Berriane: Why is it allowed to continue?

ثورات الفقراء

يسرقها في كل الازمان لصوص الثوراث

The violence in Berriane appears to be done for now. Large numbers of police reinforcements have been sent to Berriane. The aftermath is bleak: The schools have not re-opened and ” looted shops, burned houses, shells of tear gas are dispersed in the theater of conflict”. Youths “in their tens” congregate around reporters attempting to have someone put their views in print. Some shops reopened, but most remain closed or burned, particularly Mzabite owned ones.

The Minister for Local Government and Municipalities, Dahou Ould Kabila, visited Ghardaia, meeting with representatives from the Mzabite and Arab communities of Berriane. He did not visit Berriane, however. Community leaders differed on what started the violence. Liberte paraphrases two “Malikite representatives” as saying that two men were tied up and beaten on their way to Friday prayers. Mzabite leaders are said to have attributed the confrontation to an attack on a Mzabite woman. The Wali of Ghardaia, Fehim Yehia, claims that “foreign hands” are behind the disturbances. Mzabite community leaders, according to El Watan, believe that there is bias in the town’s management and want to see the municipal chief sacked “his departure will solve many problems,” Berriane’s mayor was quoted as saying. Others demand the “disarmament of the Malikites” and the establishment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate the clashes. (There were attempts to round up loose arms in the town during last year, but they continue to be used in clashes: Shot guns and hunting rifles seem to most common.) Local authorities, the mayor and other leaders complain, has mismanaged the distribution of resources in the way of last autumn’s flooding. Mzabites criticize the fact that the daira head “distributed housing by setting it equal the two communities while everyone knows the victims most affected by the floods are Ibadites.” They accuse the police of doing nothing when clashes break out thereby endangering the Mzabite community. The major believes that the problem is totally local and that “the two communities should sit down and reach an agreement.” The mayor frankly told reporters that “there is no social justice in our city,” and that “it is impossible to construct a structure (hospital or house of culture for example) without provoking the ire of one of the two communities.” He emphatically wants the two communities to learn to coexist: “I cannot build a Berlin Wall. It is not possible. That is unacceptable.” According to Liberte, the tensions so prevalent in Berriane are not found just a few kilometers south in Ghardaia proper. El Watan‘s editorial writes: The evil that corrodes Berriane is neither congenital nor communitarian or identity. It is political, economic, social. It is quite simply the claim to full citizenship, which bans all forms of exclusion, [and should] taken care of in the interests of all residents.”

My questions and thoughts on the issue are like this.

1. Why were the police and gendarme so passive during the early stages of the violence? According to some accounts it took 6 hours for the police to intervene. There are accusations that gendarmes or policemen gave tear gas to youths to use against one another. Reports also allege that security forces threw tear gas into residences where only elderly, women and children were residing. This resembles the brutal tactics used in Kabylia during the 2001 unrest. Similar mistakes and violations are being made in Berriane as in Kabylia. To their credit though, the gendarmes notably did not open fire on the crowds. Residents accuse the police and gendarme of failing to stop street fights between youths, even when they occur in immediate proximity to their positions. Is this the result of an attempt to avoid coming into open confrontation with the youth population? (An effort to prevent an overreaction.) Or is it a deliberate attempt to allow the young to “kill each other off” as it was put in an email I received today?

2. What did Bouteflika learn during his first term? The silence on the part of the president and higher ups on the issue also point to a similar level of aloofness as during the 2001 violence. Bouteflika notoriously withheld comment during the clashes and assumed an accusatory position afterwards. The state remained aloof from this crisis. Keeping away from making any attempt to position himself as a unifying figure in the face of this kind of violence only serves to widen the gap that many (if not most) young people feel in relation to the regime. Having shoved through his third term, he seems indifferent to the concerns of the everyday person. The lesson he seems to have taken away from the 2001 debacle is that the youth are lost to him and it is best if he keeps away from their struggles. Most young people associate corrupt local officials and the gendarmes with the state; Bouteflika is seen as a secondary actor in comparison to the security services, though contempt for him remains strong. The quotations from the youths in the hospitals and on the streets seem to indicate that the youth in Berriane feel that the state has abandoned them, or is working against them. Bouteflika may be correct in believe that there is little he can to reach these young people: There is little respect from him on the part of the hopeless. One can see Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni’s characteristic callousness in his comments on the violence: “This occurred in a mafia neighborhood”. Whenever youths riot, the state dismisses popular grievances as those of thieves and hooligans. It is important to remember that the government is known to plant troublemakers in youth demonstrations and in the streets to justify repression. While it cannot be denied that hooliganism is rife in Algeria, it is the result of other problems not their cause.

3. To what extent are accusations of “foreign hands” and manipulation by the security/secret services valid? There seems to be a sense that the violence is allowed to go on unresolved in an effort to divide and rule the local population. But the violence in Berriane, which is characterized by communalism, has not spread to other parts of the Mzab with similar populations. Berriane is located at the entrance to Ghardaia province and instability there does not seem to benefit the provincial authorities. But this goes back to the first question about the police keeping out of the violence: Is that merely the result of the security services trying to avoid the kind of confrontations seen in Kabylia at the start of the decade? The youth violence in Berriane is not especially oriented against the regime per se: The crowds do not chant pouvoir assassin or ask for specific policy changes. They are frustrated with local government and population pressures. But still, why have the security services been unable to keep the youths from rioting? Stoking ethnic conflict and throwing around accusations of hooliganism may serve to protect the local doyens. There is not enough information available to say this decisively or definitively though.

4. There is a lack of respect for authority. This is common in much of the country, and usually expresses itself in the form of vandalism, humor or apathy. When it bubbles into violence, it is usually the result of heavy pressure. Community elders attempted to mediate between the Mzabite and Arab populations during the summer of 2008. These efforts brought momentary calm, but that has broken down since at least December. The mayor’s remarks about there being no social justice and both communities being beyond satisfaction is troubling: While he deflects the blame to the daira (district) authorities, it is clear that he feels a lack of agency and that there are serious tensions in the area’s local politics. Since these problems are not occurring further south in Ghardaia, the problems are likely the result of rapid social change and what are likely tensions in the informal economy. Youths from further south in Mzab have organized aid for families in Berriane, both Mzabite and Arab. At the same time, there is widespread belief that the violence is being stoked deliberately by local authorities and media. Emphasizing the ethnic dimension of the conflict distracts from other broader problems in the area, the lack of housing, the lack of employment opportunities and other problems that plague youths of all linguistic and religious backgrounds in Algeria. There may well be an attempt by some to distract the local population corruption by focusing their attention at one another and not at the system. Or at least some think so. Attempts to cast the trouble simply as “Berbers vs. Arabs” or, as the Interior Minister has, as solely the result of gang violence is counter productive in uncovering the actual causes of the violence and find ways to solve the area’s problems. It also fails to help re-establish respect for authority by heaping on the condescension and contempt that young people identify with the state and its representatives.

4 thoughts on “Berriane: Why is it allowed to continue?

  1. I have the feeling that the same people who provoked the kabyles in 2001, are instigating the conflict in the mzab country .
    and as is shown on the video clip (thanks karim), the complicity of the security forces is confirmed.
    this is a very dangerous game and the consequences of not doing anything to stop it will be dire !

  2. @ Karim: Thanks for the video. It’s pretty clear from there where the “troublemakers” came from.

    @Dalouh, I tend to agree. I’m trying to figure out what benefit the authorities derrive from this situation, though. I think there are some obvious reasons, but I’m wondering what the interests are at the local and wilaya level. Any thoughts on these?

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