Berriane, Hogra and the Spread of Berberism

A reader inquired as to my thoughts on the video released showing the conduct of the riots. To supplement the previous postings on Berriane, I would like to link to this interview with Kamaleddine Fekhar (a human rights activist and FFS member), posted originally at Le Quotidien d’Algérie on 10 February. He mentions a “media blackout” which is a fairly accurate description of the scant coverage Berriane has received in the national media (at the very least since the fighting died down). I think this interview is in some ways more valuable than the video in showing the events’ importance politically and socially. The highlights are as follows:

  1. He describes a situation where “extreme violence is used” and corpses are mutilated, while noting that property damage and injuries have occurred on “two sides” — both Mzabite and Arab (Chaamba). The violation of corpses is notable for obvious reasons.
  2. He states that since March 2008, all of those “killed by civilians” have been Mzabites. “At least two of the victims were mutilated after their death by criminals belonging to the Arab side of the conflict”. He also notes that a woman, named Saifia Merouane, was killed in her home by a police officer. Another interesting point is that most of the wounded, according to Fekhar, do not go to the police, for fear of being arrested. 250 homes and 30 businesses have been looted, burned down or otherwise damaged, he says.
  3. When asked about the “objective causes” of the conflict, Fekhar responds that: “From independence to today, conflicts and skirmishes in various places in the the M’zab have taken place with the complicity of the pouvoir and its alignment in favor of one camp over the other. And always against the Mozabites!” He accuses the government of “creating a climate of fear and instability”, “stifling the identity of the Amazigh Ibadite Mozabites and sowing the seeds of discord and hatred among citizens”. He attributes the violence to divide and rule tactics, placing Berriane into the wider context of the Bentalha and Rais massacres and other instances where the government has acted against the people “depending on specific ethnic or socio-economic” circumstances. He accuses the government of using Berriane’s ethnic divisions as a way of bolstering its own power “whatever the price”.
  4. Fekhar believes video posted here previously, and now making its rounds on the internet, removes ambiguity and doubt as to “the evil plans of the pouvoir and dangerous practices relating to national unity.” The video shows security forces assisting youths in attacking one another and their failure to move when given clear opportunities to stop violence. It also shows the use of severe force against young people.
  5. Most interesting is what Fekhar says about how the Mzabite community should respond to the events and about “Berber extremists”. He demands a judicial investigation into the events and “the filing of a complaint against the security officials”. Failing this, he advocates contacting “the specialized committees of the United Nations asking that the rights of minorities be protected.” When addressing the interviewer’s concern about Berber “extremists” he accosts the “blatant bias” of the Algerian government and security forces, and the “deafening silence of national figures, the majority of political parties and organizations, as if the events of Berriane took place on another planet and not in […] Algeria”. He, like others from the area quoted in the press, defends the Mzabites’ right to act “in self-defense, while using all means at its disposal”. He concludes noting, among other things a “total absence of a culture of human rights, tolerance, an acceptance of others […] and a lack of genuine activism on behalf of human rights.”


1. The call for an investigation is certainly doomed to failure. If the state does carry out an investigation it will disappointing and will leave the situation just as opaque as it began. The idea of appealing to the United Nations is equally dubious. The displeasure with the silence of the country’s elites is expected. Unlike the events of 2001, there has not been a great deal of international coverage: Very little has been written on Berriane in English, where the Black Spring attracted Robert Fisk’s attention. This is likely due to the fact that the death toll reached the double digits very early and Berriane’s has not. It also overlapped with the violence in Gaza (nothing in Algeria short of a nuclear explosion could compete with a story like that). One will remember that Ouyahia was offering condemnations on Gaza during the winter, when minor disturbances set off in Berriane as well. He did not offer similar remarks on Berriane. Bouteflika has been quiet, probably because he has been drunk has been busy pushing his re-re-election bid, even though he visited the region right before the early winter riots. He likely wants to avoid being identified with the violence, as do other ranking officials. Yazid Zerhouni, the Interior Minister, whose troops engaged in much of the debauchery, cannot avoid this connection. He has been terse as well, and as aloof as he usually is on such matters.

2. The references to Bentalha and Rais are telling, as are those to general “divide and rule” tactics, which is probably a reference to the 2001 violence in Kabylia that swept through the north of the country. These are iconic massacres of the Civil War and prime examples of what Algerians call hogra — elite contempt towards the masses (usually manifested in police/military brutality and cynical policies as in the case of the harragas). The complaints of brutality and one sidedness against the oppressed (ignore that his narrative is somewhat one sided in itself, ignoring the Chaamba community almost completely, except as a mass adversary, for now) tie the Berriane troubles into a wider Algerian narratives placing the people on one side of the scale and the pouvoir on the other.

3. The talk about the “Amazigh Ibadite Mozabites” is just as telling and speak to the growth of Berberism in Algeria. This brings the violence into a more particular framework. His concerns are about the singling out of the “Berberophones” of Berriane and the authorities favoring the Arabic-speaking Chaambas. This is the rhetoric one hears coming from many media sources, especially those partial to the Mzabite community or the broader Berberist movement. Factor in that the RCD and FFS have made gains in Berriane over the last decade or so and one sees the growth of the Berber movement out of Kabylia and into the south. While Algerian “Berberism” is still primarily Kabyle in its appeal and presentation, the Berriane events show that there is potential for the Algerian Berber movement outside of Kabylia.

This is where the perception of hogra is exceptionally relevant. In most of Algeria when youths confront the state ethnicity is not an issue. But when excessive force (the most identifiable form of hogra) is used in areas with particular cultural characteristics — like Kabylia or the Mzab — that violence will obviously be interpreted in terms of that area’s existing social schema. The M’zab’s historical situation, I think, has much to do with how this situation is being interpreted by the area’s leaders and youth. When the Berbers of Ghardia arrived in the M’zab from Tunisia, fleeing the Beni Hillal invasions, they found themselves under attack from nomadic Arab bandits and maunders. To remedy this, they employed Arab tribes as mercenaries. These Malikite Arabs settled outside of the M’zabite cities and lived separately from their employers. This system was ended with the French conquest and the Arabs were disarmed, while life in the Ibadite cities went on. During the War of Independence, the FLN made in roads into the Arab community, providing them with arms with which they patrolled the streets. This evidently caused consternation in both the Mzabite and Jewish communities. (For a description of this and the relationship between these two communities and Ghardaia’s Jewish population, see No More for Ever: A Saharan Jewish Town. Lloyd Cabot Briggs and Norina Lami Guede (Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University Vol. LV, No. 2) Cambridge: The Peabody Museum, 1964. If readers have any information on Mzabite participation in the War of Independence or links to Arabic/French sources on Ghardaia’s foundation please post them.) Mzabite residents have been quoted as saying that it was Mzabites who dug the first well in Berriane and Ghardaia or that the Arabs have no right to be in the area given their nomadic roots: “ungrateful Arabs, barely out of their nomadism“. (Aside: Note also in the account linked here that the security forces taunt the youths, telling them to “get Bush to protect you”, much as was the case in Kabyila in 2001.)

The recent tensions in Berriane probably do not have their root simply in this history of sedentary-versus-nomadic condescension and suspicion, but rather in social and economic stress exacerbated by corruption and local politics. Because of this history, though, this stress is easily channeled into ethnic hatred and becomes a tool of local political actors — both those supporting the government and those opposed to it a la the FFS and RCD. The arrival of organized identity politics in the way of Islamist and Berber parties in the early 1990s (e.g. the FIS, RCD, FFS, etc.) has added to this: In particular the RCD and FFS have trouble gaining and holding ground in areas where ethnic divisions between Arabs and Berbers are weak or where the foundations for Berberist activism is absent (i.e. a large expatriate community, a lack of cultural Arabization, and the development of a strong print or internet culture in Berber, to name a few). While they have their base in Kabylia, where perhaps three generations of Algerian Berbers have been lost to the state because of waves of brutality (the 1980 Tafsuth, 1988, the middle 1990’s and the 2001 Tafsuth, followed by the 2003 earthquake and so on), they have made some gains in Ghardaia, but almost none in the Aures, where Chaouia identity is deeply impressed into the region’s Arab identity and vice versa and where common religious and nationalist sensibilities hold strong relative to Berberist ones. While the Aures is probably no better off economically than Kabylia (if not worse off), the population remains rural and Arabic is the main language of “high culture” such as one exists. Arabs and Berbers in the Aures are often related to each other by blood and they share in many cultural and social customs and traditions. Their expatriate community is relatively small and there was no “Chaouia myth” or “policy” and no formal division between Arabs and Chaouis. (Also note that while there are conspiracy theories that claim that the Chaouis “took over” the military under Boumediene, there does not appear to be a concerted Chaoui “plot” to control the country to the benefit of the Aures: Note that among Boumediene’s enemies were several Chaouis, Col. Chaabani, Tahar Zbiri and Abdelaziz Zerdani.) One cannot travel to the modern Aures, however, without remarking on the growth in interest in Berber culture among many people there. There is a small but growing movement to make a Chaoui print culture, in part a reaction to Arabization through urbanization, but not so much to the Arabization itself but more as a way of simply preserving the language within the Arabized context. This is also appears to be the case in the Chenoua-speaking areas east of Algiers, though I have seen little evidence of major preservation efforts. Because Arabic was in some ways de-institutionalized in Kabylia and replaced with French — which has had material benefits for many Kabyles — Arabization has been viewed in an adversarial light there. This was not the case in the Aures.

The Mzab’s circumstance does not present a problem of Arabization. It does however set the stage for ethnic division, though, because of its historical stratification and we are seeing this play out in Berriane. Berberist parties, however, require a grievance especially related to some element of ethnicity which exacerbates a feeling of distance from the central government to latch onto and build trust and legitimacy. In Kabylia this issue is language; in Berriane it is economic depravity and a feeling of indifference from the central government. This is why neither the RCD or FFS made major inroads into “Arab” Algeria or the Aures. But there seems to be room in the Mzab, and they know it. This will likely continue, even if locals complain that it exacerbates the ethnic situation on the ground. As the recent violence has shown some the “evil” and partiality of the authorities, the sense of a separate minority identity grows. This is part of why the request for a UN investigation is interesting. The Berriane events are the initial stages of a modern Berberist consciousness in the south.

mapMap showing Berriane’s position relative to Ghardaia, and the Berber-speaking regions in northern Algeria. Berriane is on Ghardaia’s northern border with Laghouat Province.


12 thoughts on “Berriane, Hogra and the Spread of Berberism

  1. It is a pity you call FFS and RCD berberist parties. There is nothing inherently incorrect about berberism but these parties are not. They are as algerian nationalist (I prefer the word patriot) as you can get. Membership is open to all Algerians. The answer is elswhere If the so called ‘Arabs’ are not knocking on the door. Even islamist could adhere if they honestly adhere to these parties charters, which are public knowledge. The Mzab affinity with these parties is largely due to the secular philosophies of the FFS and RCD which a sure guarantee to the Mzab ibaadit way of life. The ‘Arabophone’ sympathisers of these parties are harassed and discouraged by thugish FLN and RND.

    More and more of the so called ‘Arabs’ are identifying themselves today as ‘Arabo-Berber’.

  2. Tren,
    Thanks for your comments. The FFS and RCD represent distinct expressions of Algerian nationalism that are more inclusive and in many ways more realistic than the major parties. What does this is their advocacy of the inclusion of Berber identity into the national narrative in a way that is absent from the other “nationalist”, leftist and Islamist political parties. Your points are well taken, but I still prefer to call these parties “Berberist” because of their major constituencies and the fact that they are really the only groups that make the Berber identity a serious part of the platforms. This is what separates them from other self-proclaimed nationalist parties in the country. And I think you are certainly right about the appeal of these parties’ secularism in the Mzab.

    • Hey Kal,

      I see this was posted some time ago, and toward the end you ask that any literature of Mzab involvement in the War of Indep. to please post. Any luck? I myself am searching for similar literature.

      As always, great work

  3. Sure an Arabophone Islamist could theoretically join the RCD since it is open to all Algerians, but with that reasoning, a secular Berber activist could join the Muslim Brotherhood too…

    As Kal says, even if they are not sectarian, they represent Kabyle constituencies and concerns, and the RCD explicitly evolved out of the Berber Spring. I kind of like both parties, but one shouldn’t take their self-portrayal at face value any more than one trusts the regime’s propaganda.

  4. @all,

    ”but with that reasoning, a secular Berber activist could join the Muslim Brotherhood too…”

    I doubt it, unless for spying purposes 🙂

    What I meant is one’s religious beliefs do not clash with secularism.

    What Kabylia represent for RCD and FFS is a sure place to evolve, develop and wisen up regardless of the thugishness of the regime. Coups D’Etat have been mounted against these parties in other parts of Algeria. The regime assassinated the best of the best of these parties activists and continuously mounts and manifactures virtual ‘rebellions’ from within.

    Here is a link to a song from Chaoui land.

  5. : The Mzab affinity with these parties is largely due to the secular philosophies of the FFS and RCD which a sure guarantee to the Mzab ibaadit way of life.

    Ibadis secular? The people who still take orders from, and pay taxes to, their religious hierarchy; whose women rarely if ever leave the five cities; where in a lifetime a man may never see his brother’s wife – secular?

  6. Not secular, but (in some respects) supportive of secularist parties. They’re a minority, and so they don’t want to be ruled by Sunni Islamists who consider them semi-heretical.

  7. I truely believe that Arabs are a sickness. Arabs are inherently a savage bedouine race of people. They know only destruction and oppresion. Therefor Arabization equals the fall of civilization. Egypt with its brilliant history, once Arabized (after the 14th century) became an ignorant country. The same goes for the Maghreb, Syria, Iraq and Lybia. Think about it, Libya with its great Berber, Punic, Greek and Roman history has been reduced to a pathetic bunch of people headed by that psocho Khadafi, and claiming descent from nomadic bedouine sandwellers.

    Why would we want to move that way? Cherish our Berberness. Maghreb is a Berber region, and the Arab nomads are parasites.

    Greets from Tetouan

  8. yes berberist are racist
    i know what i’m talking about i live in Ghardaia since i was 3years old
    not all Mozabites are racist but young generation is more inclined to right wing identity parties
    in the pas mozabites looked down on non as ibadites as heretics or ignorant muslims now the younged generation use the berberism point of view to look down on non-berbers
    (berbers tend to be white and fair skinned while the others are dark & brown skinned)
    the jist of it is if any party try to govern the country by using and identity that can’t englobe everyone that it’s marginalizing them and perhapes provoking them to conflict
    -islamist marginalized non islamists or non-muslims and we had a civil war
    -revolionnary dinausaure in the name of revolution marginalized the young generation
    -berberists marginalized the Arabs(culturaly Arabs)

    what we need is democratic goverment that can unify all it’s people
    if you wanna be main stream use mainstream slogans
    RCD and FFS will always be a minority and perceived as a threat by the rest of Algerians if they continue that way

  9. as proof i’ll tell you that’s impossible to marry a mozabite girl
    Chambaa are open you can marry any girl you like
    but mozabites are a closed society you have to be a ibadite or of mozabite blood or least be a berber but not an Arab (the rest of Algerians considered culturaly Arabes)
    so who is the racist here ??
    i admire them for their morals and their communality and centuries urbanism but their closed society doen’t help others to sympathies with them
    so if you exclude the others don’t complain when you’re treated the same way …

  10. While I found your comment about the Chaouis being arabnisd, which in fact there are many mountain areas like the Mzabis refuse to marry outside their family or village,( example to this would be in Arris, T’kout, and small areas south of Batna) we do this to ensure our blood, is kept, our culture and language is preserved. While in fact Mzabis marry outside their own as long as the person is Amazighen, I am sir one of those who married a Mzabi Amazigh and I sir am a Tachawit, while I find our culture and language very close, Mzabi women are only covered up so that the Arabs in the area will not harass them, but while the majority of them are educated and keep the Tamazight alive, they have the purest Tamazight left, this is thanks to their closed society by not marring from outside Amazighen. The strange thing is a outsider of our community has an idea, or takes hearsay as his source, I advise you to come sit in our areas before you post up slander and false statements about the Amazighen areas. It is rubbish as this that as the Arabic has for generations make us barbaric which is lies.

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