April 30, 2018
Qualifying for a soccer world cup is usually followed by a party. When Peru qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the country celebrated with such enthusiasm that an earthquake detection app mistook the celebrations for a tremor. But in Algeria, when Kabylia qualified for the 2018 Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) World Cup – a tournament for minorities and unrecognized nations – manager Axel Bellabbaci was arrested due to the existence of his team and interrogated for hours.
Kabylia is a small, densely populated region on the northern coast of Algeria with a population embroiled in a decades-long struggle for recognition. The history of its football team illustrates the complex political tensions in the region.
The Kabyles are the largest group of Berbers in Algeria: a family of indigenous North Africans who have maintained their ancient traditions, culture and language for centuries. The Berbers call themselves Amazigh (“free people” in Tamazight) and constitute a significant minority in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya – with between six and eight million Kabyles in Algeria and at least one million abroad.
After Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, Kabyles and other Berbers fought against the marginalization of their cultural identity.
“Since the 1960s, the Algerian authorities have tried to ‘Arabize’ the country, trying to impose another identity – an artificial identity – on Algerians and Kabyles”, explains Nourredine Bessadi, who advises the NGO for the defense of human rights Minority Rights Group on Amazigh issues.
The Tamazight language has been at the center of Kabyle resentment: earlier versions of the Algerian constitution designated Arabic as the only “national” and “official” language and banned Tamazight expressions. This resentment is simmering in Kabylia, which has become the bastion of resistance against Arabization.
Waves of protests have hit Kabylia over the years, demanding recognition of the country’s Amazigh dimension. The turning point was the “Black Spring” of 2001, when protests following the death of a young Kabyle student at the hands of authorities were met with repression. Some 130 protesters were killed.
In 2016, Tamazight was finally recognized as an official language in Algeria, but this did not calm the excitement in Kabylia. Some activists lament that culture is still marginalized and that Tamazight is not used in the judicial system, nor compulsory in schools. ‘There’s no gendarmes in the street to prevent you from speaking Kabyle”, says Vaz à Vrahem, general secretary of the football team. “But everything is still Arabized.
Diaspora activists have since founded the Mouvement pour l’autodétermination de la Kabylie (MAK), which campaigns for Kabyle identity and the right to choose one’s own future.
Hugh Roberts, a professor of North African history at Tufts University and an expert on Kabylia, is skeptical of the Movement, arguing that it is not representative of the population, and finds the concept of a controversial Kabyle national team. But economic marginalization and disenchantment with more traditional political formations are fueling a rise in support for the MAK, which also backs the football team, and the growing number of Kabyles who no longer identify as Algerians.
The Algerian authorities remain sensitive to the issue. Repression is erratic: meetings are sometimes prohibited; MAK activists are regularly arrested and interrogated; some have their passports confiscated and many ultimately decide to leave the country.
This year, identity politics spilled over into football: Bellabbaci was released after hours of questioning. The team played the qualifier in secret to avoid repercussions. As for June’s CONIFA Cup in London, it will likely bring in players from the diaspora, adding to the feeling that the team can be the away team in London, just as they are at home. not
Alessio Perron is a freelance journalist passionate about underreported topics. He worked at New internationalist between 2016 and 2018. You can find him on Twitter at @alessioperrone.
This article is from the April 2018 issue of New internationalist.
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