20,000 riot police have been deployed in Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and the other cities of Kabylie to ensure that voting booths stay open and that the FFS, which has lost 20 local offices to arsonists in recent weeks, does not have any more of its property burnt to the ground. Mayors and party faithful will have to turn out aware that for doing so they will be regarded as stooges of le pouvoir â? » the army-dominated military, political and business clique that in effect has ruled Algeria since independen

Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa who speak their own language of Tamazight, make up about a third of Algeria’s 32 million population. Theyare cruelly divided between radicals seeking more independence from the corrupting embrace of the old FLN-run and army-controlled central government, and the politicians who want to maintain their traditional power by working within the discredited system of administration.

The Citizens Movement of men such as Ali Gherbi and Belaid Abrika is employing the language of resistance used in the 1954-62 independence war against France. Those Berbers who vote, it claims, are collaborators, fifth columnists and traitors. In a country that has endured a 10-year war between Islamist and government forces that has cost more than 150,000 lives â? » most of them civilians â? » these are inflammatory words.

Last spring’s violence, in which the government lost control of large areas of Kabylie, was followed by promises from President Bouteflika to withdraw from the mountains those gendarmes who were accused of killing the 117 youths â? » or so the Berbers believed. But the policemen were not pulled out and, although more than 100 prisoners jailed by the police were later released, they did not receive official clemency.

Why not, the Citizens’ Movement wants to know, when thousands of armed Islamists with blood on their hands have received pardons from the government?

A schoolmaster in Tizi Ouzou and a supporter of the radical movement claimed yesterday that the government only wanted a vote to persuade the EU that Algeria was a modern democracy worthy of international funding. A general strike was called across the region on the eve of today’s poll. Ominously for the government, it appeared to have closed every shop and office in Kabylie