In Algeria, online repression targets Amazigh protesters active in the Hirak movement Global Voices

Protesters wave the Algerian flag and an Amazigh flag in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria. Photo by Kader Houali, used with permission.

On a Friday morning in late summer 2019, a lone woman marched through central Algiers, walked past a row of police officers and called out loud for the deposition of the now deceased army general Ahmed Gaid Salah, – a few hours before the main anti-government march that afternoon.

The Amazigh flag was banned in Algeria in June 2019.

Earlier that summer, in June 2019, Gaid banned the Amazigh flag that belongs to the Kabyle Berbers, or Amazigh people. Following this decree, dozens of demonstrators were arrested for waving it next to the national flag during the Hirak protests, the popular uprising that erupted in February 2019 against then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, running for a fifth term.

“This woman braved two things: in the morning there are more arrests and it’s unimaginable to talk about Gaïd,” said Meziane Abane, a journalist who filmed the woman. He put the video on Facebook page of its news site, L’Avant-Garde Algeria (the Algerian authorities recently blocked the site).

Moments later, the insults started pouring in. Comments like “you are the residue of France”, “France is your mother” and “son of France” flooded the comments section. In one day, the video had 1 million views and up to 4 million comments.

Those of the Kabyle region are often associated with France, the former colonial power of Algeria. Online trolls use slurs to target and accuse the Kabyles of being separatists who threaten “national unity”.

“That’s when I understood the power [of these online trolls]Abane said in a telephone interview with Global Voices. “I was wondering when are they going to stop? Will they stop? They stopped at 6 am!

Abane himself is from the town of Bouïra in Kabylia, a mountainous region bordering the Mediterranean Sea and home to the Amazigh people. The comments – though rooted in a political battle – specifically target Kabyle militants with racist overtones.

The Kabylia region was at the center of the Hirak movement. After Bouteflika’s resignation in April, the movement continued to demonstrate every Tuesday and Friday to demand a system overhaul (until March, when he was “suspended” for public health reasons due to COVID -19).

In December, Hirak activists boycotted the national elections. On 40 percent of the population voted nationally while parts of Kabylia saw an abstention rate close to 100 percent.

Racism directed against Kabyle activists and citizens is not new, but the force of this rhetoric intensified in 2019, according to Abane.

The story of the ‘Zouave’ insult

Algerian Zouave, French Army, 1886, from the military series (N224) published by Kinney Tobacco Company to promote Sweet Caporal cigarettes. Photo via Wikimedia Commons via Kinney Brothers Tobacco Company / CC0.

Algerian journalist Khaled Drareni who covered the Hirak protests was sentenced to eight months in prison in April for incitement and “undermining national unity”. He told Global Voices in an interview last year that his coverage of Hirak drew “cut and paste” comments accusing him of working for France, of being paid by the French and of calling him zouave.

The word zouave refers to a group of Algerian men from Kabylia who were hired by France during its occupation of Algeria, to be part of a light infantry unit working for the French army from 1830. said Ouissal Harize, a doctoral student at Durham University, who studies violence as a colonial legacy in Algeria.

The etymological origins of the term are contradictory. Harize traced it back to the word Kabyle izouf which means “to launch”. But he says the term could also come from a bad Arabic pronunciation of agawa – the name of a confederation of Kabyle tribes.

In the 1860s, other armies also appointed their Zouave infantry regiments. European painters such as Vincent Van Gogh chose the zouave as a popular portrait subject, she added.

While the presence of Kabyles in the French army is indeed verifiable, “the term is now used by some to target and tarnish all Kabyles and is therefore now used as a means of racialization,” Harize explained.

“It’s an ideological battle” between Arab nationalists and Amazigh movements, explained Nacer Djabi, professor of sociology at the University of Algiers:

Arab nationalists call the Kabylia Zouaves to say that they were with colonization at the start, [in order] create a complex for the Kabyle people who presented themselves as great revolutionaries during the war of independence. It is a manipulation of national history for contemporary politics.

“Hateful and toxic speech”

Today, trolls are taking hold of this historic discourse around the meaning and definition of Zouave and creating a plot according to which the Hirak movement “is led by a secular Franco-Berber elite, who are trying to ride the movement” , said Redouane Boudjema, professor of media and communication. at the University of Algiers.

Boudjema said that false information had been disseminated about important historical Kabyle personalities, such as Hocine Aït Ahmed, commander of the first guerrillas to fight against the colonial regime and part of the post-independence provisional government before resigning and creating the first Algerian opposition party.

Boudjema explained:

Fake news on Algerian history is used to fuel hateful and toxic speech against a region [Kabylie], who has always been at the forefront of the struggle for democratic transition.

Over the past year, the current regime has used this anti-Kabyle discourse in an attempt to weaken the Hirak movement.

“Amazighity” is recognized as one of the fundamental components of the Algerian identity in the constitution and the authorities have taken measures in recent years to integrate the Amazigh culture: Tamazight was established as an official language in 2016 and the first month of the Amazigh year – Yannayer – was declared a public holiday in 2018.

Despite this, in June 2019, as Hirak protesters marched, Gaid cracked down on Amazigh expressions by banning their flag and arresting those waving it.

Protesters march through the streets with a large Amazigh flag in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria. Photo by Kader Houali, used with permission.

“The discrimination in Kabylia existed long before February 22, and it was at the institutional level,” said Kader Houali, lawyer and human rights activist for Tizi Ouzou in Kabylia, stressing how long it took after independence for the language to be recognized. . But he added that this type of discrimination exists in society, as well as in the system, and is stoked by some public figures and journalists.

Houali, with two other lawyers, deposit a complaint against Naima Salhi, president of the Equity and Proclamation Party (PEP), for “inciting racial hatred and calling for the murder of Kabyle citizens”. She is one of many politicians and journalists who “attack everything that is different [non-Arab and non-Islamic],” he said.

Salhi uses his political party’s Facebook page to share video calls to citizens “to marginalize the Kabyles and execute what they call the Zouaves and ‘the devil’s community’, it’s a call for death and violence “Said Houali. Young bloggers are posting similar calls, he said.

In video published at the end of 2019, Salhi declared that the Kabyles are not Algerians but rather “immigrants” descendants of the vandal people. In the video, she said it was a shame that “Algerians let these dogs do what they love”.

In other video, recorded just after the death of Salah on December 23, 2019, Salhi warned, “Beware of this dangerous group and this flag. “

In a series of derogatory comments, she addressed the Kabyles as Jews and said: “This is why we don’t get along with you”. She also called the banned Amazigh flag a “Zouave flag”.

Although there is no official law prohibiting racial or regional discrimination, Houali hopes they can apply the section of the Penal Code that prohibits “threats to national unity” – ironically, the same law used to arrest protesters for waving the Amazigh flag.

Abane believes that the anti-Zouave campaign has succeeded in demobilizing some of the Hirak demonstrators. “It is the refusal of the other; It is mainly racism – they target the Kabylia and there is no action, neither from Facebook nor from Algerian justice, ”he said.

For now, all he can do is filter the repeated insults from his Facebook page, but that hasn’t stopped the trolls – they are bypassing him by adding a single letter to flood him with comments that leave him behind. call azouave instead of.

This article is part of a series entitled “The Identity Matrix: Platform for the Regulation of Threats to Online Expression in Africa”. These publications question hate speech or online discrimination based on identity based on language or geographic origin, disinformation and harassment (especially against activists and journalists) prevalent in digital spaces in seven countries. Africans: Algeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of the International ICT Policy Collaboration for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

About Wesley V. Finley

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