Bombings and Berbers

The tragic attacks that took place in Algiers this week were surely aimed at debasing the prestige of the Algerian government, which is preparing to receive Mediterranean representatives and which has won the favor of most Western (and eastern) governments in its battle with al-Qaeda. While neither as magnanimous nor as strikingly successful as the major bombings in the capitol earlier this year, the twin suicide bombings by a military barracks is nevertheless a reminder of the constant threat posed to the country by Islamist militants. The bombing wounded six soldiers, and a day later an additional six were killed in Kabylia by a roadside bomb. An earthquake in Oran injured 15 people as well (Algeria has a bad track record of dealing with earthquakes, a natural phenomena it shares with much the rest of the Mediterranean, but is not able to put up with in the same manner because of its poverty and the inefficiency of its emergency response networks).

This seems to have prompted an Reuters story about the supposed hospitality of the people in Kabylia towards Islamists, who walk about their villages with impunity, so long as they leave the villagers in peace. Highlighting popular resentment towards the government and cultural distance between Kabyles and Arabs, the article is quite troubling. However, it must be said that while the Algiers government is especially unpopular in Kabylia, this does not mean (as the article leaves unstated) that the GSPC or GIA or QIM are necessarily popular in that region. The kind of apathy one sees in Kabylia is the result of a wider national malaise than it is of any sympathy for Islamist militants, and while villagers may turn a blind eye to the rebells, the moment they begin to impose their ideology on the villagers, or start to plunder shops without leaving any compensation (as opposed to leaving piles of money, as mentioned in the article), they dynamics shift. While many villagers allowed militants (others, if not most of them, were forced into that situation) to govern them during the Civil War, few who lived through that experience desire their return, and perhaps least of all the Kabyles who rarely collectively expressed sympathy for the FIS or its affiliates. That does not mean that they would necessarily rebel against them, though the Kabyles have a long history of doing just that against just about everyone, but they would probably begin to see more active cooperation with the government in tracking down militants in a different light, especially if the fighting were more intense. Still, I have to wonder to what degree the writer exaggerated the level of apathy, because, though I have not been in Kabylia for some time (the last time I went was to Tizi Ouzou in 03 or 04), and the people from the mountains I met and have subsequently met give a somewhat more nuanced view of peoples’ attitudes, especially the role that fear and the often brutal and humiliating abuses of the gendarmerie (which are somewhat brushed over in the article, very likely the result of censorship or guidance of some kind) have played in their silence and often complicity.

17 thoughts on “Bombings and Berbers

  1. “The kind of apathy one sees in Kabylia is the result of a wider national malaise than it is of any sympathy for Islamist militants …”

    It seems that this is precisely the message this piece strives to convey. The author(s) may lack the nuanced understanding of the relationship possessed by you through personal travel and relationships, but I hardly think any details here have been exaggerated. You have three actors here: the general population of Kabylia Berbers, largely Maghrebi-homegrown Islamist militants, and the state government. The puzzle presented by the current arrangement asks why this general population – who has no interest in extreme Islam or an Islamic, Arab-centric state – would acquiesce or tolerate the presence of these militants in their midst? There are a number of reasons, but disaffection resulting from their relationship with the state is chief among them. Further, this article does not imply any sort of collusion or solidarity based on a shared distaste for Algiers or common goals; rather, my impression from this piece was that there is none of that. Where the government has been a force of oppression and exclusion in Kabylia, the impact of the Islamist militants is essentially null.

    I am certain that you’re right about possible futures (e.g. the Islamists abuse this quiescence and start to harass the locals or plunder their goods), but as far as the scope of this article goes, I think it did a good job of succinctly summarizing the nature of this three-way status quo.

  2. Brian,
    I was attempting to clarify that the apathy illustrated in Kabylia is part of a wider phenomenon within the country. I felt that the article was not presenting the wider context within which the Kabyles’ attitudes have arisen. While the article does mention wide spread youth unemployment in Kabylia, high prices, and so on I feel that it treats the region as too much of an isolated case. The sense of distance from the government differs in Kabylia only because of the ethnic factor, which simply adds another layer to a situation that would exist anyhow.

    My primary objection, though, was the portrayal of the locals as being in a way uniformly indifferent, which I do not believe to be the case. I think the portrayal of the locals’ situation is somewhat simplistic in the article (there is surely a wider range of opinions than are presented), though not necessarily incorrect or inaccurate.

  3. Well, the article represents a departure from the other line usually parrotted by mainstream western media, that of Kabyles/Berbers inherently opposed to islam(ism). It isn’t necessarily truer for that though, as I share your feeling that if quite a few Kabyles might be indifferent in the dogfight between the junta and the GSPC, many others would still side against the GSPC.

  4. But historically, I think the “Kabyles-aren’t-Islamists” thing is more or less true, because Algerian Islamism has been so closely tied to Arabization. Islamist parties always scored miserably in Kabylie, and all the Berber movements (Berber Spring movement, FFS, RCD, l’Arouche, MAK etc) and leaders have been secular or, in some cases, even éradicateur fanatics.

    Of course, nuances are always welcome, but I think the mainstream perception is more or less correct here.

  5. Actually, quite a few of the major Algerian Islamist guerillas/militia leaders have been Kabyle…Kayles don’t vote for Islamists in large numbers, but they participate in Islamist groups for sure.

  6. “I was attempting to clarify that the apathy illustrated in Kabylia is part of a wider phenomenon within the country. I felt that the article was not presenting the wider context within which the Kabyles’ attitudes have arisen.”

    Most definitely. However, where disillusionment with and detachment from the state is a problem across all areas of the country, the Kabyle experience adds an additional dimension – one where the relationship with the state is further aggravated by a policy of exclusion and denial, or at least one in which an Kabyle identity is supplanted with an Arab one. Does this make the people in that region more likely to acquiesce to the presence of militants in their midst? I don’t know the answer to that (you probably do, however, given your experiences). The article does not discount the wider context; the article highlights a particular arrangement within a subset of Algerian society. Disaffection with the state is a constant variable; the Kabyle dimension is a moving part that leads to a unique outcome (never mind the geography and lawlessness of the place is good for the hidin’).

  7. Like Nouri, I feel the article tendancious. Kabylia was the region where the first ‘Patriot Groups’ for self-defence against armed islamists were initiated by veterans of the war for independeance but since the general laws of amnesty(Reconciliation Charter)we’ve witnessed a shift of the remnants of the terrorists militias towards Kabylia. The most anti-islamist region and population of Algeria is suddenly a haven for armed terrorists ! It may appear as a paradox for the indiscerning and someone not well versed in Algerian power politics and structure. The terrorists are from other parts of Algeria, they are supported by a logistics that is on the periphery of Kabylia, vast sums of money from taxes(extortion) raised in cities (businesses) and amongst farmers , zakkat charity contributions from mosques, all from outside Kabylia sustain
    these groups. The reality is that islamists have reached a convenant with the present ruling faction in government. Both the government and the military are divided, the conservative leaning clans have the upperhand for now. Kabylia is the main obstacle in the ‘normalisation’ of Algeria. People are aware of the connivence of Buteflika’s gvrnmnt led by an islamist pro-taliban and Hamas (Belkhadem) who came to prominence by forcing out Benflis, a modernist pro-democratisation leader who was about to introduce further reforms as terrorism was militarily on decline(huge losses). Bouteflika is reinstating and legitimising politically criminals whse proclaimed aim is an islamic republic. A couple of weeks ago, the head of govrnmnt admitted, publicly, that the only constitution for Algeria is the Koran. In this light as well you may appreciate the interplay of clanic policies of power domination for preserving priviliges and the alliance with the most regressive forces who likewise abhor democracy and transparency. I was in eastern Algeria last winter after an absence of three years, I noticed the impact of the policy of reconciliation and the place of the religious symbolysm in the streets and state institutions. Annaba and Constantine, two main economic and cultural hubs, are fast drifting towards Peshawar like cities. Progressive professionals and academics admit that the regime is openly handing Algeria to the religious conservatives and the forces of the local maffias that have doned the emblema of islam. They fear a bloody civil on a worse scale than previously known. Should Kabylia fall Algeria will effectively be a ‘taliban state’. Arab nationalist policies to the detriment of Algeria’s interests and objective realities are coinciding with islamism. Algeria is fast losing its most able human resources and becoming poorer despite huge oil and gas revenues…
    There is a state led campaign of vilification of Kabylia and Kabyles, a war of economic attrition: repression of christians Kabyles and scaremongering about christianisation and rise in the number of churches in Kabylia, Kabylian attempts at dividing Algeria by proning ‘autonomous regiona’l status, federalism for Algerian regions etc…
    The journalist has not, in his article, shed light on the causes of the situation. I suspect it was a deliberate effort of spin against the most dynamic and progressive region of perhaps North Africa. I travelled from Constantine to ALgiers through Jijel, Bejaia ,the summam valley and Bouira where I spent the night at a cousin’s(teacher of maths at a lycee) I noticed that few women and school girls wore the hijab. Outside Kabylia the hidjab is the norm. My sisters and nieces explained why they had to reluctantly comply and concede islamism is winning since Bouteflika’s arrival. The hope of democratic modernist change is pinned on what happens in Kabylia for many algerians.

  8. Please stop this theater game, every one knows that algerian genrerals are killing the Kabylians because they are fighting for independance,’ simply’ nothing to do with terrorists, how many of them lives in UK, but because of algerian oil, the west shup up his mouth, but this big lie with come stop some day, the kabilian revolution starts getting more and more international support, and the kabilian fighters are getting sytonger and better organized, if it was just some terrorist algeria could stop them in the same day like Morocco and tunisia did, but the issue is that the problem is bigger, than to stop some terrorist camps,
    like the ones used by al qaeda and polisario at the same time.

  9. Jean Louis writes:
    “Please stop this theater game, every one knows that algerian genrerals are killing the Kabylians because they are fighting for independance”

    Any evidence of this? I am specifically referring to the idea of independence. It’s been mentioned, but to my knowledge all established Kabyle parties shy away from the idea including the MAK that calls for autonomy.

  10. Even the MAK’s calls for autonomy is considered a red line by most Kabyle politicians, as far as I know. Don’t worry about “Jean Louis”, he’s a second-rate troll.

  11. Quite realistic views here.

    The situation in Algeria is very complex, let’s say first that Kabyles are present in all layers of the algerian society; in the government, amongst the islamist, farmers, businessmen, military, intellectuels…

    So, saying that the kabyles are isolated from algerian society is not true.

    And the social and economical problems of kabyles are widespread in the country (with exceptions of places where “clans” invest for tribal reasons), but on top of all these problems, there is the cultural problem in kabylie.

    Some people in algeria just don’t want to promote tamazight, the berber language, because it will make the mythe of the independence revolution collapse.

    Everyone in algeria, educated that is, know that algerians are Imazighen (berbers). The majority is arabophone and about a third is still berberophone.

    But because the regime has no legitimacy, its clings to this arabe and islam common ground for all algerians.

    So can you imagine non-arab, non-muslim algerians ? These people would have absolutely no reason (protection of islam and arabicity) to hold the regime as legitimate.

    Regarding independence or autonomy of kabylie, according to my experience (in Azazga) kabyles don’t want to split the country, they just want a regional government that will take care of kabyles interests, and promote Tamazight as their naturel and ancestral culture and language.

  12. i definitely agree with some of you about the kabylian struggle …
    first of all as a kabyle maybe i know much more about kabylia than some of you and here are the kabylians basics
    1. kabylian society is always being secular since centuries ( never had a local clash between religions …..
    2. kabylia today is fighting against two rivals ..-islamists and the corrupted government
    3. kabylia never been an ally to islamists and will never be
    4. kabylia is the home of liberty and secularism and all the citizens mouvments to free and defend liberties .
    for those of you who want to expand and have an idea bout the kabylians i advise you to go to these websites
    http://www.kabylia.com http://www.north-of-africa.com

  13. kabyleman wrote: “kabylia today is fighting against two rivals ..-islamists and the corrupted government.”

    What is so different about Kabylia in this case.?
    Aren’t you just describing the struggle of every Algerian?
    How about the Kabylian politicians, where do they fit in all of this?

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