Sectarian youth violence in Algeria?

This past few weeks have seen the outbreak of inter-communal violence in the Algerian town of Berriane, in Ghardaia province. Berriane is located in the predominantly Berber [Tumbazit]-speaking region of the Mzab valley, known for its distinctive architecture and socio-political organization and Ibadite Muslim population. The Mzab region is made up of a confederation of five cities, whose local government is peculiar to the region and incorporates the Mzabites’ strict Islamic traditions. The 80,000 people of Mzab maintain their own linguistic, religious, and cultural traditions largely separate from other Algerians, and do not traditionally intermarry with those outside of their clans or tribes, let alone their confessional network. There are populations of Arab nomads and pastoralists in the region, notably the [Sunni] Chaamba Arabs, who have settled in the urban areas of Mzab, previously inhabited almost entirely by Berber speaking Ibadites.

The violence in Berriane may come as a surprise to many Western Algeria watchers, as the Mzab is usually ignored in most political studies of Algeria because of its relative isolation in the Sahara, small population, and Algeria’s otherwise religiously homogeneous population. The rest of Algeria, like the whole of North Africa, is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim of the Maliki school of jurisprudence, with the Mzab representing the only deviation from the mainstream.

Not a lot information seems to be out about the events in Berriane, and the following is my attempt at piecing together information from Algerian newspapers over the past several days.

On 22 March, during festivities celebrating the birthday of Muhammad, fighting broke out between youths in Berriane, the cause is not described by El Khabar. Security forces flooded the city and brought what was widely described as a precarious “calm” over the town. 26 March, Algerian PM Belkhadem stated that the problems in Berriane had been “extinguished,” perhaps exaggerating for an official delegation of the Chinese Communist Party. One man died that night, and a suspect was arrested on 31 March (an unlicensed firearm was found in his residence).

By 4 April, fighting had resumed. 26 people had been wounded in Berriane, with the total expected to be even higher with some of the wounded not going to hospitals for fear of arrest. Security forces continued their presence in the town but could not stop the violence.

Later on 5 April, violence erupted yet again, this time after Friday prayers, to the point where security forces had to use tear gas to subdue the youth. On 6 April rioting continued, and 20 people were arrested. Notables condemned the violence, urging an end to clannishness. Local artisans felt that the situation was still grave at that point, and would not begin work repairing damaged properties. A committee was established, composed of Ibadite and Maliki [e.g., mainline Maghrebi Sunni] elders in order to investigate the root causes of the disturbances.

16 of the arrested were released on 7 April, with the government attempting to pursue a path of reconciliation as opposed to confrontation with the situation. A “precarious calm” overtook Berriane, with older residents demanding that the authorities identify who was to blame for the disturbances and bring them to justice. Government officials have been stressing that there should be no conflicts between Muslims, and going as far as to establish a commission to investigate religious intolerance in Ghardaia, suggesting that the fighting may have a serious sectarian element. A delegation from the Association of Muslim Clerics visited Berriane in order to assess the situation and urge dialog between community leaders and youths. Delegations from major Berberist parties, the FFS (Front of Social Forces) and RCD (Rally for Culture and Democracy) sent delegations to the region, with FFS leaders condemning the government’s handling of the situation as “disastrous at every level” and both parties condemning the inefficiency and “lack of seriousness” in the police and security services, whose headquarters are evidently close to the scene of much of the violence.

Le Soir d’Algerie describes an incident that may have contributed to the instigation of the violence. A firecracker was thrown into the vicinity of a pregnant woman, causing a miscarriage. The woman’s husband, with “reinforcements” to “punish the aggressors.” Confrontation in a mixed neighborhood called Kef Hammouda led to fighting between Mzabites and Chaamba Arabs. Violence between young people led to homes being set ablaze, looting, and deaths, some by shooting. The Algerian media is not exploring the exact cause[s] of the extent of the violence (while it is admitted in some reports that the troubles have ethnic roots, it is being described as “youth violence/rage” in most reports), which according to Le Soir d’Algerie, “led to an almost total paralysis of the economic sector in Berriane.”

Whatever the causes of the violence, it is clear that there needs to be reconciliation — politically, socially, and economically — in the Mzab, as in the rest of Algeria, between the youth population and the elders. While Mzab’s peculiar ethno-sectarian element very likely has to do with the intensity of this violence, it falls into a wider trend across Algeria in which youths, almost always unemployed young men, find their way into the streets with no means of channelling their ambitions and frustrations into anything else than mass violence or idleness.

A map showing the distribution of Algerian “tribes.” The Mzabites are located in the center, in and around Ghardaia, between Bechar and Touggourt. Map showing distribution of Algerian

Update: Thanks to Karim for linking to this El Watan article. The article describes two stories, each describing the opening of hostilities from the vantage point of the Mzabite and Arab communities. Both start with youth firing of firecrackers at an Arab woman and her pregnant daughter-in-law. The Mzabites claim that this was done by Arabs. They claim that Arab youth from other neighborhoods came in to Kef Hammouda shouting and smashing up Mzabite shops. They claim that the fire cracker incident was the result of this behavior. The Mzabites go on to say that they had to defend themselves from Arab attacks, and in the course of this shots were fired, killing one and wounding several. The Arabs claim that the fire crackers were shot off by Mzabites and after the women protested they began “tearing up the clothes of the pregnant woman.” Arab youth attempted to intervene and violence broke out. Later, Mzabites from other neighborhoods entered Kef Hammouda, attacking Arab homes and other properties. The Arab community, too, “swears it had to defend itself.” An Arab woman relates that her son, who was married to a Mzabite woman, was beaten so severely on 7 April that he had to be transferred to Algiers for special treatment. Ghardaia’s gendarme commander would neither confirm nor deny either version of the events.

The article further explains the tensions which arose during the 1990 elections, when Arabs predominantly supported the FIS and Mzabites supported independent candidates. The two sides polled into a tie, resulting in riots and violence in which two Mzabites were killed. The killers were imprisoned for five years and given parole after two, much to the irritation of the Mzabite community. In the Islamic education textbooks used from fifth grade onwards, the Mzabites’ Ibadite version of Islam is described as “Kharijite,” an appellation the Ibadites reject as it carries a negative connotation of violent and chauvinistic puritanism. Since 2007, there have been several incidents of violence between the two communities and in which cars were set ablaze. The victims are described as Arabs. Mzabites are alleged to have erected false roadblocks in town. The Arabs feel that the Mzabites “reject others,” and that “it is the nature of the Ibadi Mzabite community who is curled on itself [?], which led to this conflicted situation. The Ibadites have their own cemeteries, mosques, schools, and refuse to mix their blood with others.” The Mzabites call these sentiments “unfounded attacks” and those quoted state that it is important to “respect differences and accept them.” They note that the community has its own culture, lifestyle, language, which remains committed to remains committed to its original organizational form and perpetuating its civilization.” The article quotes a researcher who notes that the region has many structural and social problems, especially rapid population growth lending to unemployment and housing shortages. He notes a growth in drug trafficking. He also observes that the traditional Mzabite leadership is losing its influence over the young people. He states that despite calls from traditional authorities to stop the violence, the youth only ended their rampages after the security forces arrived in the town. It also the opinion of the Berberist FFS and RCD parties that “there are those who have not appreciated the fact that the RCD won Berriane.”

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26 thoughts on “Sectarian youth violence in Algeria?

  1. Hi Nouri,

    Sorry to read this. I have a little question. I had understood from my reading of Hourani’s book that there was a smallish Shia community in Algeria too. I am confused or is it correct?

  2. Nouri, this was completely off my radar (and despite my crappy French, I still didn’t see a mention of it on El Watan). I’m as curious as you about what’s really going on, especially given the isolation of the Mzab valley towns from most every other aspect of Algerian politics (incidentally, if and when I ever make it there, this is high on my list of places to go).

    I really *hope* it’s not burgeoning sectarian violence, but the last explanation (idle unemployed young men) you give seems the most plausible based on the bits of info you’ve pieced together. God knows they’ve been a fixture elsewhere in the country since the 1980s.

  3. Actually El Watan did discuss the issue in its March 22 issue

    It’s not the first time there have been problems between the Chaamba and the Mozabites (I’m using the french term) . Back in the early 90’s when the FIS was on the rise it stirred up things between the groups. I am not intimately familiar with the region but I think there are also old land disputes behind all this.

  4. Karim:

    1) Thanks for the information on the tensions, can you elaborate on the FIS aspect?

    2) I did not say that El Watan did not cover the issue…I did not link to them because I had not seen their article. Thank you for the link.

    3) There are no special rules on posting URLs, so long as they are relevant and appropriate (i.e., not pornographic or entirely irrelevant, etc.). Just don’t be too liberal in posting multiple links!

    Regards,

    Nouri

  5. Nouri,

    1. I was responding to Brian, not you, when I said El Watan had mentioned the story. I should have been more explicit.
    2. For the link, I figured it out. Out of habit I put the link between to prevent it from breaking up, but it turns out I did not need them.
    3. Concerning the FIS back in 91-92 (I am relying on my memory but I can look it up eventually) the party had gathered support among the Chaamba for the regional elections, but the Mozabites were not going along (I believe as Ibadites they had serious issues with the religious views espoused by the FIS). And I think the FIS was playing up the anciant antagonism between the two groups. I remember reading about some fights breaking out in the region.

  6. Alphast,

    In Algeria we have everything.
    Even if Nouri thinks it is smalish than tiny.

    Trotskistes, Jews, Chia, Nudistes, Communistes, Transvestites
    All muslim brands, Atheistes, Christians, Democrates, Liberals
    Feministes, Bahai and what not.

    Shame ALgerians do not enjoy intitutionalised freedoms of speech and opinion.

    Algerians insult god as much as you in america use the f* word.

  7. Chambi and Ibadites is actually the only place where the regime has succeded in dividing to reign at the local level.

  8. To the Algerians here:

    How much of the revitalization of Berber culture would you say Kabyles (Rifians maybe?) and other Imazighen owe to the Tauregs for preserving? I read a while back that Tauregs, due to their long success of resisting Islamization, were essentially the sole preservers of Mahgrebi culture and texts. How accurate is this assertion?

  9. How much of the revitalization of Berber culture would you say Kabyles (Rifians maybe?) and other Imazighen owe to the Tauregs for preserving? I read a while back that Tauregs, due to their long success of resisting Islamization, were essentially the sole preservers of Mahgrebi culture and texts. How accurate is this assertion?

    That doesn’t sound right to me. The Tauregs preserved the Tifinagh alphabet, but as far as the preservation of “Maghrebi culture and texts”; what culture and texts? Where are they? The other Berber peoples were at best semi-literate until the coming of the Arabs (and in the Sous, the Berber speakers there were quite advanced with their use of the Arabic alphabet for writing their own language and writing religious, philosophical, and poetic works). The Taureg are very much the periphery of Maghreb culture, and I don’t think we can say that they preserved anything other than their own alphabet any more than the other peoples in the region did (the charge that the Tauregs resisted Islamization is not all together true, either; this is claim that was propagated by the French to rationalize why various native populations were “superior” to the Arabs or were capable of routing them or their allies in combat, though as most nomads their practice of Islam is not as strict as in the cities)

  10. The Tuareg and the Kabyles have lived essentially separate lives for centuries now so I doubt there is much linkage that one could make other than some broad generalities. Besides, what is going on with the Kabyles is not, in my opinion, a “revitalization” of Berber culture as much as an attempt to assert political rights on the basis a distinct identity. Tifinagh was at one point considered as an option for an alphabet, but I believe most Berber activists would rather use the Latin alphabet. It is more practical and it infuriates their opponents who view it as a further sign of betrayal (they want Berber to be written with the Arabic alphabet.)

  11. Aaron,

    Kabyles today look at the Tuareg to revive their language and culture. For us they are ‘The Source’. Many words have disappeared from Kabyle and replaced by their arabic equivalent. Today we look at the Tuareg for outsourcing and revitalisation as well as other berber groups including the so
    called ‘Arabophones’ ( Algerian arabic speaking people).

    Kabyle youth today have berber names. They used to be arabic and few persist to use arabic names. My generation all had arabic names (including me. A name i could change but i keep it because my mum loved the name and gave it to me)

    The new berber names feel foreign even for Algerian arabophones.

    Example Theserie(Tiziri) Moon light. They will eventually be used to them and be proud of them. Just a question of time

    For us Kabyles All Algerians are berbers. The arabophones have been arabised through history. We give them all the time they need to come back home.

    In Algeria of course there might be true Arabs( may be me)
    and we recognise their absolute right to celebrate and be proud of their identity. Algeria for ALL.

    Karim,

    We want latin as the scripting language first for its practicality and recommended by berber linguists (In libanon there is a movement to use the latin script for Arabic).

    Second major berber works have been in latin.
    Third of course ideologically today we beg to differ. We want latin and that is it. If tomorrow we will have ideological groundsto choose Arabic we will do so.

    Karim, I would like you to name the opponents of the latin script. If you are talking about the baathists and other islamists than those are not opponents: their are the enemy within. Yesterday they genetically opposed the berber identity. They did all what they could to eradicate it.

    And we do all we can to give back to the future generations their treasure.

  12. Wow, thanks for each of the 3 well thought responses, especially that of ‘tren’.

    2 Tren:

    I live in a state (& country) where Berbers are few and far between. This being said, all of the few i have met/known have considered themselves “Arab”. I share your sentiment on this brain washing that has gone on making those shun their true heritage for a supposed lineage that was mostly passed through acculturation. Although, as you say, it is very hard to differentiate who is and really isn’t an Arab (or Ancestry of).

  13. “Besides, what is going on with the Kabyles is not, in my opinion, a ‘revitalization’ of Berber culture as much as an attempt to assert political rights on the basis a distinct identity.”

    This would be my assessment too, Karim.

    Also, I caught the El Watan link, thanks; I tried to post an acknowledgment earlier, but wordpress was convinced I was posting “too quickly” and would not do it for some reason.

  14. SECTION DU RCD BERRIANE
    COMMUNIQUE DE PRESSE

    Berriane continue de vivre dramatiquement au rythme des émeutes. Les citoyens de Berriane viennent une fois de plus de vivre depuis la nuit du 15 au 16 mai 2008 à cet instant d’infernales heures. Le cycle infernal des émeutes et des agressions s’est soldé par plus d’une centaine de blessés parmi les citoyens berganiens dont une trentaine est hospitalisés, et plus d’une dizaine de véhicules sont incendiés. Pendant les dernières 36 heures trois décès sont enregistrés dont un vieil homme, l’incendie et le saccage de plus de 70 biens immobiliers privés ont eu lieu ces dernières heures. Les dégâts se chiffrent à des milliards de centimes. La barbarie a atteint son paroxysme. Devant le débordement total de l’Etat, la ville de Berriane est écrasée par une inimaginable tourmente d’actions-réactions. Après l’échec total de reprendre la situation sécuritaire en main par les forces de l’ordre, et après que les arabophones ont persévéré dans l’incendie des biens, les amazighophones, de leur part, ont riposté en saccageant d’autres biens.
    La tension qui ne cesse de persévérer et la recrudescence de la violence dans un climat d’incertitude et d’insécurité quasi-totales interpellent plus que jamais les hautes instances du pays à trouver et à favoriser des mécanismes efficaces et adéquats pour une sortie de cette tourmente apocalyptique.
    Faute d’idées, de communication, de vrai dialogue et de profondes concertations, il n’est pas trouvé mieux que d’engager une procédure d’improvisation, de dépassements flagrants et de faire opérer avec des méthodes stériles et anachroniques. Les solutions palliatives, improvisées et préfabriquées se sont avérées non seulement vaines et sans issue, mais aussi rétrogrades. On oublie que les mêmes causes produisent les mêmes conséquences ; et dans ce cas, d’autres embrasements pourront en pire avoir lieu. A quoi importe cette situation et à qui en profite ?
    La violence continue chaque jour et ce, depuis presque deux mois. Même les chemins qui mènent aux écoles sont totalement insécurisés. Les enfants très traumatisés, sont couramment tabassés au vu et au su des autorités et ce, par des hordes d’individus encagoulés. Des scènes de jets de pierres sont quotidiennes, notamment aux quartiers Madagh et Kef Hammouda. Les filles et les garçons scolarisés risquent de rater leurs examens de fin d’année. D’autres écoliers ont carrément abandonné les bancs des écoles. Cependant l’examen de baccalauréat s’annonce incertain. L’ensemble des familles de notre ville est sous l’empire de la trouille. Cette situation se répercute de façon délétère et générale sur BERRIANE, et, d’un autre coté, contribue au maintien de la tension et de l’instabilité citoyenne. L’impunité, l’irresponsabilité et l’amalgame ne peuvent qu’aggraver davantage la situation locale aussi bien que globale.
    Ni les appels de détresse lancés, ni les lettres expédiées, ni les communiqués, ni les dénonciations ne semblent émouvoir les pouvoirs publics, plus enclins à faire dans les rapports de synthèse, généralement truffés de contrevérités et de satisfecit et ce, dans la crainte de voir s’abattre sur eux les foudres des décideurs et dans le souci de ne pas mettre leur « carrière » en péril.
    Bien que la sonnette d’alarme est tirée, les responsables demeurent sourds, et ne semblent pas en mesurer ni la gravité, ni les répercussions, ni les retombées et ce, en dépit que les autorités disposent d’un grand pouvoir. Ces autorités en panne d’idées, de pragmatisme et de bonne gestion ne trouvent qu’à faire dans la provocation. Faute de vrai dialogue et de profonde concertation, l’on n’a pas trouvé mieux que d’engager une procédure d’improvisation et de replâtrage et ce, dans une vision manichéenne, stéréotyée et révolue.
    Les autorités ont totalement et fatalement failli à leur mission. Le citoyen est resté perplexe, hébété et s’interroge aujourd’hui sur le maintien de ces responsables en place, en dépit de l’incapacité, de la subjectivité et de toutes les maladresses commises. S’agirait-il d’un complot ? L’absence de l’Etat de droit et de devoir est quasi-totale ? Et l’article n° 14 de la Constitution Nationale selon lequel l’Etat est fondé sur les principes d’organisation démocratique et de justice sociale, est nié et renié. C’est le comble fatal.
    Les arrestations arbitraires et d’arrangement, les agressions morales et physiques, les tortures, le traitement sélectif des détenus, les dépassements flagrants enregistrés dans les rangs des forces de l’ordre… Des coups et menaces dans les locaux de la gendarmerie sont tant de violations des Droits de l’Homme à signaler et à déplorer. Au lieu d’apaiser et d’atténuer la tension, les responsables les voilà entrain d’alimenter la haine et de tirer profit de la différence pour attiser le feu.
    Devant cette situation d’aggravation et de pourrissement, nous renouvelons, une nouvelle fois et conformément aux articles n° 161 et 162 de la Constitution de la République, notre appel à l’engagement en urgence d’une commission d’enquête et à la vérification des conditions d’utilisation et de gestion des moyens matériels et des fonds publics alloués de façon partiale, insuffisante et inéquitable par les autorités pour illustrer tous les non dits et la manière selon laquelle se gère cette tourmente qui vient de troubler et d’endiguer la paix dans notre paisible ville.
    Il incombe à l’Etat d’asseoir primordialement et en toute urgence la sécurité de tous les citoyens sans aucune exception, ni ségrégationnisme. La sécurisation des chemins, des quartiers notamment chauds est de la responsabilité du wali. Il incombe en outre au wali de mobiliser tous les moyens y attenants, ce n’est qu’un devoir élémentaire et le droit citoyen le plus basique.
    La situation des sinistrés est aussi dramatique et déplorable. Elle ne cesse de s’alourdir depuis le 19 mars écoulé. Les pensées sont mélangées et douloureuses. Plus de 200 familles sinistrées sont jusqu’aujourd’hui livrées à elles-mêmes. Ces dernières, qui demeurent entassées dans des dizaines de logements appartenant à des proches, survivent sans ressources dans des conditions plus que précaires. Même les promesses données publiquement par les hautes instances du pays ne sont point respectées. A présent, la situation d’insécurité, de négligence et d’abandon agonit la grande partie de la société civile de délabrement total et fatal. Il est constaté avec amertume que les humbles maisons construites par le passé dans le respect des règles et des lois de la République, et au prix de toute une vie de labours, de privations et de sacrifices, sont parties en « fumée ». Y a-t-il lieu de rappeler ici qu’il s’agit d’une question de vie de centaines de vies humaines ?
    Des opérations de délogement des citoyens de leurs maisons par force, par menaces, continuent d’être vécues devant l’impotence connivente des autorités. Devant cette situation désastreuse et chaotique, nous exigeons encore une fois de l’Etat de garantir à l’ensemble des citoyens les droits constitutionnels, notamment les article n° 22, 23 et 24 qui stipulent que l’abus d’autorité est réprimé par la loi, l’impartialité de l’administration est garantie par la loi et L’Etat est responsable de la sécurité des personnes et des biens.

    Dans l’état actuel de l’évolution chaotique de ces émeutes, nous demandons la satisfaction urgente et totale de ce qui suit :

    1. La suspension de tous les responsables chargés de la sécurisation des citoyens et des biens de Berriane.
    2. La suspension immédiate de leurs fonctions du chef de la Daira de Berriane et du wali de Ghardaïa.
    3. La sécurisation de tous les citoyens et des biens à l’échelle de la Daira de Berriane.
    4. L’installation pour une durée illimitée d’unités d’intervention rapide à l’échelle de tous les quartiers chauds.
    5. L’association du P/APC de Berriane au conseil de sécurité installé.
    6. Le désarmement total de tous les possesseurs d’armes légales et/ou illégales.
    7. L’arrestation de toute personne non résidante à Berriane qui n’a pas été déclarée par ses hôtes.
    8. Le contrôle sévère de tous les mouvements des voyageurs arrivant à Berriane.

    Dans un processus d’éducation sociale et d’interactions constructives, interculturelles et civilisatrices, il incombe à l’Etat la satisfaction de :

    1. La généralisation obligatoire, systématique et aux différents cycles de l’enseignement de la langue amazighe dans toute la région du Mzab et ce, dans une approche interculturelle. Cela s’impose aussi pour une meilleure communication des deux communautés (amazighophone et arabophone) et une bonne reconnaissance mutuelle. C’est une condition sine qua non du respect réciproque et de la reconnaissance d’autrui.
    2. La création d’un département de langue et culture amazighes à l’université de Ghardaïa.
    3. La reconnaissance officielle et immédiate du rite ibadhite au même titre que les autres, son introduction dans le système éducatif, la dénonciation via les mass médias de la désinformation et la prohibition des fatawi générant la haine contre cette partie du peuple algérien. Cela est un devoir étatique et une réparation historique des forfaitures commises à l’encontre du rite ibadhite.

    Ceci étant donné, la Section du RCD-BERRIANE lance un appel à l’ensemble des citoyens pour plus de vigilance et de sérénité, pour plus de civisme et de sens constructif. Point de mensonges, point d’hypocrisie. La situation est grave. Un travail d’apaisement, de rapprochement et de proximité via la société civile et le mouvement associatif entrepris par l’APC est à encourager et à développer pour contenir la crise. Devant une telle situation, nous sommes convaincus qu’il est très possible de concilier même des intérêts contradictoires par des moyens pacifiques.

    RCD-BERRIANE, le 17 mai 2008

    Voir aussi :
    http://www.berriane-event.net

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