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.
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.”