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The Berber Tamazight Movement in Morocco and Algeria
by Amin Kazak, Ph.D.

The Berber Role in the Liberation Struggle
The Berber Question in Morocco
The Berber Question in Algeria
The Berber Question in the Maghreb

In July 1994, a delegation of Berbers from Morocco presented testimony on their own behalf at the annual meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, in Geneva. The presentation indicates that Berbers have identified themselves as "indigenous," fulfilling a major criterion for their identification as such by others. Indigenous peoples are recognized operationally through self-definition (as one of several criteria) by both the International Labor Organization and the World Bank. This article seeks to expand the broader consciousness of the global indigenous movement by supporting the recognition of Berbers and elaborating upon the testimony they provided at the Working Group meeting.1

The Berbers have inhabited North Africa for thousands of years and today live in a vast area extending through the several countries that constitute the "Maghreb" region (the western Mediterranean coast of North Africa): Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.2 Although the details of their origins are uncertain,3 it can be asserted that the Berber people inhabited North Africa thousands of years ago; they were situated where they exist today (through the expanse of the Atlas Mountains) at the time when the first invaders of the region who recorded history came upon them. It is further safe to say, then, that the Berber case corresponds to that of any indigenous nation of the Americas.4

A long history of intermixing among different peoples has extended over centuries, however, and the processes of intermarriage, acculturation, cultural diffusion, and ethnocide have made it problematic to find pure strains of race and culture. Therefore, it is appropriate to apply the enlarged working definition employed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to establish Berber identity as indigenous. These criteria, besides self-definition, include isolation, discrimination, marginalization, and most importantly, the occupation of particular territories at the time of the establishment of present state boundaries. The harshness of the discriminatory treatment historically given to the Berbers in North Africa clearly fits them within the expectations of the ILO definition. That treatment has propelled the question of self-definition among Berbers by generating a resistance rooted in their awareness of cultural and national identity.

Today, the Berbers are concentrated in six main groups: the Rif, Braber, Shluh, and Soussi, in Morocco, and the Kabyles and Shawiya, in Algeria.5 These main groups are subdivided into numerous tribes that live in the Atlas highlands and along the Mediterranean coast. Cultural relatives of the Berbers include the inhabitants of the Saharan oasis towns of Touggourt, Ouargla, Ghardaia and Figuig, and the regions of M'zab, Gourara, and Touat (see map on page 11), and the Tuaregs of the central and southern Sahara (see the companion article on Tuaregs in this issue of the FWB). Collectively, the Berbers refer to themselves simply as "Imazighen," which translates as "free and noble men," and has become a major indicator of Berber self-awareness and nationalism.

During the third millenium, B.C., the Berbers formed a loosely confederated network of kingdoms behind the coastal areas that fell under the control, first, of Carthage, and later, Rome. The Berber kings had treaties of friendship with both Carthage and Rome.6 In the late seventh century A.D., Muslim Arabs invaded North Africa, and by the end of the ninth century, they had completely subdued the Berber countryside and Islamized most of the Berbers. The arrival of the Arabs prevented the Berber language from developing a written form. Writing was reserved for Arabic, which became the vehicle of propaganda as the new conquerors spread the Holy Word through the Koran.

Arabization transformed the Berbers in three distinct stages. The first stage was the initial contact between the Arab invaders. The second began with the arrival of more Arab families from the Mashreg (the east) in the eleventh century. During the third stage, from the 15th to the 17th centuries, Arabization was accelerated by the arrival of Andalusian refugees who had been expelled by Christians from the last lands occupied by Arabs in Spain.7

Although they accepted Islam as a new religion, Berbers also maintained their pre-Islamic cultural and ritual traditions. Islamization and Arabization were never capable of completely erasing Berber culture. Indigenous inhabitants of the lowlands of the Sahara were more directly subjected to the dominance of Arabic influence, but the Berbers who took sanctuary in the highlands of the Atlas Mountains were able to sustain and preserve their own language, culture, distinctive customs and forms of social organization.

Among the strongest of these highland peoples, the Kabyles (the largest of the Berber nations) inhabited the mountains east of Algiers. There, on the crests of hills, they built villages in which close-knit, independent, social and political units were composed of extended patrilineal kin groups. Traditionally, Berber local government consisted of a jamaa (village council), which included all adult males and legislated according to local custom and law. Arab efforts to modify that traditional system were not very successful, and it has since then continued to function alongside the civil administrations imposed by a succession of state regimes.

Set apart by their territory, language, and well organized village and social life, the Berbers acquired a highly developed sense of independence and group solidarity. Having this unity, they were able to prevent and resist the encroachment of Europeans and Arabs into their territory. They continued to follow the path taken by their ancestors and to believe in the traditional ideals of a society they wanted to preserve.

The Berber Role in the Liberation Struggle

At the beginning of the 19th century, political anarchy and economic dependency in the Maghreb made the region vulnerable to the imperial intentions of Europeans, especially the French. The region was under the control of the Ottoman Turks, in 1830, when the French took control of Algiers and then gradually extended military control over the coastal region.8 From the beginning, French imperial policy in North Africa proved to be destructive and violent.9 Militarily, the French controlled the whole region, with the exception of wide pockets in the Atlas Mountain highlands (that were inhabited primarily by Berbers).

The colonial French deliberately destroyed the local Maghreb economy while opening the gates to settlement by French civilians. The colonial administration used modern capitalistic interpretations of Roman Law as a means to dispossess the population (including the Berbers) of its territorial domain. By confounding pasture land with uncultivated land, and jointly owned property with collective property, and by extending the limits of forest lands, the French confined their colonized subjects to progressively diminished space and resources.10

The colonial policy was intended to divide and rule. Juridically, the French applied their own laws, while breaking down the Islamic legal structure. The policy of containment of Berbers (confining their territorial space), while suppressing the Islamic judicial system, drove a wedge between the traditional Arab elites and the Berber peasants. In Morocco (where the same French colonial policy as that conducted in Algeria led indirectly to the current national crisis between Arabs and Berbers), the French provided segregated schools for the Berbers, while they tried to rally Berber tribes to the tricolor behind Al-Glawi, a powerful caid (tribal leader) whose base was Marrakech.11

The most effective of the divide-and-rule policies was the infamous Berber dahir (decree) of 16 May 1930. The dahir was issued in Rabat ostensibly to set up tribunals to deal with civil cases in Berber-populated parts of the country. The decree established complete systems of penal and criminal justice, based on French law, which deliberately removed both systems from the jurisdiction of the makzen (traditional authorities). The French justified this "reform" on the need to provide formal recognition to Berber customary law, which was a loose body of tribal rules conforming to and supplementary to Koranic law. This was a transparent pretext for expediting French control of the country by creating division between Arabs and Berbers, through exaggerating their differences and antagonisms.12

The French were blind to the effects they created; they were assuming that "uncivilized" indigenous peoples were awaiting the arrival of the "civilization" they themselves possessed. As a result of the destructive consequences of colonial policy, a series of revolts against the French ensued. The Berbers were always in the forefront against the French, and organized their first revolt in eastern Kabylia, from 1859 to 1871.13 By the time of the Algerian revolution to gain independence from the French, after World War II, the Berbers were still leading the attack. The fact that the Berber areas of Kabylia and Aures provided the strategic bases for the revolution leaders indicates Berber involvement from the outset of the struggle.14

Despite the Berber commitment to the cause of national unity and liberation in North Africa, however, the legacy of colonial policy continued into the post-independence era in the form of intensifying antagonism between the Arabs and the Berbers, particularly in Algeria. Both the Algerian and the Moroccan regimes have systematically pursued de-Berberization and Arabization policies as well as discriminatory exclusion of Berbers from equal access to government services and political power, and the enjoyment of economic and cultural rights.

The neglect of and deliberate assaults against the Berbers' Tamazight language15 and culture are reflected in the economic policies governing the peripheral rural communities. In the past, these indigenous communities were based on the principle of collective ownership of the means of production and collective methods of dispute resolution. Now, traditional structures have been seriously eroded under the strong and sustained pressure of the monetary economic system which is founded on concentrated capital, individual ownership of property, and the proletarianization of the poor peasantry now transformed into wage earners who possess neither capital nor the means of production.

Berber cultural survival necessitates the comprehension of the multidimensional character of North Africa. To reduce North Africa to one cultural model would be neither possible nor acceptable. Berbers view cultural domination by the Arab-speaking majority and the attempt to capture and convert non-Arabs as simply one more out of many experiences of cultural imperialism to which they have been subjected. Today, Berbers vigorously oppose Arabization and demand recognition of Tamazight as their national language, which they have spoken for 5000 years and which has become the foundation of their collective identity. They also demand respect for the Berber culture and economic development of the Berber homelands. Their demands correspond closely to those enumerated in the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Berber Question in Morocco

In Morocco, Berber nationalist feelings were embodied in 1984 by a large populist party, the Movement Populaire (Popular Movement) and its charismatic leader, Mahjoubi Aherdane.16 The Popular Movement did not identify itself strictly as representative of the Berbers but rather of "Moroccan rural people." Since the overwhelming majority of the Moroccan rural population is in fact Berber, the Popular Movement became understood as a Berber nationalist party. In 1993, Aherdane's party was reformulated as the National Popular Movement.17

Berbers in Morocco perceive their identity to be threatened primarily by marginalization and exclusion from access to education and media exposure in the country. On 5 August 1991, in an attempt to reinforce the significance of their ethnic identity, a group of Berber cultural associations, including the Moroccan Research and Cultural Exchange Association (in Rabat), the Agadir Summer University Association (in Agadir), the Aghris Cultural Association (in Goulmina), the New Association for Cultural and Popular Arts (in Rabat), the Ilmas Cultural Association (in Nador), and the Soussi Cultural Association (in Casablanca), met in Agadir, Morocco, where they signed the "Agadir Charter" which outlined Berbers demands for the resurrection of the Institute of Tamazight Studies and Research.18

The Institute they proposed would provide the impetus and the framework necessary for any project aiming to promote the Tamazight language and to perform the preliminary tasks of: 1) elaborating a unified alphabetical system to make possible the accurate transcription of the Tamazight language; 2) standardization of the Tamazight grammar; and 3) development of appropriate pedagogical tools for teaching the Tamazight language. The Institute would serve to assist integrating the Tamazight language and culture into various cultural and educational activities, through the insertion of Tamazight language programs at an early stage in the public educational system, and at a later stage, the creation of a department of Tamazight language and culture in every Moroccan university.19

At the time of the Agadir Conference, 1991, a spate of social turmoil was unfolding throughout Morocco. The issues at stake, besides the Berber question, included the violent invasion and annexation of the Western Sahara,20 the corruption of the monarchic dictatorship of King Hassan, and the dubious possibility that Morocco might ever become any kind of democracy. After a series of revolts against the regime and several attempts on King Hassan's life, the Moroccan government promised to promulgate a new constitution that would permit a more liberal political process, allow opposition political parties to organize, and remove obstacles to the exercise of fundamental civil and political rights of individuals.21 The Moroccan regime managed to placate most of the pressure groups confronting it, including Berber nationalists, through these promises.

Despite these changes in the Moroccan constitution that were in fact institutionalized, the government continues to suppress the Tamazight language as a symbol of Berber identity and cultural rights. Although the publication of some newspapers in the Berber language is allowed, editors are often subjected to interrogation by state officials. In March 1994, the Ilmas Cultural Association was prevented from holding a conference on Berber language and writing.22 Similarly, in April 1994, the Moroccan Association for Research and Cultural Exchange was refused permission to organize a special day for Berber theater in the city of Rabat.23

Some Berber activists have been arrested, as well, in a policy that is blatantly discriminatory. Four members from the New Association for Culture and Popular Arts, in Agadir, were put in prison because they published a calendar in the Berber language. On 1 May 1994, Mohamed Hrach Erass, Mbarek Tausse, Ahmed kikche, Ali Aken, Said Jaafer, Omar Darouiche and Omar Ochna were arrested in Er Rachidia after participating in peaceful Labor Day demonstrations. Even though the demonstrations had been authorized by the appropriate officials, and the slogans were familiar to the government, the Berbers were charged with inciting actions threatening law and order and internal state security, chanting slogans attacking the principles of the constitution, and calling for the recognition of the Berber language as an official language.24 Amnesty International (AI) urged the Moroccan authorities to ensure that the activists' trial would be carried out in full accordance with international standards for fairness.25 Due in part to AI's involvement, the Berber issue has acquired recognition as a topic of discussion within the international human rights community.

On 3 May 1994, seven secondary school teachers were arrested because they participated in a Mayday demonstration organized by the Democratic Confederation of Workers. They were accused of holding banners in the Berber language and shouting slogans for the recognition of Tamazight in the constitution.26 Such repression demonstrates the vulnerability of the Berber culture and its advocates. It should be no surprise that the campaign to revitalize Berber language and culture has begun to assume stronger forms of resistance.

The Berber Question in Algeria

The Berbers of Algeria have a tradition of political resistance and struggle to regain control of their cultural identity that goes back to the days of the French colony, as outlined above. The context in which they operate is also largely a product of French policy, and within that context, the Berbers tend to be constantly at odds with state authorities.

Continuing a policy that originated in Morocco with the dahir of 1930 (explained above), in 1949, the French administration attempted to pass a law in Algeria that would have given an important role to Berber customary principles alongside Islamic law.27 The French policy generated suspicion among the Arabs that there was an active plan for evangelizing the Berbers and Berberizing North Africa.28 The policy's legacy, in the post-independence era, is a lingering atmosphere of mistrust and animosity between Arabs and Berbers. In response, successive Algerian regimes have pursued policy that has had only one objective: the de-Berberization of the country.

Antagonistic sentiments between Berbers and the Algerian government became explosive in the "Tamazight Spring" of 1980. Riots were set off when a renowned Berber writer, Mouloud Mammeri, was barred by local Algerian authorities from giving a lecture on ancient Kabyle poetry at the University of Tizi Ouzou. The censoring of Mammeri provoked a strong reaction by the Berbers of the Kabyles, who accused the government of repressing Berber culture. Following the cancellation of Mammeri's lecture, Berber students demonstrated in Algiers and throughout Kabylia, calling for freedom of expression and for recognition of the Berber language and culture. The protesters were violently dispersed by the police and a number of students were arrested. In Tizi Ouzou, students voted in favor of a strike and occupied the University.29

On 20 April 1980, at one o'clock in the morning, the government launched a military operation to retake all the occupied institutions of Tizi Ouzou. Berber students and workers became the victims of widespread repression. Amid rumors that 32 people had been killed during the government onslaught, the Berbers called a general strike first in Tizi Ouzou and then in the entire region of Greater Kabylia. The government reacted by blocking roads and isolating the region from the rest of the country.30

Between 21 and 24 April, the populations of surrounding Berber villages joined the protests in Tizi Ouzou, building barricades to confront the police and government troops. Violent clashes took place between the Berber demonstrators and the police. After government troops subdued the demonstrators, many students, workers and activists were arrested. Under sustained pressure from a highly mobilized Berber community, all those arrested during the four days of rioting were released from custody. In hopes of putting an end to the uprising, the Algerian regime took a number of measures to alleviate certain hardships, making promises to support Berber culture, including the creation of university chairs of Berber Studies. However, these promises largely were deceitful and went unrealized.

Following the bloody clashes in Tizi Ouzou (the capital of Great Kabylie), the Mouvement Cultural Berbère (MCB--the Berber Cultural Movement) gained considerable momentum, not only against the state, led by the Front de Liberation National (FLN--the Algerian ruling party), but also against the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalists. The MCB, founded in the late 1960s, has remained the primary ideological counterweight to Islamism.31

In August 1980, the government organized a one month seminar to take stock of the Berber situation. An elaborate project was designed for the advancement of all aspects of Berber culture, the first such democratic experience to have taken place in Algeria since independence. The plan was sent for review to the FLN Central Committee, whose annual meeting was scheduled for September. Once official contacts took place between the FLN and the MCB, however, the government progressively reasserted its authority to uncontested rule. None of the numerous promises made in 1980 were kept, and by 1981 the status quo ante was virtually reestablished.32

While demonstrating its potential as the most significant opposition force in Algeria, the MCB successfully gained considerable popular support throughout Kabylia and the area surrounding Algiers, the capital. During the 1980s, the movement succeeded in inspiring resistance to the regime and even rebellion in other parts of the country. The MCB demanded that Berber identity and culture be respected and officially promoted. They also specifically demanded, among other things: the official recognition of the Berber component of Algerian identity; the promotion of the Algerian popular culture, be it Arabic or Berber; and the official recognition of Berber language (Tamazight) and colloquial Arabic as national languages and their teaching at all levels of education.33

The Berber demands laid out in 1980 had actually originated in 1967, the year in which the Berber Academy was established in Paris to alphabetize the Berber language. The demands of 1980 thus represented deep-seated and profound grievances associated with political disillusionment with the Algerian state and ideological disaffection with Algerian society. The Algerian state was buttressed by its tripartite bases of power located in the FLN, the army, and government bureau
cracy, which had effectively destroyed autonomous political life in the country's post-independence history. Centralized authority had led to a generalized sense of political alienation among many segments of the Algerian population, including the Berbers. The ambiguous mixture of Arab and Berber cultures had created a confusing national identity which was confounded further by government policies regarding language use.

Resentment and distrust of the government continued to simmer after the Tamazight Spring, which became understood as perhaps the most momentous political event to take place in Algeria after independence. It had opened the way to an international awareness of the Berber question throughout North Africa, and it led directly to further shocks against the state.

By the late 1970s, post-independence Algeria had apparently demonstrated how autonomous economic development could take place free from the hegemonic control of the global capitalist system. There was still, at that time, an economically viable socialist bloc with which to trade. By the mid-1980s, however, the global market was thrown into upheaval by collapse in the prices of oil and natural gas, Algeria's main exports. The debacle led to the breakdown of the Algerian model of development and the failure of state socialism, which had been the operant ideology to that point. Economic deterioration led quickly to social unrest, and Algeria witnessed continuous rioting throughout the late '80s.34

Unlike earlier events, such as the Tamazight Spring of 1980, or the Algiers Casbah riots of 1985, the "Black October" riots of 1988 proved very difficult to control. By the time order was restored, hundreds had been killed and thousands injured in six days (6-11 October). The scope, destructiveness and loss of life rocked the Algerian state to its foundations.35 The riots highlighted several issues. First, the bloody event featured the wide rift between a predominantly youthful population and the old FLN establishment. Second, it revealed an unexpected vulnerability in the economic and political structure of the regime.36 Third, it showed that "autonomous social forces, long regarded as either impotent or subservient to state control, emerged with incredible vigor, if not vengeance, to challenge the hegemony of state power. Workers, farmers, students, Islamists, and Berberists all rose in violent protest of their continued condition of marginality and subordination."37 Finally, it suggested that after three decades of authoritarianism, a radical change in the political structure was needed urgently.

After the rioting was suppressed, the Algerian regime once again initiated reform measures to rebuild the confidence of the population. On 3 November 1988, a national referendum was passed to amend fourteen of the constitution's 199 articles.38 In another plebiscite, on 7 February 1989, further constitutional amendments were mandated. One important amendment was to institutionalize political pluralism to permit representation by all ideological tendencies. "Although there were significant constraints--for example, the associations may not have overtly religious or regionalist platforms--the new frameworks opened the way for a controlled multiparty system to develop."39

Most important of all was an amendment to allow two significant political and social forces, the Islamists and the Berberists, to challenge the FLN regime. In national elections held on 12 June 1990, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a majority of the votes, demonstrating a major bipolarity in Algerian politics--Islam versus secular society and government.40 The FLN refused to permit the FIS to take power, and Algeria has been in turmoil ever since. The Berbers have been caught in the middle. Some 11,000 people have died in the violence of the past three years.

All that has transpired since the 1988 riots, especially the government's efforts to cope with the revolutionary FIS, contributes toward developing the present context in which the Berbers are subjected to hostility and physical attacks by both the government and militant Muslim fundamentalists. The Islamists are strongly opposed to secular Berbers whom they accuse of being atheist-materialists. In the early 1980s (when the revolution in Iran was still a very recent event), the Islamists did not have a sufficiently strong organization to threaten the Berbers, except in Algiers. By the end of the 80s, however, the Islamists' popularity had begun to soar throughout Algeria, especially after the 1988 riots. The rise of Islamism as a popular movement was a threat to the Berber cultural movement for two reasons.

First, the FIS called unequivocally for combatting and destroying the Berbers. For example, in 1990 a leader of the FIS called for a jihad against the Kabyles and declared that the only means to get rid of the Berbers was to Islamize and totally Arabize the country.41 Another leader complained that whenever he wanted to go from one side of Algeria to the other he had to cross "Europe" (meaning the Kabyles), which irked his Islamic feelings. He called overtly for eliminating the Berber culture.42

The second reason for the Islamists' attack against the Berbers reflected the policy and attitude of the Algerian regime towards the Islamists themselves. After supporting Islamists in the 1970s, the Algerian government found itself threatened by them later, and in attempting to play one enemy off the other, allowed the Islamists to acquire considerable strength against the Berbers. The Berbers therefore face two threats simultaneously--the Algerian government and the Islamist revolutionaries.

Due in great part to its myopic policies, the Algerian government has brought the state into conflict with disaffected democratic opposition groups. These include the two main Berber opposition parties, the Front of Socialist Forces (FSF), led by Ait Ahmed, and the Assembly for Culture and Democracy (RCD), led by Said Saadi. Both parties have a strong Berber constituency.

Saadi, who represents the smaller but more strident of the two groups, addresses his followers in the Berber heartland of the Kabyles in their own language. In recent interviews given to the foreign press, Saadi has issued warnings that amount to thinly-veiled threats. He says that, given the government's abdication of its duty to protect its citizens, Algerian Berbers have no choice but to take control of their own lives. He warns of the futility of dialogue with Islamists and claims that opponents of fundamentalism have already formed "armed groups" and "self-defence vigilante cells."43 In late 1993, after armed Islamists attacked several Berber villages (the Berbers resisted fiercely), Saadi admitted that the "resistance movement" brings with it the danger of civil war. But he said: "we can no longer spend our time burying our dead."44 Berber nationalists say that they have suffered repression for many years and that the government refuses to recognize Berber identity, leading some to expect a full scale Berber uprising against the government in the near future. Meanwhile, the assault by Islamists against the Berbers has reached the proportion of full-scale war. As this article goes to press, there has recently been a series of armed attacks unfolding in the Berber regions of the Kabyles and Shawiya (the town of Batna, in particular).

The Berber Question in the Maghreb

The generalized Berber crisis across North Africa raises the question of whether there is communication among all Berbers. Because they are scattered over a large area separated by mountains and deserts, the potential of communication and unity is generally low. However, the Berber crisis in Morocco and Algeria clearly affects the stability of the region, in which the hegemony of states is challenged by several important questions, including the rights of indigenous peoples. Even though the Maghreb states are parties to the international conventions ensuring the linguistic and cultural rights of all people without discrimination, there are still no official documents or institutions that recognize or confirm the Tamazight dimension of the Maghreb culture. Despite their massive participation in the liberation struggle against the French, Berbers have been forced to fight for their survival.

The governments of Morocco and Algeria have vowed through their particular constitutional revisions to respect human rights and work positively to ensure the linguistic and cultural rights of all peoples without discrimination. What happened in 1994 demonstrates serious contradiction with those ideals. No matter what the governments' intentions may be, however, Berbers have succeeded in resisting and slowing down the process of de-Berberisation by making the international community aware of their crisis. Perhaps this political activity will succeed over the long term in preserving the Berber cultural and national identity.

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Amin Kazak, Ph.D. teaches Middle East and Comparative Politics at the University of Colorado at Denver.

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Fourth World Bulletin • Fall 1994/Winter 1995, Copyright © 1996 by the Fourth World Center.
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