Update 2011 - Algeria
The Amazigh are the indigenous people of Algeria. They have been present in these territories since ancient times, but the government, does not recognise their indigenous status.
There are no official statistics concerning their number, but based on demographic data relating to the territories in which Tamazight-speaking people live, associations defending and promoting the Amazigh culture estimate the Tamazight-speaking population at around 11 million people, or 1/3 of Algeria’s total population.
The Amazigh live Kabylia in the north-east, Aurès in the east, Chenoua, a mountainous region on the Mediterranean coast, M’zab in the south, and Tuareg territory in the Sahara. A large number of Amazigh populations also exist in the south (Touggourt, Adrar, Timimoun) and south-west of the country (Tlemcen and Béchar). Large cities such as Algiers, Blida, Oran, and Constantine are home to several hundred thousand people who are historically and culturally Amazigh but who have been partly Arabised over the course of the years, succumbing to a gradual process of acculturation. The indigenous population can primarily be distinguished by their language (Tamazight), but also by their way of life and culture (clothes, food, beliefs..).
Tamazight was finally recognised as a “national language” in the Constitution in 2002. Amazigh identity, however, continues to be marginalised and folklorised by state institutions. Officially, Algeria is presented as an “Arab country” and anti-Amazigh laws are still in force (such as the 1992 Law of Arabisation).
Algeria has ratified the main international human rights standards, and it voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. However, these texts remain unknown to the vast majority of citizens and are not applied, which has led to the UN treaty monitoring bodies making numerous observations and recommendations to Algeria in this regard.
Marginalised by legislation
The Amazigh enjoy no legal recognition as an indigenous people. Decades of peaceful struggle have, however, led to the Amazigh obtaining two constitutional reforms: the first in 1996 such that the constitution now states that the Algerian identity comprises “an Islamic identity, an Arab identity and an Amazigh identity”, and the second in 2002 to include an Article 3a which stipulates that, “Tamazight is also a national language. The state shall work for its promotion and its development in all its linguistic variations in use within the national territory”. Despite this, no regulatory or legislative text has since been adopted to implement these reforms in practice. Arabic, nonetheless, remains the country’s only official language. The state’s resources remain entirely focused on promoting the Arabo-Islamic identity of Algeria while the Amazigh aspect is covered up and relegated to second place. The few initiatives taken in the area of communications and teaching have had their implementation hindered by numerous obstacles.
The rights of Amazigh women are governed by the “Family Code”, which relegates them to a position of inferiority and submission to men. Based on Sharia law, this legislation and the resulting practices are in violation of Amazigh conscience and civilisation. Consequently, the Amazigh reject this legal text, which authorises polygamy, makes women minors for life and bans them from marrying non-Muslims. The rights of Amazigh women are thus trampled on because Algerian law ignores Amazigh traditions and customary law, known as Azref.
Deteriorating living conditions
The Amazigh in Algeria receive no benefits from the natural resources found on their territories (water, forests, oil, gas, etc.). In the Sahara, the Mozabite and Tuareg enjoy none of the benefits of the energy resources located in their subsoil, and the water from the mountains in Kabylia and Chemoua benefits large cities such as Algiers first and foremost, the local populations gaining nothing in return. Because of this, the Amazigh suffer above average levels of poverty unless they receive remittances from abroad. In any case, the unemployment rate is well above the national average (20% national average, 30% to 50% in Kabylia and Aurès). The young people, in particular, seek an escape in alcohol, drugs, exile or suicide. According to official statistics, there were 47 suicides (39 men and 8 women) in 2011 in Kabylia alone.1
On the pretext of the war on Islamic terror, the Algerian government has sent significant military reinforcements to Kabylia, in particular. This region is experiencing the heaviest concentration of military forces in Algeria but also the greatest insecurity (murders, armed robberies, kidnappings for ransoms, etc.) and this is seriously disrupting the people’s social, economic and cultural life. More than 60 kidnappings were recorded2 over the course of 2011, and yet not one of the perpetrators was arrested. On 15 April 2011, civilians were caught in the crossfire between soldiers from the Algerian army and an armed Islamist group in the town of Azazga, killing two people and injuring several more. On 11 September 2011, at Freha (30 km to the east of Tizi-Wezzu), a soldier shot dead a 55-year-old woman during a military operation. Weary of the Algerian army’s “blunders”, the local people have now called for the army to leave Kabylia.
Violations of fundamental freedoms
Freedom of movement is restricted both inside and outside the country. The land border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since 1994, preventing Amazigh on both sides of the border from being in contact.
As in 2009, the region of M’zab was once again the scene of violence between the indigenous Mozabite population and the Chaamba Arabs in December 2011. According to civil society organisations, the authorities are responsible for this conflict by openly discriminating against the Mozabites, particularly with regard to access to social housing and jobs. Moreover, there are continuous acts of police and judicial intimidation and harassment of human rights activists and members of independent associations in the country. Members of the Amazigh World Congress (CMA) and the Movement for Kabyl Autonomy (MAK) have been particularly targeted:
- Members of the CMA who travel abroad are systematically and meticulously searched at the airport on departure and return. In 2011, for example, such was the case of Kamira Nait Sid, Vice-President of the CMA-Algeria;
- Members of MAK have been arrested and questioned on a number of occasions with regard to the alleged “separatist” plots of this movement although this organisation has publicly stated that its objective is not Kabyl independence but rather autonomy, within the context of the Algerian state. For example, on 5 September 2011, five activists were arrested in Darguina, Wilaya (Province) of Vgayet. They were: Bouhala Hocine, Bourouchou Samir, Chabane Mourad, Lachouri Hicham and Zerguini Hachmi. On 17 September 2011, nine activists were arrested by the police in Ath Yenni, including the national secretary, Bouaziz Ait Chebib. On 11 October 2011, Arezqi Mohamed, head teacher and MAK member, was arrested by the Algerian security service in Adekkar. On 23 October 2011, Samir Bourouchou, a member of MAK’s national council, was arrested by the Algerian police in Tichy, Wilaya of Vgayet. On 15 November 2011, Salah Chemlal, general secretary of MAK was arrested by the Chorfa police. He was released after three hours of questioning.
- In October 2011, Mr Said Zamouche, President the Numidya association (Oran) was again summoned before the courts, for having invited Belgian members of parliament to visit Algeria;
- On 21 October 2011, acts of racial aggression were committed against Amazigh students at Sétif University (east of Algeria). No action was taken against the aggressors and perpetrators of these racist acts, although they were known to the administration.
After 19 years, a state of emergency that gave full powers to the administration, the police and the army was lifted in February 2011. Nonetheless, to this day, the same restrictions on freedoms remain in place. All organisational activity is subject to an administrative authorisation. Over the course of 2011, numerous cultural and scientific activities were thus banned because they were organised by associations that are outside of Algeria’s circles of power.
In December 2011, the Algerian parliament adopted a new law on associations3 that drastically restricts their freedom. Article 2 of the new law stipulates that the aim of an association “must not run counter to constants and national values”, without specifying the nature of these “constants” or “national values”. However, it is clear that these include Sharia law and the country’s policy of Arabisation. Article 23 of the new law also stipulates that associations can cooperate with foreign associations and NGOs within a partnership framework but that this “cooperation is subject to the prior agreement of the relevant authority”, that is, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior. Article 30 also states that it is “forbidden for any association to receive funds from foreign embassies or NGOs”. These provisions seriously restrict indigenous organisations’ freedom of action and deprive them of sources of funding that are vital for their survival.
Notes and references
1 Algérie plus, www.algerie-plus.com 2 Dernières Nouvelles d’Algérie, www.dna-algerie.com 3 Law No.12-06 of 12 January 2012 on associations, Official Journal of 15/01/2012.
Belkacem Lounes is a Doctor of Economics, university lecturer (Grenoble University), President of the Amazigh World Congress (NGO defending Amazigh rights) and the author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh rights