Algerian Insurrection

by Heba Saleh
published in MER220

In the past ten years of political crisis, Algerians have been wary of public protest. Terrorized by relentless violence and impoverished by structural adjustment, they have repeatedly given the impression that what they want most is the chance to get on with their lives quietly. Despite the cancellation of one election and the staging of several fraudulent ones -- not to mention wholesale public sector downsizings and devaluation of the currency -- the streets remained calm and mass protest looked like an unlikely prospect.

But in the summer of 2001, a new defiant mood set in. The killing of a Kabyle youth, Massinissa Guermah, in the custody of the gendarmerie in April precipitated the longest wave of rioting in the history of independent Algeria. The worst of the unrest was confined to the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia, where the protests originated, but in June and July there were repeated disturbances in much of eastern Algeria, including several provinces whose populations speak Arabic rather than Berber.

In these places, rioting was sparked by what had hitherto been tolerated as normal occurrences, such as abusive treatment by officials, corruption in the allocation of local resources or long interruptions in the water supply. Batna, Biskra, Khenchela, Oum el Bouaghi and Tebessa in southeastern Algeria, and Annaba, El Tarf, Skikda and Souk Ahras in the northeast, were among the many places where riots were reported.

Predictions in June that riots would engulf the country have not been realized, but in late July numerous minor outbreaks of unrest were still occurring in Kabylia, evidence of the new, less acquiescent mood which seems to be an enduring legacy of events in the early summer. It is not clear whether the protests will lead to any qualitative political change. Algeria's military-backed authorities have always pointedly rejected pressure from the street. Beyond redeploying roughly 600 gendarmes and initiating a nominally independent inquiry, the authorities thus far have shown no inclination to formulate any political response to the demonstrations. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suggested vaguely that plans for a revision of the constitution could include the question of the status of Tamazight (the Berber language). But language was not the central point at issue in the unrest.

The absence of a nationwide opposition party capable of maintaining the momentum of the protests, and translating popular anger into clear demands for specific reforms, continues to endow the authorities with a huge advantage. Some observers in Algiers, however, believe the military authorities have noted the message of alienation and frustration emanating from the streets. "Undoubtedly a [political] initiative is being prepared," said an Algiers-based analyst. "There might be differences of opinion [within ruling circles] about its nature and extent. But it will be based on a conference to prepare for next year's elections which would produce laws to be respected by all parties." Others, however, are less certain. "This is all still in the realm of speculation," said a former Algerian minister now in opposition.

Unconventional Demands

In Kabylia, ruthless repression was the first reaction of the authorities towards the demonstrations which erupted after the killing of Massinissa Guermah. The gendarmerie repeatedly fired live ammunition at unarmed protesters and killed over 50 of them in the first two weeks, setting the stage for an extended wave of protest. In May and early June, hardly a day went by without a march or a sit-in. Women, lawyers, doctors and civil servants all organized protests.

The two main Kabyle-based political parties, the Socialist Forces Front (Front des Forces Socialistes, FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie, RCD), also stepped in, organizing their own events after having been initially overwhelmed by the vehemence of protests. The RCD withdrew from the coalition government to signal its displeasure with the regime, while the FFS organized two marches in Algiers on May 3 and May 31, the second of these drawing an estimated 200,000 people.

But neither party appeared able to harness the anger of the population to exert clearly focused political pressure. By June, a new organization called the Coordination of 'Arush, Da'irat and Communes had assumed effective control on the ground in Kabylia. This organization brought together grassroots leaders from the region's various tribes ('arush) and districts (da'irat) as well as municipalities. The leaders explicitly dissociated their organization from the political parties, and tended to reject attempts to impose a conventional political direction on the protest movement. Their list of demands included the withdrawal of the gendarmerie from Kabylia, punishment of those who had shot at demonstrators, an economic program for the region and official status for Tamazight.

Divide and Conquer

But if the brutality of the much-hated gendarmes, and by extension the state which employs them, was the immediate cause of the unrest in Kabylia, it was clear from the beginning that the anger of the rioters was aimed at much more than the gendarmes. The youths who demonstrated for weeks on the streets of Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and the numerous smaller towns of the Kabyle heartland have had enough of what Algerians call hogra, being excluded and held in contempt. Young Kabyles experience local government representatives as corrupt and repressive, and the ruling circles in Algiers appear uncaring and unable to address the joblessness and the acute housing shortage which deprive most young Algerians of hope for a better future. In the eyes of the young demonstrators, hogra is all they get from the state. The social and economic grievances underpinning the unrest allowed it to spread elsewhere in the country. Slogans such as "nous sommes tous des Kabyles" -- we are all Kabyles -- were heard in Arab towns.

This solidarity was the reverse of what Algeria's military rulers were hoping for. From the start, they tried to stop the contagion from spreading, first by ignoring the unrest, then by trying to portray it as a strictly regional affair. State television initially promoted the explanation that the Kabyles were motivated by their long-standing demand for official status for the Berber language. Algerians say broadcast interviews with demonstrators were edited so as to drop all reference to anything other than the region's cultural demands. Then the government changed tactics, opting for a divisive approach which clearly aimed at turning the rest of the country against the Kabyles.

The starkest example of this was coverage of the enormous June 14 demonstration in Algiers staged by the Coordination of 'Arush, Da'irat and Communes. That massive protest had drawn several hundred thousand -- by some estimates a million -- Kabyles to Algiers. Describing the Kabyle protesters as looters, TV played extensive footage of fights and the destruction of property during the march in Algiers. An interior ministry official praised the youths of the capital for having "defended their honor" against acts of sabotage by the Kabyle demonstrators. Despite a ban by the interior minister, the organizers insisted on presenting a list of demands at the presidential palace. The protest turned violent when the marchers tried to breach a police cordon blocking access to the palace, and the police fought them off with water cannon and tear gas. Angry protesters burned cars and attacked buildings.

Uncertain Future

The Kabyles insist that the authorities planted infiltrators who sowed mayhem among their ranks, instigating the attacks on property and provoking fights with inhabitants of the capital. It is hard to prove these allegations, though it is clear from the tenor of television coverage that the authorities believed that the more the protestors disgraced themselves, the less likely it was that others would identify with them.

The attempt to play on divisions in Algerian society has so far been mostly unsuccessful. Indeed, some observers have argued that, if anything, the recent protests prove the failure of identity politics in Algeria. The Kabyle demonstrators made it clear that recognition of the Berber language, though still a demand, was nowhere near the top of their agenda. At the beginning the RCD tried to portray the uprising as one in favor of Tamazight, but clearly failed to assert its leadership of the protests, in the course of which several RCD offices were ransacked. Indeed, despite the gains it had made in Kabylia during the 1990s because of its extreme anti-Islamist positions, the party now appears to have gone completely silent. Similarly, calls for autonomy in Kabylia from the fringes of the Berberist movement also have been explicitly disavowed by more representative figures. The Kabyles have been emphasizing the grievances they share with all Algerians rather than the ones that set them apart. Unfortunately for them, the other regional party, the FFS, which has always promoted a democratic inclusive approach to Algeria's political and cultural problems, has had little success in its attempts to forge a national base.

All this leaves the future of the protests uncertain, while Algeria's military-backed authorities, long reported to be riven by factional disputes, appear united again. There are fewer attacks in the press on President Bouteflika, putting an end to rumors that the military commanders who brought him to office plan to oust him. Rumored firings at the top of the military hierarchy have not occurred. This closing of ranks may not mean that the rulers' internal power struggles have been settled, but it can only make the job of whatever opposition there is all the more difficult.

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