Algeria's presidential election took place on Thursday, but large numbers stayed away from the polls — not least many ethnic Amazighs, who joined the country's youth and opposition parties in boycotting a ballot that analysts say will likely result in another victory for three-term President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Amazighs — commonly referred to by the pejorative term "Berber" — were urged to boycott the election in protest of political and economic marginalization, Ferhat Mhenni, president of the provisional government of the predominantly Amazigh region of Kabylie, told Al Jazeera.
Some Amazighs responded to the call by setting fire and blocking entry to polling stations in largely Amazigh areas, including Kabylie, local media reported. Algerian police declined to confirm the reports.
Mhenni called the acts of violence a departure from his people’s traditionally “peaceful” protest for what he called “Amazigh self-determination.”
“People have been pushed to the edge,” Mhenni said, affirming that his provisional government had no part in the attacks.
Amazighs are believed to have inhabited North Africa prior to the Arabo-Islamic conquest of the region in 647 C.E.
After the independence of North Africa from colonial rule in the 1950s and ’60s, Amazighs mounted struggles for political representation; the codification of Amazigh as a national language alongside Arabic; and, in the case of Kabylie, autonomy.
While Bouteflika, the 15-year incumbent standing in Thursday’s election, is credited with restoring Algeria’s economy after the crippling violence of its so-called black decade, Mhenni accuses the administration of doing the opposite in Kabylie.
“Bouteflika has essentially pushed Kabyle industry and money to France” by intimidating Amazigh entrepreneurs and failing to provide economic opportunities for the youth, Mhenni said.
Referring to Lounes Matoub, a musician and Amazigh rights activist killed by an armed group for advocating against political Islam, Mhenni said: “I think if Matoub were alive, he would have burned polling stations and blocked stations, if only to say Kabylie is for Kabyles.”
In Algeria, as in Morocco and other North African nations, political parties based on race, religion, language or regional affiliations were made illegal in the late 20th century. According to Mhenni, the measure was passed as a means of blocking Amazighs from achieving political representation.
Mhenni calls the law an act of hypocrisy.
“The administration that exists promotes an Arabist agenda,” he said. “It’s racial discrimination … It’s a screaming injustice.”