Berbers – Minority Rights Group

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Estimated population (as of 2004): Between 6.6 and 9.9 million is.

Ethnicity: Kabyle, Shawiya, Mozabites and Tuareg

First language(s): tamazight

Religion(s): Islam, some Christianity and traditional beliefs

The Berbers call themselves Imazighen, which means noble or free born. The term “Berber” derives from the Greek barbario and the Latin barbari from which the Arabs derived the term “barbariy”, meaning primitive or foreign. The Berber-speaking population of Algeria constitutes just over a quarter of the population and is concentrated in the mainly mountainous regions of Kabylie, Aurès, M’zab and Sahara.

Berber culture is not homogeneous. Its existing constituent subcultures have relatively little in common apart from the common root of their spoken dialects. About half of the Berber-speaking population is concentrated in the mountainous areas east of Algiers – Kabylia – and this region and its language have been at the center of most Berber problems in modern Algeria. Over time, Kabyles moved in large numbers to cities in Algeria and France in search of employment. The second largest Berber group, the Shawiya, inhabit the rugged mountains of eastern Algeria. Two small Berber communities are the Mozabites from the region around Ghardaia and the Tuareg nomads from the south. The 12,000 Tuareg, Berber nomads, live almost exclusively in the mountain ranges of Ajjer and Ahaggar in southern Algeria. The geographical dispersion of Berber speakers has hindered the emergence of a common identity. Kabyles are the most cosmopolitan and are more likely to speak French than other groups. All Berbers, with the exception of Mozabites, are Sunni Muslims.

Historical context

The Berbers are the indigenous inhabitants of the North African coastline, isolated from the rest of Africa by the Sahara Desert. The periods of control by the Carthage and Roman empires were interspersed with the establishment of Berber kingdoms. Most Berbers were Christians before the mid-seventh century, when waves of Arab migration to the region brought cultural changes and introduced Islam.

Although Berber rural life remained largely unchanged, those who lived in the cities saw their language, tribal law, and oral literary traditions intermingled with Arabic traditions. From the 11th to the 15th century, pushed back into the mountainous regions by the urban sultanates, the Berbers refused to recognize the central authority or to pay taxes.

At independence, Arabic became the sole official language of Algeria. Linguistic and cultural expressions of Berber were banned, which created resentment among Berber speakers, as did attempts to increase the number of Arabic speakers in the administration. In 1963, Hocine Ait Ahmed, Kabyle leader of the anti-French resistance, led a revolt against the government. The revolt was crushed and Ait Ahmed was arrested and sentenced to death; he then fled to France, where he formed the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS). Ahmed Ben Bella, the first leader of independent Algeria, linked the Arabization of the state to the success of socialism. Government policy aimed at centralization. The authority of the government and its claim to legitimacy rested on its leadership in the struggle for independence, but the Berbers had played an integral role in that struggle. The Arabization Bill of 1990 provided for the complete Arabization of the administration and schools by 1992 and of higher education institutions by 2000.

Although the government feared Berber separatism, there seems to be little support for separatism. There is, however, support for greater recognition of the Berber identity and rights of Berber speakers within a more democratic and pluralist Algerian state. The most enduring form of Berber opposition came from broader cultural movements.

Opposition to Arabization

The Kabyle capital, Tizi-Ouzou, is the bastion of opposition to Arabization. Throughout the 1970s, Berber musicians and poets used a modernized form of traditional Berber music to implicitly criticize the Algerian regime. Although popular demand eventually forced the government to allow this music to be broadcast, singers and bands were not allowed to perform in the Kabyle region. In 1980, when the government banned a lecture on ancient Kabyle poetry at the University of Tizi-Ouzou, demonstrations and strikes took place throughout the region and other Berber regions, extending to Algiers. These were met with violence by government troops; more than 30 people died and several hundred were injured and arrested. The Berber Cultural Movement, founded in the late 1960s, and other Berber organizations generally supported the idea of ​​Algeria as a bilingual state, with recognition given to the Berber language and colloquial Arabic , which, rather than standard Arabic, is the language of the majority of the population. As a result, they have often allied themselves with non-Berbers who wish to achieve a more democratic and pluralistic society.

In 1985, new arrests and imprisonments of Berber activists took place. The spontaneous national demonstrations of October 1988 in which Berbers participated in Algiers and Kabylie forced the Algerian government to support constitutional change, including the end of the one-party system. In July 1989, the National Assembly adopted a new law on political parties which allowed independent groups of the National Liberation Front (FLN) to apply for registration and to participate in national elections. Among the parties that applied were the FFS and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), another political organization of Berber origin. The new law, however, prohibits groups based “exclusively on a particular religion, language, region, sex or race” and stipulates that parties must use only Arabic languages ​​in their official statements.


The Tuaregs are nomadic Berbers. Raiding and control of caravan routes were traditional mainstays of Tuareg economic activities in pre-colonial times, but increasing French control limited raiding and necessitated the development of salt caravans to Niger. Independence led to the almost total upheaval of Tuareg society with its large class of slaves, the iklan, brought from Sudan, and former slaves, the haratin. Socialist ideology and nationalism committed Algeria to assimilating minority groups and merging north and south into a unified state. Freed slaves, haratin, began to rise up against the Tuareg and refuse to pay their contractual rights to cultivate the land. Violent skirmishes led to the imprisonment of some Tuareg and a policy of promoting sedentary life through the construction of cooperatives. In the late 1960s, the Tuareg had no choice but to assimilate into the Algerian system.

Current affairs

In 2001, years of Berber agitation for greater recognition of their Tamazight language, music and culture culminated in riots and dozens of deaths. The government amended the constitution in October 2001 to make Berber a “national” language, but not an “official” language. The January 2005 implementation of vague new government concessions to Berber claims, stemming from the 2001 unrest, has since been overshadowed by an agreement between the government and Islamic extremists.

In February 2006, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s cabinet declared a six-month amnesty for most Islamist militants involved in the 1990s civil war if they agreed to disarm, but when it expired fewer than 300 militants had agreed to disarm. ‘offer. The sweeping “Law implementing the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation” has also criminalized discussion of the conflict. Some Berber organizations in favor of a secular Algerian state, such as the Movement for Autonomy in Kabylia, feared that the Bouteflika government was getting too close to the Islamists, even though this relationship remained ambivalent. In October 2006, the president of the People’s Assembly of the province of Tizi Ouzou in Kabylia was shot dead. The government blamed Islamic militants for this and two other killings of Berber leaders in the previous 13 months.

Key Kabyle centers, particularly the key wilaya (province) of Tizi Ouzou, have seen a growth in what one local commentator calls “militant apathy” among the Berber-speaking electorate. This resulted in historically low turnout in the May 2007 legislative elections, with a likely repeat in the municipal elections scheduled for November 2007. In addition, there was an increase in local tensions within grassroots parties. national movement, including the National Liberation Front (FLN). and the Socialist Forces Front (FFS). In the southern town of Berriane, three days of fighting erupted between rival Berber and Arab gangs in May 2008.

About Wesley V. Finley

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