Louisa Hanoune recently promised voters in Bouira that if she were elected president she would make Tamazight an official language of Algeria. In Ouargla, president Bouteflika told voters that “we are Amazigh and Islam Arabized us,” going on to say that recognition of Berber identity is part of his program: “If the subject is an Academy Amazighité, we create! Or a High Council for Amazighité we create! If it is Ennayer [the Berber New Year], we all celebrate.” He also proclaimed that “we are all Salafists” in the spirit of national reconciliation, pledging to unify Algerians of all political, ethnic and religious persuasions. This is the message he will attempt to take on his visits to Kabylia in coming days: A president of all Algerians.
This one of the big political issues among Algerian Berbers and is obviously tied into the wider context of the struggle for the recognition of popular dignity, which is expressed among Berber activists in a number of ways: The use of “Amazigh” (free man) as a descriptor for a Berber, which offers the speaker agency over his identity in ways that “barbari” does not, because it is an exonym; the demand for greater “recognition” of the Berber identity (Amazighité) in state institutions, through holidays, the officialization of the Berber language, more air time for Berber-language programming on television and wider inclusion into historical and cultural enterprises; And contempt for the pouvoir, whose own contempt for the rebellious masses (hogra) is often seen as a primary reason that Berber identity and human rights in general are not well kept by the state. It is a way of establishing solidarity in the face of precarious social and economic indicators and of taking control of one’s identity, which has been defined narrowly by the state in previous years.
Bouteflika has a colorful history with the Berbers, the Kabyles in particular. During the Tafsut Tberkant (the Black Spring) in 2001 he lost much credibility because of the heavy response from the gendarme, and his apparent indifference to the protestors’ grievances. Through the mediation of current PM Ahmed Ouyahia, who is himself a Kabyle, the regime has made piecemeal concessions. It elevated Tamazight to the level of a “national language,” and pushed for wider teaching of the language in schools. These efforts, many Kabyles will remind us, have been half measures: Status as a national language merely recognizes that it exists and holds no strong implications economically or politically; The HCE barely does its job, has yet to decide on a common alphabet for Berber languages and even its website is in French alone; And efforts to bring it to school children have faced many financial and administrative hurdles that are not being effectively addressed.
Many still demand that it be made co-official with Arabic. This is controversial. There are still some who do not believe that “Berber” languages exist as anything other than dialects of Arabic. Others see making “Tamazight” official as highly problematic for the simple fact that there is no one “Tamazight”, but many dialects, if not separate languages, throughout Algeria. Putting official documents into Arabic, Kabyle, Chaouia, Tumbazit, Chenoua and other dialects would be cumbersome. Changing roadsigns and other state properties into both Arabic and Berber languages would be expensive — though it could provide much needed work — but would not pose a major problem. This leads some towards a movement for standardization of the many dialects, which makes some speakers uneasy. Mohamed Said announced this week his desire to see the language standardized but did not support of officialization. Bouteflika and Touati both support creating an “Amazigh Academy” to standardize the Berber dialects. Whether this would lead to official status is left ot the voter to decide, it would seem. Still there are those who oppose the entire notion out of bigotry principle, on [pseudo-] religious grounds or as a result of a chauvinistic Arab nationalism. However, these opinions have been marginalized in the mainstream, the result of the events of 2001 and Bouteflika’s efforts to meet minimum requests. Inclusion of Berber identity in national discourse is no longer taboo, and referring to Berbers and Berber speakers as “Amazigh” and “Amazighophone” in government releases symbolizes the way that the state has co-opted aspects of the Berber “platform,” as it were. A new Berber-language television station, Channel 4, was launched last week.
Still, he has said that Algeria will never have more than one official language, and that language will be Arabic, and has offered no indication that this attitude has change. As a result, his proclamations towards Berber identity are usually met with skepticism among Kabyles and others. The major concessions of the Bouteflika era have at worst been intended to obscure the deeper structural demands of the Berber movement or at best merely symbolic. And one can be sure that if youths in Kabylia rose up — under any banner, the MC/Aârouch, FFS, RCD or spontaneity — they would encounter the expected level of brutality from the state authorities. Economically, life is a little bit better, but not by much. Little has changed on the ground for the average Mohand.
The core demands of the Berber movement do not, after all, relate simply to officialization and having power people proclaim that “We are all Amazigh.” The roots of the Berber movement are the same as the ones motivating youth unrest and the flight fo the harragas in the rest of the country: The desire for greater political and social pluralism in general and increased economic opportunity for the masses of unemployed young men (and women) that make up the bulk of modern Algerian society. The promises for a Berber Academy and talk of officialization are intended to boost turn out in Kabylia, where turn out is always low and the main Berberist parties are boycotting the election. It is unlikely these efforts will succeed, even coupled with Bouteflika’s visit to Bejaia.