Twenty-two people died last week in the region of Ghardaia, 600 kilometers south of Algiers, during clashes between the Chaamba Arab and Mozabite Berber populations. While the region has witnessed regular clashes between the two communities, this was the deadliest incident since December 2013, when dozens of people lost their lives in a similar confrontation.
These recent waves of violence have often been depicted as an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Berbers, who make up roughly twenty-five percent – an estimated 9 million people – of the Algerian population. In fact, however, tensions between the two groups are grounded in a deep sense of cultural, social, and political marginalization among Berbers, which has been fueled by the Algerian regime, as well as disputes over land, jobs, and housing between the two communities.
They are also rooted in the early years of French colonialism. Driving a wedge between the two communities – the divide and rule approach – was a key strategy used by France to control the Algerian population. Cultivating a sense of ethnic division and difference was crucial to legitimizing French colonization and buttressing France’s insistence that there was no “Algerian nation.”
During the war of independence (1954-1962), Arabs and Berbers, notably from the Kabylie region, came together and joined the nationalist liberation movements that fought against French hegemony. Yet, in the aftermath of independence in 1962, the country embarked on an Arabization project that emphasized the need for strengthening the newly-formed nation and reversing over 132 years of colonization through a single, nationalist Arab-Islamic identity. In the process, Algeria’s linguistic, social, and cultural diversity, including its Berber heritage, was purged from the public sphere, and preferential treatment was given to the Arab population.
As a part of these policies, in the 1960s, the Algerian government promoted the settlement of Arab Bedouins in Berber-majority area,s such as Ghardaia. According to many Berbers, this led to decades of disputes over land.
The “Berber question” remained a taboo subject in Algeria until the “Berber Spring” of April 1980, the first popular movement against the regime demanding the recognition of the Tamazight language. The government response was brutal. The precedent had been set, however, and other Berber movements demanding recognition for the community’s social, cultural, and political rights followed.
In 2001, the Black Spring movement began with a series of demonstrations led by Kabylie Berber activists against the regime. Protesters denounced the Berber community’s social and cultural marginalization. Again, the state responded with violence, transforming the demonstrations from a Berber-focused mobilization to a denunciation of the regime’s brutality. Although the movement did not resonate at the national level, it reflected a substantial level of discontent with the regime.
Although the Algerian government has managed to control the situation so far, violent clashes between Arabs and Berbers, coupled with Berber demands for greater recognition of their rights, could potentially turn into more general resistance toward the regime’s repressive practices. It could even trigger broader calls for social, economic, and political change among a largely discontented Algerian population.