Berber communities in Algeria are asking the government to allocate public funds to promote and preserve their indigenous language, a request that has sparked several protests in the northern region of the country this week.
The protests come after an amendment to the 2018 budget legislation that would have formalized the teaching of the Tamazight language in local schools was rejected by MPs.
“A social upheaval is coming,” said Lemnouar Hamamouche, a sociology student at Abderrahmane Mira University in Bejaia, in the northern region of Algeria in Kabylia, where the majority of the protests took place.
Students and other activists rallied behind the move, which they say highlights the state’s broader rejection of the language and identity of its Berber citizens, also known as Amazigh.
Hamamouche told Al Jazeera that this also reflects the policies of the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which he says has not allocated any money to help bring the language into use nationally.
“The popular masses are starting to protest” because they “reject the fact that [the state] marginalizes a mother tongue ”like Tamazight, said Hamamouche, member of the local student coordination committee in Bejaia.
Dozens of protesters blocked a road in Bouira province on Friday and protesters clashed with security forces in rallies earlier this week.
The mountainous region of Kabylia on the northern coast of Algeria is home to the Kabyles, a Berber ethnic group.
The area covers several provinces, including Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira, which are at the heart of a decades-long struggle for Berber identity and language rights.
According to Ramdane Achab, Algerian author and publisher, claims to Berber identity have forced Algeria to directly confront some of its fundamental principles, notably “the Arab-Islamic ideology of the state, its political, cultural and linguistic monolithism. , its authoritarianism, its conception of state centrality ”.
Conversely, the struggle for Berber identity rights “advances the values and political principles of linguistic pluralism, democracy, individual and collective rights, social justice. [and] decentralization, ”writes Ahab.
Hsain Ilahiane is professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky, originally from Morocco, and author of the Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen).
Without reliable numbers, Ilahiane estimates that between 15 and 50 million people speak the dialects of Tamazight in the countries of North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean.
“When we talk about Tamazight or a language in North Africa, whether in Algeria or Libya or Morocco, we are really talking about identity politics,” he said.
He said the struggle for recognition of the Tamazight language “has been long in coming”.
Ilahiane said that in the late 1950s, as Algeria struggled to end French colonial rule, a split occurred between Algerians who wanted a pluralist society that would incorporate all ethnic groups and Algerians. who wanted to anchor the state in the Arab and Islamic world.
Similar situations have also developed in other North African countries. In 2011, Morocco recognized Tamazight as an official language.
“Tamazight has been discriminated against since the independence of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, etc. “, did he declare.
Tamazight now “official”
In earlier versions of Algeria’s constitution, the first of which was adopted in 1963 after Algeria’s independence from France, Arabic was referred to as the country’s only “national” and “official” language.
A constitutional amendment made Tamazight a second “national” language in 2002, and the state pledged to “work to promote and develop [the language] in all its linguistic varieties ”.
A revised constitution (pdf), which entered into force last year, went even further, making Tamazight the state’s second “official” language.
He also created “the Algerian Academy of the Amazigh (Berber) language”, which is responsible for promoting Tamazight “with a view to consolidating, in the future, its status as an official language”.
A similar process occurred in Morocco, which recognized Tamazight as the official state language in 2011.
But according to Ilahiane, designating Tamazight as an official language doesn’t mean much if the state doesn’t invest in its use in state institutions. formalized?
“How do you implement this? How to generalize, establish, propagate the use of Tamazight in official affairs of state, education, health, in the media, in [the] Legal system? ”He said.
“It’s good to say it’s official. We are all happy, we applaud… But we need a budget; you need financing.
Demonstration in Paris
This is what the protesters are asking for, as their pressure for language rights in Tamazight has also spread to communities in the Algerian diaspora.
A group called Les Kabyles de Paris (Les Kabyles de Paris) staged a protest in the French capital on Saturday to show solidarity with protesters in the Algerian region of the same name.
Organizers have said on social media that they hope the rally “will be a strong signal [of solidarity] to our brothers and sisters [in] Kabylie who continue to fight every day for our identity, ”they wrote on the event’s Facebook page.
“To come together for Tamazight is also to come together for democracy, freedom, equality, fraternity, solidarity, [and] secularism.”