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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
Map 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.