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Algeria: Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia
Algeria: Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Foreign Minister of Algeria Ramtane Lamamra congratulates Bilal Agh Cherif, secretary general of The Coordination of the Movements of Azawad (CMA), after Cherif signed a preliminary peace agreement in Algiers, on 14 May 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Report 164 / Middle East & North Africa

Algeria and Its Neighbours

Algeria has emerged as an indispensable broker of stability in North Africa and the Sahel. But, especially as it enters a generational transition in domestic politics, it needs better strategies to deal with financial pressures, a neighbourhood in turmoil, cross-border jihadi threats, and ongoing tensions with France and Morocco. It should also resolve a presidential succession that is paralysing institutions.

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Executive Summary

Algeria is emerging as an indispensable broker of stability in North Africa and the Sahel. Where insecurity, foreign meddling and polarisation are on the rise across the region, it has at key moments promoted dialogue and state-building as the best means for lifting neighbours out of crisis, thus to safeguard its own long-term security. What some call Algeria’s “return” to regional politics after a long absence since its “black-­decade” civil war in the 1990s has been positive in many respects: its approach of promoting inclusion and compromise to stabilise its neighbours, driven by enlightened self-interest, presents an opportunity for an international system that has struggled to tackle the challenges engendered by the Arab uprisings. Yet, its ambitions have self-imposed limits. A moribund domestic political scene – a regime riven by factionalism and uncertainty over who might succeed an ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – cast a fog over the political horizon. Relations with other powers with clout in the region, notably Morocco and France, have room for improvement.

After more than a decade of prioritising relations with the U.S. and European Union (EU), Algeria is recalibrating its foreign policy. Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, a widely respected career diplomat and Africanist, has reinvigorated diplomacy toward the continent and its environs, demonstrating his country’s desire to be an anchor for a troubled neighbourhood, although without jettisoning close engagement with the U.S. and Europe. This has been in part a necessary response to unprecedented turmoil on its frontiers. Along much of the eastern and southern parts of its 6,500km land border, Algeria has to contend with greatly weakened states and jihadi threats. The Arab uprisings and Malian crisis and their aftermath have turned Libya, Tunisia and Mali, as well as the wider Sahel region, into cross-border security risks for the first time. The January 2013 jihadi attack on a natural gas complex in Ain Amenas was ample evidence of this.

Since the 2011 regional upheaval, Algeria has played important – at times crucial – roles in the political and security crises of three of its neighbours. In Libya, it has backed UN negotiations and conducted its own discreet diplomacy since mid-2014 to reconcile warring factions. In Mali, it has hosted and brokered talks between the government and northern rebel factions, both to stabilise the country and to prevent northern secessionism. In Tunisia, it has been a quiet but critical backer of the consensus between Islamists and secularists that has been the source of stability there since 2014. In these cases, Lamamra and other senior officials have championed political solutions to polarisation, social unrest and armed conflict. Given the scarcity of actors capable of and willing to play a constructive role in the region – especially in the Sahel, perhaps the world’s largest, at least partly, ungoverned space – this is very positive.

Nonetheless, there are constraints on the aspiration for a prominent regional role. These start with domestic politics, where the regime has shown less flexibility. Fears abound that Bouteflika’s eventual succession could usher in intra-elite competition and popular unrest. Calls to prepare a managed political opening have been rebuffed, prompting some in the opposition to accuse the president and his entourage of rigidity and stagnation. A constant backdrop to these concerns is that the regional context will make an already delicate transition riskier, as the attention of the military and intelligence institutions, which have an outsize role in domestic politics and governance, is directed beyond the borders. Deteriorating regional security also affects domestic politics, since it is one of several battlegrounds in the unprecedented public divisions between the presidency and a powerful “deep state” centred on the military intelligence services.

Inversely, domestic politics and its glacial pace of change impede any attempt to adapt foreign policy doctrine (and corresponding military doctrine) to changing times. Traditionally focused on state-to-state relations, Algeria has begun, and must continue, to buttress its traditional diplomatic relationships with ties to the region’s multiplying non-state actors. Long influential in African affairs but relatively marginal in the Arab world, it should engage Gulf states that are increasingly assertive in North Africa and make its case to them through persuasion and not just express pique. Relations with France, the former colonial power, and neighbour Morocco are riven with often unnecessary tensions and rivalries, hostage to a history of which most Algerians have no living memory.

The country would be well served by resolving or at least decreasing these tensions whenever possible. A generational leadership change underway in its politics as well as its institutions offers an opportunity to do so, provided there are understanding counterparts. Particularly at a time of heightened regional insecurity and ideological polarisation, greater Algerian engagement as a pragmatic broker of stability and political compromise in the Maghreb’s and Sahel’s conflicts should be welcomed.

Algiers/Brussels, 12 October 2015

Algeria: Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia

In late April 2001, lethal provocations by elements of Algeria’s National Gendarmerie triggered protracted and deadly rioting in Kabylia. That the unrest from Kabylia’s Black Spring continues to this day reflects the political system’s nation-wide failure to adopt reforms that address its deficit of democratic representation.

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Executive Summary

In late April 2001, lethal provocations by elements of Algeria’s National Gendarmerie triggered protracted and deadly rioting in Kabylia. That the unrest from Kabylia’s Black Spring continues to this day reflects the political system’s nation-wide failure to adopt reforms that address its deficit of democratic representation. Neither the regime, nor the Kabyle political parties nor the so-called “Coordinations” that lead the protest movement in the region has to date proposed a serious formula for ending the impasse. The recent invitation by the new head of the government, Ahmed Ouyahia, to the protest movement to engage in dialogue over its platform is a welcome, if belated, development. But more will be needed to enable the Algerian polity to resolve what is much more a national problem than the local or ethnic disturbance it is often mistakenly portrayed as.

The unrest has been significant in at least three respects: as a local conflict with considerable human and material cost; as both an issue in and an arena for manoeuvring by regime and opposition forces in anticipation of the presidential elections to be held by 15 April 2004; and especially as the reflection of broader national issues.

The conflict carries dangers for Algeria as a whole, aggravating instability within the regime and putting in question Kabylia’s relationship to the nation. More generally, it is a manifestation of the fundamental problem that has plagued Algeria since independence, the absence of adequate political institutions for the orderly representation of interests and expression of grievances.

Since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika took office in April 1999, the government has partially succeeded in reducing the Islamist rebellion and restoring Algeria’s international standing and state finances. However, other issues have come to the fore, the most important of which has been the syndrome Algerians refer to as la hogra (literally “contempt”), by which they mean the arbitrary nature of official decisions, the abuse of authority at every level, and the fact that state personnel are not accountable and can violate the law and the rights of citizens with impunity. Resentment over this issue has been articulated with unparalleled force in the Kabylia region.

In response to the rioting of late April 2001, a new movement arose, consisting of self-styled “Coordinations” in each of the six wilayât (governorates) of the Kabylia region. In seeking to channel the anger of Kabyle youth into non-violent political protest, it initially demonstrated a remarkable capacity for mobilisation and eclipsed the region’s political parties. It has since dominated political life in Kabylia and has been the object of intense controversy.

For some, the principal cause of the unrest is the conflict between Algerian Berberists and Algerian Arabists over the issue of Kabylia’s – and Algeria’s – cultural identity. Others argue that the movement is based on “tribal” structures (‘aarsh) and represents a regression to archaic sentiments and forms of political action. The reality is more complex. Identity has been only one of the issues addressed by the movement. Its other – essentially democratic – demands have been more important to it. At the same time, while the “tribalism” accusation is largely groundless, the movement has been based on Kabylia’s local traditions, and this has severely hampered its efforts to articulate the modernist aspirations of its population.

The movement’s own weaknesses are partly responsible for its failure to expand beyond Kabylia or to achieve its principal goals: the punishment of those responsible for the Gendarmerie’s excessive repression of protestors during the Black Spring, the withdrawal of the Gendarmerie from the region and the granting of official status to the Berber language, Thamazighth, not to mention more radical demands for Algeria’s rapid democratisation.

Outflanked by the Coordinations, Kabyle political parties reacted by projecting their own political rivalry onto the movement. The regime, crippled by internal divisions and resistance to change, failed to respond effectively to legitimate demands, thereby contributing to the movement’s degeneration into unrealistic, intolerant radicalism that alienated public support.

The result is that the unrest has produced no significant gains for democracy and rule of law while la hogra remains an unresolved problem rooted in the absence of effective political representation. Ordinary Algerians have scarcely any influence over or defence against the ruling coalition of military and technocratic elites and are citizens in little more than name. This is disadvantageous to the state itself because it both guarantees popular resentment and disaffection, expressed in propensity to riot, and precludes effective government. In the case of Kabylia, moreover, given the identity issue, it is has put great strain on national unity.

Cairo/Brussels, 10 June 2003