Algeria: Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia
Algeria: Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

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

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