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April 2, 2010

Algiers joins Berbers in protest

Since he became president in 1999, it seems that Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria has regarded the unrest among the Berber minority as nothing more than smoke; vapor; inconsequential stirrings.

But in the last three months, the heat of discontent, smoldering for over a decade under the coals of corrupt governance, unemployment, housing shortages, and general unrest, has grown too dangerous to be ignored. It has flared up at times, into massive protests like one on June 14 that brought nearly one million discontented into the capital city of Algiers.

Chanting "You can't kill us, we are already dead,""Stop the repression," and "Oulach smah" (no forgiveness), the people of Algeria showed that anti-government sentiments are not confined to the Berber-dominated region of Kabylia. There, three months of clashes between residents and the paramilitary gendarmerie, sparked by the death of 18-year-old Guermah Massinissa while in police custody, have left up to 80 dead. In Algiers, journalists, women, lawyers, and youth of all ethnicities have taken to the streets, revealing that many of the Berbers' demands -- for better housing, an end to corruption, a guarantee of basic civil liberties -- are echoed by most Algerians. Algiers police met them with tear gas, water cannons, and, according to some hospitals, live ammunition.

The Berbers, considered the original inhabitants of northern Africa, have clashed with Algeria's central government since the country won its independence from France in 1962. A clique of generals and power brokers, called "Le Pouvoir" (The Power), has ruled the country since then, behind a civilian facade. For decades the Berbers have demanded official recognition of their language, Tamazight, and fought against state-sponsored cultural discrimination.

The Berber people have inhabited present-day Algeria since the fifth century. In the seventh century, and more significantly in the 11th, Arab invasions pushed the Berbers out of the countryside and into the mountainous regions they still inhabit -- Kabylia; the Aures Mountains southeast of Constantine; and Ouarseni Massiv, southwest of Algiers.

The Berbers were converted to Islam in the first of these invasions, but they have always resisted Arab rule. In creating the new Algerian state after independence in 1962, the Arab ruling party -- the National Liberation Front (FLN) -- declared Arabic the only official language, and has permitted only Arabs to hold high-level government positions. These policies compelled the Berbers, who had been allies of the FLN in the fight for independence, to split from the ruling party and create the Socialist Forces Front (FFS).

The other opposition party, the hard-line Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), has been officially banned. The Salvation Front and Islamic rebels have been fighting a civil war against the government since 1992, when the regime annulled the national elections after it became clear that the FIS would win them.

Caught in the middle of a civil war responsible for more than 100,000 deaths, the FFS finds itself in a difficult spot. While it resents the Arab-dominated military, it also opposes the FIS and the Islamic rebels, who call for an "Islamization" of Algeria. Islamization would, among other changes, make it mandatory to speak Arabic in schools and government. Both the Berbers and the Muslims vie for the attention of Le Pouvoir, straining already tense relations between the two groups, and presenting a major challenge to the ruling regime.

In the past, many of Algeria's Arabs have been unsympathetic to Berber demands for linguistic and cultural recognition. Faced with a stagnant economy, high unemployment, and housing shortages, Arabs have not prioritized Berber concerns over their own.

Although the rift remains between the two groups, the recent protests have found them marching side by side. It seems that in the Berbers' call for economic and social reform, the whole of Algeria has joined them.

During his short visit in June to the United States -- the first from an Algerian president in 16 years -- journalists questioned Bouteflika about the unrest at home. "The initiatives, which can be perverse from time to time, cannot dissuade me or dissuade the Algerian people who want to live in peace in their country, which guarantees the freedom of everyone in accordance with the constitution," Bouteflika said at a press conference. "The constitution guarantees individual and public freedoms, freedom of speech, and human rights in general."

The president has been evasive in his response to Berber demands for official recognition of Tamazight; journalists' demands for more press freedom; women's demands for an end to repression; and the demands of Algeria's youth for jobs, housing, and democratic reform. He dismissed the protests in Kabylia and surrounding provinces as a "foreign plot" to bring "chaos and anarchy" to Algeria. When the revolt hit Algiers, he banned all protests in the capital city. He conceded, however, that the protests were in response to economic and social struggles, and replaced his housing and finance ministers.

President Bouteflika was placed in power by the military regime in 1999, promising to root out government corruption and end the civil war. But mismanagement of funds and continued corruption have characterized Bouteflika's presidency. Algeria is rich in natural gas and oil -- the country provides 40 percent of Europe's natural gas needs -- yet many Algerians say the profits from these resources have done more to bolster the power of the military than to alleviate the suffering of the people. World Bank-driven privatization and structural adjustment programs have left more than 400,000 civil servants without jobs, while the resulting budget surplus has not yet found its way to the unspecified capital projects Bouteflika promised earlier this year.

The president has made efforts to wrest more control from the military, but he has had limited success. In the process, he has created a power struggle with the military regime, severely curbing his ability to enact reforms. The violence of the civil war has subsided during his term, and the fighting has been pushed into the mountainous regions surrounding Algiers. But many Algerian newspapers claim that the violence was already waning before Bouteflika's arrival.

The current protests, many of them organized by the FFS, may be an ultimatum of sorts for Bouteflika. Discontentment with the regime is clearly widespread, and Algerians are no longer disposed to stay quiet. The agitation has attracted international media attention, and it appears that significant action is required from the government if the people's demands are to be met and peace is to be brought to these fiery streets.

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