Algeria is a North-African country belonging to the Maghreb region. Since 2011, it’s the biggest country in Africa. Algeria is also a member of the Africa Union and the Arab League since its independence in 1962. It joined the OPEC in 1969.
Algeria is constitutionally defined as an Islamic, Arab and Berber country (following this order).
The great majority of the Algerian population have Berber origins. The Berbers are the indigenous population of North Africa. They call themselves i-mazigh-en, “free-men” or “noble” in Tamazight . Throughout the centuries, in spite of the fact that the Berbers split into smaller communities in Morocco, Libya and Algeria, they kept a strong sense of unity. Their history of identity has been continuously reshaped and somehow threaten by internal and external dynamics. In fact, over the centuries, they got strong cultural and ethnical bonds with many other populations like the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Turks and in particular the Arabs.
With the beginning of the Arab Conquest and the spread of Islam in the 7th century, Algeria and, in general, all the Maghreb started their process of arabisation. However, the majority of the population remained Berber until the 19thand the 20th century. The territory which is now Algeria was ruled by both Arab and Berber dynasties from the 8th to the 16th century, until it became part of the Ottoman empire in 1553. As the Ottoman empire became weaker and fragile, it followed a brief period of independence, ended with the French invasion in 1830.
Unsurprisingly, the French, as the British and the other colonizers did in their colonies, used the typical “rule and divide” as key strategy to pursue their own interests, fostering hate and resentment among the various ethnic groups, in particular between the Berbers and the Arabs.
A crucial role was played by the French scholarship as well. All the French academic and intellectual endeavours at the time were aimed at sharpening the “undeniable” Berber-Arab dichotomy, behind which there was the idea that no such a thing as Algerian Nation had ever existed. This theory became then the bedrock of the “French-Algeria mythology” deployed to undermine the legitimacy of Algerians’ right to self-determination.
During the first decades of occupation, the French authorities decided to privilege the Berbers over the Arabs with the intention to eradicate Islam from Algeria. In fact, according to the occupiers, the Berbers looked more prone to give up their Muslim identity rather than embracing the Christian religion.
In order to further inflame this narrative, the French constructed the “Berber Myth”. They believed that the speakers of the various Berber dialects had a better potential to assimilate French culture and learn the French language compared to the Arabs. Some scholars and politicians, like Abbé Raynal, Tocqueville and Eugéne Daumas, even delivered the thesis that there was a special Berber ethnicity, the Kabyles, who had European descent.
This strategy resulted in a great success for the French. By 1847 they largely supressed the Algerian resistance and the following year, Algeria became a département of France.
However, the situation changed in 1871, when the Berber tribes decided to rebel against the colonial authorities. Consequently, the French decided to switch side and fight back the Berber Identity while privileging the Arabs. The Berber Myth collapsed and at this point it was irrelevant for the colonizers to consider the differences between Arabs and Berbers. The main goal was to consolidate the colonial control by fighting Islam.
A strong proof of the French disdain and indifference toward the cultural and ethnic richness of Algeria is the Senatus-Consulte of July 14th, 1865, which stated that only Algerians who had given up their Muslim identity could become French citizens, establishing a ventured and reductive connection between national identity and religion.
Throughout the years, the French dominance and exclusive politics led to a strong ethnic resentment, also fed by the many Algerian intellectuals living in France, which resulted in widespread nationalist movement.
When the fierce Independence War broke out in 1954, the Algerians decided to refuse the divisive categorization brought by the outsiders and they created a united front against the invaders, also rejecting numerous attempts made by the French to bring again the old disputes among the tribes. Algeria gained independence in 1962.
However, the new fragile Republic of Algeria inherited all the divisions and conflicts which were temporarily put aside during the war. The new regime took the French practise of discriminating regional identities through the establishment of a strong centralized state. The Berber minority was considered an obstacle to the affirmation of the Arab-Muslim identity which was supressed during the colonization period.
It’s in this frame that the process of arabization which had started in in the 8th century boosted, thanks to the promotion of the Arab language and culture, through education in schools and the creation of mass media, made by the government.
The Berber question, a fundamental historical and cultural presence in the country, was completely neglected and those who dared to address it were accused of being an enemy of the revolution and an agent of the external European powers, and so silenced.
Throughout the years this situation of injustice led to a series of tensions and protests. The Berber spring broke out in 1980. For the first time, the Berber people claimed the recognition of their neglected culture and language. It was also the first opposition movement who challenged the regime established after the independence.
Despite of the terrible repression exercised by the authorities, the uprising resulted in a lasting legacy during the following years. And after a series of events like the collapse of the regime in 1989, the process of democratization and the Civil War (1991-2002), some requests made during the period the Berber Spring were met and the Tamazight was finally recognised as a national language.
Although the Berber language obtained this recognition, for many years only the Arabic was recognised as an official and many further requests and promises of emancipation of the Berber minority made by the leadership of the day at every major historical turn were deceived. Every leader, once he gained the power, preferred to undertake the easy path of preserving the status quo.
In 2011 a massive Berber civil activism re-merged in North Africa. In Tunisia, Libya and Morocco the Berber rebels assumed a relevant and decisive role in the so called “Arab Spring” which sometimes they call the “Arab-Berber spring”. However, Algeria remained basically unshaken by these dynamics that involved its neighbours.
Only in 2016, with a new constitutional reform, the Tamazight obtained the status of official language besides the Arabic. Nevertheless, the Arab and the Berber identity have not completely reached a stage of equal recognition yet.
In conclusion, the Berber Question, which is still nowadays an open issue and a sort of taboo to be avoided in order to preserve an elusive idea of peace and national unity, will be the ultimate battleground on which the Algerian politics of tomorrow will need to show an higher level of courage and maturity. Even though, everyone should keep in mind how reductive, biased and unfair might be to address the whole responsibility of this situation to the relatively young Algerian state, which instead inherited a serious and inconvenient legacy from the colonization period.