Twenty years ago, the death of an Algerian teenager in custody in the heart of the Berber minority in the North African country sparked an uprising that helped pave the way for future protests.
Massinissa Guermah, a high school student, was hit by a hail of bullets on April 18, 2001, in a gendarmerie post in Beni-Douala, near Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylia.
He was arrested following an altercation between young people and gendarmes and died of his injuries two days later.
“No one could imagine that a gendarme at his post could kill a young man in cold blood,” said SaÃ¯d Sadi, an emblematic figure of the Berber cultural and identity movement.
The Berbers are the descendants of the pre-Arab North African populations, whose native lands stretch from the far west of Egypt to Morocco.
âPeople’s reaction has been an angry reaction,â Sadi told AFP.
Kabylia was preparing to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the uprising of April 1980, known as the “Berber Spring”, demanding recognition of the culture and language of the community.
Instead, the boy’s death sparked the “Black Spring” riots, as people took to the streets of villages and towns to demand the closure of all gendarmerie stations in the area.
An estimated 126 people, many of them young people shot dead in clashes with riot police, have died in two months of unrest, and more than 5,000 people have been injured.
Almost two decades later, echoing a seething anger against the authorities, the candidacy of then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term sparked the birth of the pro-democracy protest movement Hirak in February 2019.
– ‘Shooting at his children’ –
The unprecedented protest movement – this time nationwide, peaceful and culminating with hundreds of thousands on the streets – forced Bouteflika to resign weeks later after losing support from the military.
But the Hirak continued its protests, demanding a major overhaul of the power system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.
The “Black Spring” saw “the birth of a new form of protest (in Algeria) which resulted in the occupation of the street”, noted Sadi, former leader of the Rally for Culture and Democracy ( RCD), a secular opposition party formed from the Berber movement in 1989.
Since then, street protests have become the main means of expressing the dissatisfaction of citizens.
Social tensions and problems of access to housing and drinking water have given rise to demonstrations which have sometimes turned into riots.
In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring uprisings in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Algeria recorded more than 10,000 protests, Sadi said.
The protests have largely failed to bridge the divide with the state – even after Bouteflika’s fall, protesters view the political system as largely unchanged and illegitimate.
Bouteflika was elected in 1999 on the promise of bringing peace to the country, when a 1992-2002 civil war pitted the army against several Islamist and jihadist groups, killing around 200,000 people.
When the “black spring” erupted in 2001, Sadi’s RCD was a member of the governing coalition.
He remembers telling Bouteflika: âwe cannot be part of a government that shoots its childrenâ.
– Berber identity –
In Algeria, the Berbers live mainly in Kabylia, a rough mountainous region east of the capital Algiers.
In the spring of 2002, a movement of tribal chiefs obtained the withdrawal of the majority of the Kabylie gendarmerie brigades.
Also that year, Bouteflika recognized the Tamazight Berber language as the national language – although not official – although the president remained resistant to any idea of ââplurality.
“It granted Tamazight national language status to escape responsibility for state crimes committed in Kabylia,” said Sadi, who has just published a second volume of memoirs.
Tamazight was eventually recognized as the country’s second official language, alongside Arabic, as part of the 2016 constitutional reforms, although its teaching in schools remains optional.
And Bouteflika in 2017 decreed that Yennayer, the Berber New Year, would be a public holiday in Algeria “to strengthen national unity”.
Having such “symbolic benchmarks” should not be ruled out, Sadi noted, in a country still being built after independence, and decades of one-party rule under the National Liberation Front (FLN).
It is also “important”, he added, that the FLN, “which has stigmatized the issue (of ethnic identity) for decades, has been forced to recognize it”.
Â© 2021 AFP