Four hours after Bouteflika’s visit to Berriane, part of his tour of the M’zab valley where he inspected the efforts to repair the region after October’s heavy flooding and discussed the looming financial crisis, violence returned to the town, pitting M’zabites against Arabs and the both of them against the state security forces.
Berriane saw clashes in March, April and May of this year between the M’zabite Berber-speaking Ibadite community and Arab (Chaamba) Sunni residents, the result of tensions building on and off over the last twenty years. The violence was tied to several factors: an attack on a M’zabite woman, the announcement of corruption in the local government and general population and social pressures. This fall, Berriane, like the rest of the M’zab valley, saw heavy rains and subsequent flooding leading to massive damage and displacement. The situation there is certainly tense.
Liberte writes that the violence began on Sunday afternoon (28 December), soon after Bouteflika’s departure, and was put down by yesterday, but that situation remains fragile. According to El Khabar, the clashes took places between 9 PM and 12 AM. The locus of the fighting took place downtown on Rue Abderrahmane-Bahbah, the Echouf and Madkhal Echaab neighborhoods. Liberte describes skirmishes as having started after stones were thrown near a cafe and the patrons responded by launching two stones back at the attackers. Soon citizens were in the streets, and the intervening security forces used tear gas to subdue the crowds. Liberte reports that a resident as hospitalized for mustard gas inhalation and that others suffered minor injuries.
El Khabar notes that on the eve of these quarrels, “the authorities released 16 people arrested since last April in light of the events that defined the city of Berriane.” It quotes a member of the local Council of Elders as saying that the courts released 14 people two days before the events in “a move to calm tempers and avoid the outbreak of the events before the visit of the President.” According to the report, Berriane — a city of no more than 40,000 — has required 3,000 gendarmes in the wake of this year’s disturbances.
More limited violence resumed on 31 December, in the same parts of town as on Sunday. Reports emphasize that the violence is taking place in a limited fashion, popping up at the same scene it did over the weekend. That it has not spread indicates that, at the moment, the skirmishes are not said to be spreading in the way that the ones in the spring did and is remaining localized — a good sign. Still, Berriane may be as volatile as it was last year. The elders-mediated reconciliation efforts appear to have worked at least briefly and it is unclear with what intensity these were conducted.
There is an element of hooliganism, a gang-related segment in both of the M’zabite and Arab communities: Such young men may have been some of those released recently. The criminal element — and problems of local government — compounded with the overall economic and social situation — the housing shortage, unemployment and so on — likely does little to help the ethnic antagonisms at work. A M’zabite in Biskra told me that many M’zabites traditionally look down on the Chaamba Arabs for their traditional nomadism. The Chaamba, he said, have felt excluded from the larger towns since settling down because of the M’zabites’ Ibadite beliefs and their relatively rigid attitudes. The M’zabites interpret the Sunni-Melikite Chaambas’ protestations at their linguistic and religious practices as attempts to wither away at their longstanding traditions. Even though the M’zab is usually relatively more prosperous than much the rest of Algeria proper, young men compete for scarce jobs, and, for those who have given up on that, space in the informal economy.
That said, the message that Bouteflika brought to the region cannot have helped the situation (though it is difficult to find reports of what he may have said in Berriane specifically). According to Le Matin‘s [selective] account, he apologized to residents, explaining that flood relief efforts were lackluster because “there is no surplus money in the treasury can be distributed,” imploring residents to “tighten your belts” and saying that “if in the past, the state has been generous in the distribution of funds, projects and grants to the wilayas, this will no longer be the case.” He told residents that “years of austerity” are on the way. El Watan‘s account is sounds more reliable. Though Bouteflika was quick to remind residents that “As far as I know, the population of the valley M’zab has received aid from any country and any other organization. The State has taken full responsibility for the people of Ghardaia and it is the State which has managed the disaster. I challenge anyone on this point,” he told residents to tighten their belts and be prepared to work harder in the face of the financial crisis, encouraging “prudence”. (Note the significant difference in tone between Le Matin and El Watan‘s stories.) Aside from the fact that Bouteflika is mistaken on the sources of relief — Ghardaia have received assistance from at least the UAE — (as he was in believing that “no country in the world has more than one official language”) he directly contradicted Ouyahia’s earlier comments that Algeria is effectively immune from the financial crisis. This message probably made some people antsy. If Bouteflika’s comments are reflective of what the country will look like through the first quarter of 2009, it will not just be those worst off that are antsy.
[ It might be interesting for readers to take a look at some of the internet documentation of the events of last spring, as a kind of visual historiography. Specifically, it is interesting to search sites like Youtube, Dailymotion and so on. A study of these videos could be the subject of a depressing, if interesting, book. The videos posted during the spring and summer of 2008 taken on personal camcorders and cellphones bear titles such as “El -Chahid“, “Mzab Amazigh Vs Arabz in Berriane Tagherdayt“, “The Arab Barbarians of Bani Hilal Vs Imazighen in Mzab“, “La Guerre entre Mzab et Chaanba“, “O mankind watchout what this rubbish arab did“, and so on. They depict dark alley ways in which crowds of angry young men brandishing clubs, chains, and broom-handles, with t-shirts covering their faces — guarding their identities and protecting them from tear gas — hurl rocks and rubbish at each other with gendarmes in riot gear between them. They also show crowds of apoplectic men marching through the streets, flag draped caskets on their shoulders, and flags over their heads. Contemporary demonstrations show throngs of dancing M’zabite men and boys, waving Algerian and Amazigh movement flags and banners set off homemade flame throwers in the streets chanting “Umazigha! Umazigha!” as they toss one another into the air.
The comments fields are like war zones: Arabs defiantly declare Algeria’s Arabism and Berber users — M’zabite, Kabyle and Chaoui — declare the superior patriotism of Algerian Berbers (or simply noting that significant individuals active in the national movement were Berber), deriding the Arabic language, describing them as overbearing barbarians. The insults come in Arabic and French. Back and forth in French is dominated by what appear to be Berber users dismissing Chaamba Arabs (and Arabs generally) as foreigners in the M’zab, the source of the region’s troubles. (The comparisons to the Banu Hilal will be interesting, if not amusing, to some readers.) Arab users tend to reciprocate with similar insults towards the M’zabites. Several comments express exasperation at the violence and the blitzkrieg of heated comments, urging reason. ]