From May to early July 2001, massive protests rocked the Berber areas (Upper and Lower Kabylia) of Algeria, spreading on several occasions to Algiers and other major cities. On June 14, perhaps a million Kabyles “marched for democracy” in the capital, sparking clashes with police and leading the government to ban demonstrations. Middle East Report asked Daho Djerbal, editor of Naqd, an Algerian journal of critical inquiry, and a prominent intellectual, to comment on the portent of the unrest.
Who led the protests of May to early July? Was it similar to previous Berber protests?
Unlike all previous demonstrations, the June march was meant to be the expression of the ‘arush in Kabylia. These tribal structures, in existence from time immemorial, are forms of local representation, where heads of families and leading village clans hold a seat on councils. In the past, the ‘arush have served as a recourse against the representatives of the state.
Today, the political parties which claim to represent the Berbers have lost their credibility. In some places, young insurgents, in addition destroying public buildings, assaulted the branch offices of the political parties which are the official spokesmen for the Berber program of greater cultural autonomy and democracy. 24 offices of the RCD, and 18 of the FFS suffered heavy damage. In the face of the real or alleged inefficiency of the parties, the decision was made to reactivate dormant forms of representation (‘arush). As was the case in the mosques in the 1980s, young insurgents bypassed the local elders to press present-day claims. Thus, ancient structures were taken over by young people to bring forth what might be called a democratic claim with substantial residues of community tradition.
What caused the great march of June 14, 2001? Was it the beginning of a new mass politics?
The immediate cause for the mass rally was the response from Upper and Lower Kabylia to bloody repression of young people — some 60 deaths, and hundreds of casualties, over a few days — who were rising up against the arbitrary rule ex- ercised by representatives of central power. The deeper reason is the politicians’ failure to find a way out of Algeria’s social crisis. In the face of political stalemate, fraught with the danger of a new confrontation with the Islamists, the country’s elites have consistently adhered to a logic of integration into the system. The major political parties do not offer an alternative to the system as a whole. They fail, or are unwilling, to take a clear stand on state or nationalized property, or the issue of socialism, or reforms likely to provide a transition to a market economy. But judging from the modes of thinking and action among the demonstrators, they are still at a pre-political level.
What do you mean by pre-political?
The movement was openly declared to be non-political, in the sense of that it was against all parties. It took several meetings for the ‘arush movement to reach a consensus plat- form stripped of party-biased overtones. The main focus of the demands was “to meet the Berber claim in all its forms: language, culture and identity, and to restore the rule of law, guaranteeing all democratic freedoms” and “to place all executive functions of the state, as well as security forces, under the effective control of elected democratic bodies.” More radical demands for cultural autonomy also succeeded in fighting their way into the sloganeering, and secured a position in the demonstration. Just like the Islamist claims of the 1990s, these culturalist claims mobilize marginalized young people with no hope of integration into the system.
While young people attack the government, under the banner of Islamism or Berber democracy, new oligarchies are monopolizing whole sectors of economic activity and the media. The Khalifa group, for example, runs the first private bank in Algeria, produces pharmaceuticals and controls 40 percent of the country’s air traffic. The group is currently planning to build a private airport. Another group managed by the industrialist Rabrab runs the metal processing industry and a substantial share in the public works, agribusiness and refined oil products. Rabrab directly controls one of the main newspapers in the country, Liberté. Against the background of the protests, new patterns of au- thoritarian power are being laid out.
Has the unrest of May to early July weakened Bouteflika?
Contrary to what may be assumed, this demonstration, since it degenerated into large-scale confrontation and destructive violence, could result in strengthening the regime. Many downtown areas stood up in defense of property, including public property. Scuffling went on in some neighborhoods formerly known as Islamic Salvation Front (Front Salvation Islamique, FIS) hotbeds. Individual citizens rescued workers and equipment from uncontrolled groups of rioters. Closer links — perhaps even a de facto alliance — may have been forged between Bouteflika’s regime, and some trends within the FIS. Once again, what could have been the expression of an emerging civil society, standing up against the rulers, demanding respect for citizens’ basic rights, wasted away and broke up into fighting over territory.