Algeria: A Clap of Thunder in a Summer Sky -or the Start of a Long Rain?

By René Wadlow

With two weeks of sporadic demonstrations at the start of April 2001, with some 60 dead and 600 wounded, attention has focused on the Kabylia region of Algeria. Is this only the reaction to the death of a young high school student, M. Guernah, being held in a police station or is it the start of a new broadly-based social movement that could shake Algeria?

Algeria is no stranger to violence. The struggle between the military, who hold both political and economic power, and radical Islamic groups has gone on since shortly after elections. The Islamic groups had done better than expected in the first round, and after the run offs might have formed a new government.

Following the military's blocking of the election process, the Islamist groups began a campaign of terror, especially in the countryside where they had sympathizers and where guerrillas could hide. The government responded to terror, widespread arrests and "disappearances." Moderates, liberals and the indifferent were caught between the two fires. The national economy, except for oil and gas exports, ground to a halt. In a country where 75% of the population is under 30 years and many have difficulties finding work or adequate housing, the number of discontented grew.

Both the military and the Islamic groups were internally divided. The many factions of the governing military had difficulty articulating a coherent policy, and the leadership never had a broad base. The Islamic groups were divided into small groups loyal to local commanders. There were some 50 to 60 Islamic extremist groups. Although the Islamist groups drew their strength from socio-economic discontent, they had no coherent socio-economic policy to present.. The Islamic guerrillas were reinforced by a floating population of Islamic fighters coming from Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere who had no stake in compromise.

The reigning military was unable to mobilize public opinion but tried to bring in "old-new" men, such as Mohamed Boudiaf, a hero of the 1954-1962 War of Independence who had been in exile. Shortly after his return as president of a governing council, he was assassinated in a public meeting. Who ordered his death has never been elucidated. The second "old-new'' is the current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who had been a high profile Foreign Minister of President Bouari Boumedienne in the 1970's when Algeria was a leading voice for a New International Economic Order and the Non-aligned Movement. Bouteflika had never been associated with domestic questions and so could have a relatively freer hand.

Return Of The Fighters

His legitimacy was tarnished as all the other candidates for President withdrew from the election, maintaining that they had not been able to campaign and that massive voting fraud was planned. Boutefika began his presidency with an olive branch to the Islamic groups. Many former guerrillas took advantage of his amnesty and returned to their homes. This return of the Islamic fighters has created fear and social conservatism, especially in rural areas. Sporadic Islamic violence has gone on. The government has limited the work of foreign observers and local media. The socio-economic situation has not changed though many had hoped that the new administration might produce an economic upturn and curb the economic power of the military.

The current, violently-repressed protest is not directly related to the decade of Islamic violence. The Kabyles are Berbers-the original inhabitants of North Africa who had withdrawn into the mountains to withstand the Arab conquests. Although they later became Muslims they have kept their own language - Tamazigh - and numerous pre-Islamic customs and beliefs. Although there have been a few Algerian national leaders of Kabyle origin, the Kabyle have always felt marginalized and thus have built on village-level solidarity to defend their culture.

In 1980 there was a "Berber Spring'' when Berbers both in Kabylia and in the mountainous AurPs area had demonstrated for the respect of their language and culture. Language rights moved the Berber question to the top of the national agenda. However, the Berber cultural movement took on unexpected dimensions and produced a country-wide analysis of the society and its economy. The criticism ultimately led to the 1988 riots sparked by food price increases.

Today, with memories of the 1980 Berber Spring, there is expectation of social unrest. The expectation is usually replaced by Summer resignation. This year the Kabylia expectation has sent shock waves throughout the rest of the country. With the Islamist movements a spent force as far as social reform is concerned, will we see a current of secular, modernist thought which has been the mark of the Kabyle elite coming to fore?

René Wadlow is a peace activist living on the border of France and Switzerland.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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