Accueil > English > North African Berbers and Kabylia’s Berber Citizens’ (...)
North African Berbers and Kabylia's Berber Citizens' Movement
by Mohand Salah TAHI
lundi 6 octobre 2003
par Masin
Up until the April 1980 Kabyle Spring, the issue of North African Berbers had remained the exclusive domain of experts and a burgeoning underground militant movement. The aim of this article is to highlight the significance of the Berber element both in number and in their struggle - within the context of human rights - for democratic, linguistic and cultural rights. The issue is linguistic rather than racial, as the overwhelming majority of North Africans are either Berber or Arabicized Berbers. Meanwhile, Berber speakers are not confined to North Africa. They are also present in Sub-Saharan countries such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

North African Berbers and Kabylia’s Berber Citizens’ Movement

North Africa was originally inhabited by Berbers until the Arabs conquered the region in the 7th century, after which it has also become known as the Maghreb, in contrast to the Mashriq or Arab orient. In his History of the Berbers book, the celebrated 14th century North African historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun (born in Tunis in 1332 and died in Cairo in 1406) wrote about the inhabitants of the Maghreb, which the Berbers call Tamazgha, or the land of Imazighen (free people) : "Since time immemorial, this human race - the Berbers - has populated the plains, the mountains, the plateaux, the countryside and the towns of the Maghreb." Regarding the Berber language, Tamazight, Ibn Khaldun wrote : "Their language is a foreign idiom which is different from all others. This is the very reason why they were called Berbers."

There is no consensus on the origin of the word Berber. One theory, however, suggests that it was first used by the Greeks. It is derived from the word Barbaros, a name given by the Greeks to all the people who did not participate to the polis, or city-state civilization and, consequently, couldn’t be entitled to the status of "citizen". It can also mean a person who murmurs unintelligible words.

In his book Among the Berbers of Algeria (London, T. Fisher Unwin 1900), British author Anthony Wilkin wrote : "Of the Berbers there is much good to be said. Whether in the olive-clad mountains of Kabylia or the terraced valleys of their Aurassian fastness, they are white men, and in general they act like white men. Among them the virtues of honesty, hospitality, and good nature are conspicuous.

It is not their misfortune alone that the lowlands know them no more ; not their misfortune only that Muhammadanism has debarred them from entering as they would otherwise have entered on the path of European progress and liberality : it is the misfortune of the whole civilized world.

Descendants of a mighty race whose culture once spread from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and the Hauran, from Crete to Timbuktu and the Sudan, there are still to be found among them the vestiges of the arts and sciences, of the capacity for self-government which, if developed, would make them again a great nation."

In Libya, Jabal Nefusa and Zwara in the south and Ghadamis in the northwest remain strongholds of Berber speakers. Tamazight is spoken by tens of thousands of Tunisians, particularly in Djerba and in the south of the country. It is also spoken in the southeast, for example in Tataouine, Metmata and east of Gafsa.

Meanwhile, the Tuareg Berbers, who live principally in Mali and Niger (600,000 and 400,000 respectively), but also in Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania, are estimated at between 1.5 and 2.5 million.

The indigenous people of the Canary Islands were Berber. The Berber language in these islands survived until the Spanish invasion in the 15th century. Recently (1992) a stone engraved with Berber characters was discovered in Tenerife. The island of Gran Canaria - known in Berber as Tafira - was the venue for the first World Amazigh Congress (CMA) meeting in August 1997.

In Egypt, the oasis of Siwa, southeast of Marsa al-Matruh, some 20 km from the Libyan border, is today still inhabited by Berbers.

Because of Algeria and Morocco’s geographical nature, Berber-speakers have resisted Arab influence and managed to preserve their language and culture by mainly retreating to the mountainous regions of the two countries. Such geographical features are absent in the cases of Tunisia and Libya. Therefore, the Arabicization of Berbers and their integration into Arabic culture was easier and quicker. Today, Berber speakers represent a mere 1 per cent of the Tunisian population, while in Algeria and Morocco they account for 30 and more than 50 per cent respectively.

The three major Berber groups in Morocco include : Shleuh (Ishalhiyan, dialect Tashalhit) in the High Atlas ; the Imazighen (dialect Tamazight) in the Middle Atlas and in the eastern part of the High Atlas and the Rifans (Irifiyan, dialect Tarifit) in the north. In Algeria, the main groups include : the Kabyles in the north to the east of Algiers ; the Chaouia [Ishawiyan] in the east ; and the Mozabites (Imzabiyan] on the northern edge of the Sahara desert. This is in addition to the Tuareg in the extreme south, who share the territory with their brethren of Mali, Niger, Libya, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.

However, it seems more appropriate to establish a linguistic rather than a racial distinction between Berber-speaking and Arabic-speaking groups, as the latter category is more or less constituted of Arabicized Berbers. The majority of Berbers have been Arabicized culturally and linguistically after more than 14 centuries of the presence of Islam.

Today, the Berber groups share the same language, but slightly different dialects because of their geographical dispersion and centuries-long lack of communications.


Geographically, Kabylia is situated immediately to the east of Algiers. Mostly mountainous, the region is the home to some 5m Kabyle Berbers. Most of them are concentrated in the three Berber provinces of Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira. Some 50 per cent of the populations of the provinces of Setif, Bordj Bou Arreridj and Boumerdes are also Kabyle speakers. Half of the 3m population of Algiers are Kabyles. Because of poverty and its population density, Kabylia has provided more than half of the Algerian immigrants in France.

In the 1950s, the region played a leading role in the war against French colonialism. Some 60 per cent of the rebels who took up arms against the French were Kabyles, and 10,000 of the 14,000 Algerian immigrants contributing to the financing of the National Liberation Front, FLN, were also Kabyles.

Being a secular society, the Kabyle Berbers present a threat to the regime which bases its legitimacy on pan-Arabist and Islamist ideology. The Algerian constitution stresses that Islam is the state religion and Arabic is the country’s national and official language. For their part, the Kabyle Berbers put emphasis on the pre-Islamic North Africa and on the African and Mediterranean dimensions. They maintain that the Judaized Berber heroine, Kahina, and the Christian Berber, Koceila, both fought the invading Arab armies in the 7th century. They recall that Roman emperors such as Lucius Septimus Severus (146-211) and his son Caracalla (188-217) were Berbers who made their mark on history in their own way and that archbishop Saint Augustine (354-430) was a Berber theologian whose philosophy is still central to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church .

Shortly after the country’s independence in 1962, the Kabyles came to confront the newly-established Algerian government in the way they confronted the French. Refusing the drive towards a one-party system and the prominent role of the army, one of the most celebrated heroes of the revolution, Hocine Ait Ahmed, attacked the authorities’ drive towards dictatorship, resigned from his parliamentary seat and founded the Socialist Forces Front, FFS, in September 1963. The rebellion lasted for two years, after which Hocine Ait Ahmed was captured and then sentenced to death. He, however, escaped from prison in May 1966 and fled to Switzerland.

The relations between Kabylia and the central authorities have often been characterized by tension. By the 1980 Berber Spring (see below), such tension had moved to an overt quasi-permanent confrontation. Demonstrations, strikes, school boycotts, riots and arrests punctuate in a cyclical manner the relations between the authorities and the region.

There was the huge demonstration organized by the Berber Cultural Movement, MCB, in 1990 in Algiers demanding the recognition of the Berber language, as well as a seven-month-long school boycott from September 1994 to April 1995, also demanding the teaching of Tamazight and its recognition as a national and official language. Violent confrontations took place in June-July 1998, following the killing, on 25 June, of celebrated Berber singer Matoub Lounes in murky circumstances. He was killed in an ambush while he was driving, with his wife and sister in-law, from Tizi Ouzou town to his village. It was at this time that in his last album Matoub used the tune of the national anthem and changed its words to attack the regime and its ideology.

Since the Black Spring(see below) which claimed 123 victims, a state of permanent and violent confrontations has become the norm. This mistrust between Kabylia and the central authorities is an indication of the unbridgeable schism separating them, even if some clans in the regime use such tension to further their political objectives.

There are two influential political parties in Kabylia and a number of other groups struggling for cultural and linguistic rights and for the promotion of human rights and democracy in the country :

- 1. The Socialist Forces Front, FFS, led by veteran revolutionary hero and human rights activist Hocine Ait Ahmed. Ait Ahmed has been dubbed the perpetual opponent of the Algerian regime. He founded his party on 29 September 1963.

- 2. The Rally for Culture and Democracy, RCD, formed in February 1989 and led by Said Sadi, formerly an FFS activist.

The Berber Cultural Movement, MCB’s members have been particularly active among Kabyle Berber intellectuals and university students. It started as an underground movement in the early 1970s and then came into the open following the April 1980 Berber Spring (see below). After the creation of the RCD, the party claimed to be the sole representative of Berber demands and announced the death of the MCB.

Immediately, the MCB disassociated itself from Sadi’s party and became known as the MCB-National Commissions. Having failed to muster support in the 1990 local elections, the RCD attempted to exercise its domination over the MCB. Finally, it convinced its sympathizers in the movement to split from the mainstream. It subsequently formed the MCB-National Coordination in 1992.

The splinter group was led by the party’s number two, Ferhat M’henni, until 1994 when - after disagreement with the RCD leader - he left the party and formed his own MCB faction known as the MCB-National Rally. Thus the MCB has split into three tendencies :

- A. MCB-National Commissions, close to the FFS.
- B. MCB-National Coordination, under the RCD’s control.
- C. MCB-National Rally, led by Ferhat M’henni.

There is also the Amazigh Cultural Movement, MCA, which is based in the eastern Berber region of the Aures.

In June 2001, Ferhat M’henni set up the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia, MAK.

The Berber Spring

On 10 March 1980, the celebrated Berber writer and novelist Mouloud Mammeri, accompanied by linguist Salem Chaker, was on his way from Algiers to Tizi Ouzou University, in Kabylia, to deliver a conference on "ancient Berber poetry". He was intercepted at a police roadblock at Draa Ben Khedda town, 10 km west of Tizi Ouzou. Taken to the province’s governor, Mammeri was told the conference would not take place because of the "risk of public unrest".

The following day, some 200 students staged a protest march in Tizi Ouzou against "repression", after which the students went on an indefinite strike. The protest spread to all regions of the province before reaching Algiers on 7 April. Thousands of students, with the support of the population, took to the streets to demand the state recognition of the Berber language, Tamazight, as a national and official language. Later on the protest widened, with similar demands being made for the status of Algerian Arabic and for freedom of expression more generally.

On 20 April, repression reached its peak when the security forces stormed the Tizi Ouzou University campus. Lecturers, especially those who had studied in France, were arrested, as were students seen as "ringleaders". Some 150 students were reported to have been wounded and a number of female students were raped that night.

The Berber Spring was crushed and the regime sought to isolate Kabylia and to portray the events as a foreign conspiracy targeting Algerian unity.

Nevertheless, these events seriously unsettled the regime, because they reminded Algerians that its ideology was imposed by force, as was the regime itself. The 1980 uprising brought about the first crack in the edifice of the regime. The crackdown on students is referred to as the Berber Spring and is commemorated every year.

The Black Spring and the emergence of the Citizens’ Movement

Since 1980, Algerian, and now Moroccan, Berbers celebrate the anniversary of the Berber Spring on 20 April every year. On 18 April 2001 - during preparations for the 21st anniversary - an 18-year old student was killed while in police custody in Tizi Ouzou. The incident sparked riots and confrontation between the population and the security forces.

Disturbances spread to other provinces such as Bejaia, Bouira, Setif and Boumerdes. The authorities’ response was all-out repression that led to the death of 123 demonstrators and one gendarme. Thus, the citizens’ movement sprang out of the bloody events of the Spring of 2001. It consists of self-styled "coordinations" in each of the six provinces of the Kabylia region : Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia, Bouira, Bordj Bou Arreridj, Setif and Boumerdes.

The Citizens’ Movement consists of self-styled coordinations representing various provinces in the Kabylia region. These include :

- CADC : Coordination des Arouch, Dairas et Communes : Coordination of Arouch, Administrative Districts and Municipalities. (Tizi Ouzou Province).

- CCIB : Coordination Intercommunal de Bejaia : Inter-Municipality Coordination of Bejaia. (Bejaia Province).

- CPWB : Comite Populaire de la Wilaya de Bejaia : Bejaia Province’s Popular Committee.

- CIQB : La Coordination Interquartiers de la ville de Bejaia : Bejaia City’s Inter-district Coordination Committee.

- CCCWB : La Coordination des Comites de Citoyens de la Wilaya de Bouira : Bouira Province Citizens’ Coordination Committees. (Bouira Province).

- CIW : Coordination Interwilayas : Inter-Provinces’ Coordination.

On 11 June 2001, the Citizens’ Movement met in El Kseur town, in Bejaia Province, and drafted the El Kseur Platform, which consists of a list of 15 demands, and urged the authorities to meet them.

El Kseur Platform (List of demands)

"We, representatives of the provinces of Tizi Ouzou, Bgayet (Bejaia), Bouira, Boumerdes, Setif, Bordj Bou Arreridj, Algiers, and the coordinating committee of Algiers universities, met today, 11 June 2001, at the Mouloud Feraoun Youth Hall in El Kseur (Bgayet Province), and adopted the following list of demands :

- 1. The state must urgently take care of the wounded victims and the families of the martyrs of repression during the incidents.

- 2. Trial by civilian courts of all the perpetrators and sponsors of these crimes and their removal from the security services and public office.

- 3. Martyr status for every victim of dignity during the incidents and protection of all witnesses of the tragedy.

- 4. Immediate departure of the gendarmerie brigades and the CNS (riot police) reinforcements.

- 5. Ending legal proceedings against all protesters as well as discharging those already tried during the incidents.

- 6. Immediate halt of repressive measures, intimidation and provocation against the population.

- 7. Dissolution of the inquiry committees set up by the authorities.

- 8. To meet the Amazigh [Berber] demand in all its (identity, civilization, linguistic and cultural) dimensions without a referendum or conditions ; and the recognition of Tamazight as a national and official language.

- 9. For a state which guarantees all social and economic rights and democratic freedoms.

- 10. Against the policies of underdevelopment and pauperization of the Algerian people.

- 11. To place all the state’s executive duties as well as the security bodies under the effective authority of democratically elected institutions.

- 12. An urgent social and economic programme for the entire Kabylia region.

- 13. Against Tamheqranit (literally contempt) and all forms of injustice and exclusion.

- 14. A case by case resitting of regional exams for the students who were unable to sit them.

- 15. Introducing unemployment benefit equivalent to 50 per cent of the minimum wage for job seekers.

We demand an official, urgent and public response to this list of demands.

El Kseur, 11 June 2001."

The continuing unrest in Kabylia reflects the authorities’ failure to adopt reforms that address their deficit of legitimacy. The El Kseur platform addresses a national problem, rather than regional demands, as the authorities want to portray them.

Mohand Salah TAHI

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