Algerian forces clash with Amazigh activists in wake of elections

Activists accuse authorities of provoking violence to distract from concerns that kept Algerians away from the polls

Algerian security forces clashed with Amazigh rights activists in the northern city of Tizi Ouzou on Monday, days after an election marked by a historically low turnout garnered a fourth term for ailing 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Analysts and activists say that authorities provoked the violence toward Amazighs, often pejoratively referred to as Berbers, after years of relative calm to distract from concerns that kept Algerians — of all stripes — away from the polls.

The clashes started Sunday during a march to commemorate the April 20, 1980 launch of an Amazigh rights movement, dubbed retrospectively the Amazigh Spring. Activists who participated to push for political and socioeconomic parity with Arabs were met with a violent crackdown, demonstrators told Al Jazeera.

In Algeria, as in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, Amazighs are legally barred from starting their own political parties, even though many Amazighs say ruling administrations act exclusively on the behalf of Arabs. 

On Sunday “women and children were running for safety in every direction,” according to Amazigh rights activist Kamira Nait Sid who participated in the protest. Demonstrators said over 60 injured protesters were admitted to one local hospital, and another 50 were arrested.

Clashes between police and street protesters lasted until 1 a.m. Monday and then resumed Monday afternoon, local media El Watan reported.

Tizi Ouzou police declined to comment.

In recent years, authorities have allowed Amazigh rights activists to commemorate the Amazigh Spring, Nait Sid and other rights activists told Al Jazeera.

“The government is trying to create a polemic to distract from other issues,” Nait Sid said, “We peacefully protest — we did not provoke this.”

Just over half the eligible Algerian public voted in the presidential elections on Thursday. Only 25 percent of the predominantly Amazigh region of Kabylie participated — the lowest voter turnout in the nation, according to official statistics, which opponents of President Bouteflika says were inflated.

Immediately before the election, a viral parody of Pharrel Williams’ hit song "Happy" called on the nation’s youth to boycott the elections. Bouteflika often gets credit for restoring the Algerian economy after the turbulent years of the 1990s, when government forces battled armed groups associated with an Islamist party. But the "Happy" parody and its makers charge that the economic growth has done little to create opportunities for Algeria’s unemployed young people.

The spokesman of the opposition party Jil Jadid told Al Jazeera a Bouteflika win would indicate the elections were fixed. A half-century after Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) released Algeria from French colonial rule, the Jil Jadid spokesman said, Algerians are still not free to choose their leaders.

Boston-based North Africa analyst Arezki Daoud agreed that the government is likely trying to distract from widespread discontent over a lack of opportunities, but added that maintaining a monolithic Arab-Islamic state is an objective as old as Bouteflika and the FLN.

The people ruling now are those “who were close to the policies of the '70s that shaped the Arab-Islamic agenda of Algeria,” Daoud said. Many in the current administration have their roots in the FLN of 1970s that collaborated with Arab nationalist counterparts in Egypt and Syria. 

Former president of the Paris-based World Amazigh Congress, Belkacem Lounes, told Al Jazeera that as post-Arab Spring nations struggle to establish democracy, fighting to maintain a single dominating identity will stunt efforts.

“You find few people in North Africa who are pro-democracy who defend the right of existence of the Amazigh people. That’s a major question: How can we call ourselves the defenders of a democratic nation when you can’t accept pluralism?” 

The fight for pluralism in Algeria, Nait Sid believes, is one for democracy for all Algerians. 

"When we are fighting for democracy, it's not just for Amazighs, but all humanity," she said.

More violence to come?

Although the Bouteflika administration may, as Nait Sid charges, want to distract from the public’s discontent by stoking tensions in Amazigh country and playing on Arab nationalist sentiments elsewhere, violent crackdowns will only provoke more clashes.

“What the Algerian powers don’t understand is that these provocations and violence that are arbitrary against the Amazighs and their existence are reinforcing the intent of the Amazighs to liberate themselves,” Lounes said.

Daoud said there’s little hope for help with Bouteflika and a party struggling to maintain relevance running the country.

“I think there’s going to be more violence. There has to be a solution that comes from the government. I have very little confidence in a crippled president to make it happen.”

The president's office did not immediately return calls for comment.

Algeria's Amazigh community is also unlikely find help from the West. Lounes and Nait Sid said international human rights observers from the United Nations and European Union have failed to effectively pressure the North African Arab-led administration to respect Amazigh rights.

The U.S. is among Algeria’s chief oil importers, and Washington and Algiers have a long history of collaborating on what both have called a “war on terror.”

Amazighs are believed to have inhabited North Africa prior to the Arab-Islamic conquest of the region in A.D. 647.

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 region, autonomy.

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