The Berbers of Algeria

Summary: Algerian recognition of the Berber New Year as a national holiday the culmination of a difficult history, symbolising the possibility of national reconciliation and unity.

The Berbers or Amazigh are an ethnic group who live in the countries around the Sahara from the Siwa oasis in Egypt in the north-east to Mali in the south-west (and as a diaspora, mainly in France). There are around 25 to 30 million who speak the Berber group of languages or dialects, and many who do not. They are everywhere in a minority, with the largest communities in Morocco and Algeria. Most are Sunni Muslim.

We are grateful to an Arab Digest member for the article below which describes the history of the Berbers in Algeria, culminating in a historic decision to proclaim the Berber New Year, 12 January, a national holiday as a symbol of national reconciliation.

 Cultural Heritage: Algeria setting an example?

The decision was taken in December 2017. It was all over the news. The Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, made an historic step — the promise to proclaim 12 January a National Holiday.

This was not just any decision or any date. In fact, 12 January is the Amazigh New Year called Yennayer.   Thus, Algeria and Algerians would celebrate their first day of the Berber Year 2968.

The neighbouring Maghreb countries welcomed the initiative. But internally the reaction was quite muted, reflecting the tortuous past experience of the Berber had to go through in Algeria. This even though in Algeria, counting the Kabyle, Mzab, Chaoui, Touareg and 13 other ethnic groups,  the Berber make up around one-third of the population.

The history of the Amazigh, also known as Berbers, is a long one in the Maghreb region in general and Algeria in particular; the Berbers against Vandals, Romans, Arabs and then French. And post-independence in 1962, they started another fight, this one for their rights, identity and cultural acceptance.

Algeria since independence has experienced political violence that today prohibits any form of popular expression; all the demonstrations that have taken place to demand democracy and freedom of expression have been violently repressed, the “troublemakers” smothered, thrown into prison and tortured.

Yet since independence the Arab-Berber conflict has been part of daily life. As successive governments have pushed forward Arabization of the population, many Berbers came to feel discriminated against in the face of a powerful threat to their language rights and culture heritage in their own country. In consequence, during the 60s and 70s they associated themselves with groups opposing the regime, thereby isolating themselves and strengthening the government’s determination to deny Berbers the right to express themselves in their native language or even to refer to themselves as Berber.

In April 1980 at the University of Tizi-Ouzou (100km east of Algiers) was born a peaceful protest movement. It aimed to challenge the government ban of a conference organized by the eminent intellectual Mouloud Mammeri, with the object of “the promotion of the Amazigh language and culture but also the emancipation of democratic liberties”. The protest was violently suppressed by the security forces.

In face of such violence various parts of the Kabylie region called a general strike, punctuated by marches — an organized protest that won the entire Kabylie and was followed by the birth of the Berber spring” (Tafsut n’Imazighen). This was a movement that gave the entire population courage at a time when the wall of terror erecting by the regime since 1962 was at risk of collapsing. Algerians were no longer afraid to go out and demonstrate to express their dissatisfaction. The twenty-four leaders of the protests, referred at “troublemakers” and risking the death penalty, were arrested but finally released thanks to the mobilization of the entire region and pressure from the external Berber community mainly in France.

For its part, the media led a disinformation campaign demonising Kabylie, a mainly Berber region in northern Algeria. The state media (a single chain) described the Kabyle as “separatists and agents serving the West” and “protestors undermining national unity and the security of the state “. But the Berber Spring was neither separatist nor racist, but rather a democratic movement calling for respect for human rights ​​and the emancipation of all citizens of the Algerian state.

The political opening afforded by the 1988 coup and the 1989 Constitution which followed made it possible for some political parties to register and establish themselves, promoting political, religious and/or cultural freedom including the Berber identity. But the civil war which followed the December 1991 general election put an end to that.

More recently, for over two years starting in 2013, clashes between ethnic Arabs and Berbers took place in the southern part of the country — the city of Ghardaïa, capital of the province of the same name in the M’zab Valley, which lies 600km south of Algiers. Tensions there grew between the two communities over jobs, housing and land. The Berbers, locally known as Mozabites, are adherents of the Ibadi school of Islam, which goes back to a division in the early days of Islam. Trouble started with the destruction of the mausoleum of “Ammi Moussa” the father of integration in the Mozartite community of Ghardaïa, classified World Heritage by UNESCO since 1982. The two communities did not trust each other, and each felt marginalized by the other. The Berbers accused the Arabs of benefiting from preferential treatment by the government, including obtaining better jobs and places to live. The Arabs accused the Berbers, who are generally perceived to be wealthier, of hindering poorer Arabs’ integration into their exclusive social structures.

These conflicts were violent and caused over 22 dead and 200 injured. The central government reacted 60 days after the beginning of the conflict by sending over 10,000 police and military to control the population and keep order.

Coming to the very recent past, following the President’s decision last December, the Minister of Labour, Employment and Social Security presented to the members of the National Parliament (APN) a bill listing public holidays and including Yennayer, Berber New Year, coinciding with 12 January, as a national holiday and a paid day.

In a plenary session chaired by the speaker of parliament the minister indicated that the law amending and supplementing Law No. 63-278 of 26 July 1963 establishing the list of legal holidays had come into effect. Furthermore, at the 27 December Council of Ministers, the President of the Republic recalled that the Constitution, revised in March 2016, finally confirms the approval by the Algerian people of recognition of Tamazight as an official language and, as such to be developed and promoted by the state in the interests of cementing national unity.

The same bill sought to strengthen national identity through its three components, Islamic, Arab and Amazigh, and called for national reconciliation and consolidation around the history of Algeria and its spiritual and civilizational dimensions. According to the accompanying declaration of intent, the celebration of Yennayer each year will strengthen, “our unwavering attachment and our permanent link with our civilization and our Amazigh history, whose calendar begins in the year 950 BC and this year reaches 2968, corresponding to the Gregorian year 2018 “.

It is also specified that this date will remain in future years a reminder for future generations of the glories and heroism of their ancestors and their struggle for freedom, dignity and emancipation. Article 4 of the Constitution stipulates, it is recalled, that Tamazight is also a national and official language. The state works to promote and develop it in all its linguistic varieties used on the national territory, with the establishment of the National Council of Amazigh.

Will this new and historic step give enduring form to the rights of, and relations between, all Algerians, while also allowing the Berbers to continue to express their discontent with the regime through spontaneous demonstrations, the existing tough restrictions on peaceful protest notwithstanding? Or will it instead serve, as the regime no doubt intends, primarily to weaken the Berbers’ resolve to stand up for their rights where they believe it necessary? Only time will tell.

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