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Banning Berber flags will only reinforce Algerian solidarity Open in fullscreen

Malia Bouattia

Banning Berber flags will only reinforce Algerian solidarity

Algerian protesters wave the Amazigh and national flags at the weekly Friday demonstration [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 July, 2019

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Comment: The Algerian regime is resorting to divide and rule tactics to try and crack a strong, collective and visible show of opposition, writes Malia Bouattia.
In mid-June, Army Chief General Gaid Salah banned protestors from publicly waving the Berber flag in Algeria.

Since this decree, many Algerians have defied the rule by attending weekly Tuesday and Friday demonstrations with the Amazigh flag, some even in traditional Berber outfits.

The authorities responded in early July by arresting 41 people, 34 of whom are still in detention and face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, as well as hefty fines for supposedly "harming the integrity" of the country.

While Amazigh people and culture have been an undeniable part of Algeria's history and national identity, tensions between Berbers and Arabs were exploited by both French colonial forces and the Algerian state, following the country's independence in 1962.

It seems that "le pouvoir" ("the power" running the country) is resorting to old tactics in order to try to form cracks in what has been a strong, collective and visible show of opposition to the Algerian regime through mass protests which have been taking place since the end of February.
 

The Amazigh people are the indigenous population of North Africa, with an estimated 75 percent of people in Algeria being of Berber descent.

A recognition of Berber history has been a notable part of the demonstrations with the waving of Berber flags, placards referencing notable Berber figures and musicians and chants referencing the unity between the different ethnic groups.

Salah's ridiculous ban, and the arrests of those dissenting have further galvanised demonstrators

Perhaps those in power were not paying attention to the political messages coming out of the protests, and - as has been demonstrated through its shameless totalitarian rule in the last decades - they seriously underestimate the Algerian people.

Both Salah's ridiculous ban, and the arrests of those dissenting have further galvanised demonstrators and reinforced the unity of the movement.
 

Even during weekly protests organised by the Algerian diaspora in the UK, speeches have reinforced the unity of Berbers and Arabs, and that the struggle is for the liberation for all regardless of people's ethnicity, language, culture or identity.

Algerians have understood and have been all too aware of the divide and conquer habits of a state which has done a huge disservice to a rich history of the territory.

For months, young Algerians in Bejaia have demonstrated against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
- who stepped down in April - and his regime [Getty]

We grew up with the understanding that the fight for a liberated Algeria, one which took over 130 years to win, and cost us over a million and a half lives in a bloody 8-year long war, was supposed to secure the freedoms of all in the territory.

Yet, it took until 2002 for Berber languages to be officially recognised by the state, and a bloody clash between Berber demonstrators in 2001 and the authorities, for such a concession to be made.

The struggle is for the liberation for all regardless of people's ethnicity, language, culture or identity

The people's collective memory of this has not been erased, despite the state's best efforts.

The trauma of 126 people massacred by the regime's forces during what is now known as the Berber Spring demonstrations and strike movement, is now being commemorated in the most beautiful way.

Not only are Algerians refusing to be divided in this way, they are also set on rewriting the many wrongs that have surrounded the Berber question in Algeria for over six decades. 

Read more: Algeria's protest movement challenges the zombies of a colonial past

In some ways, the timing and target of Salah's ban was even more surprising because thousands upon thousands had taken to the streets to mark the 39th anniversary of the dark spring. 

Protests were held across different cities from Tizi Ouzou, to Bouira to Bejaia, with particular attention paid to ensuring that such massacres would never be repeated.

The actions were so vibrant and unapologetic, with banners in Kabyle (the most widely spoken of the Berber languages), and emotional homage paid to human rights activist and defender of the Mozabite people - another Berber population - Kamel Eddine Fekhar.

Berbers have been central to the resistance waged against the military in the last four decades

Berbers have been central to the resistance waged against the military in the last four decades. This is probably why, despite the political climate, Salah and his ilk decided to wage war on the population through its symbols.

Indeed, after the successful war of independence, the question of what kind of state the National Liberation Front (FLN) would build, became an issue of major concern. It became very quickly apparent that the army was aiming to centralise power and eliminate all opposing voices - leftists, trade unionists, women or student groups.

Central to this process was the intensification of a national narrative that identified Algerian history as Islamo-Arabic, and projected a vision of the state that would represent this unitary identity.

Non-Arab or pre-Islamic populations were written out of the new state's history despite the very large proportion of its population that hailed from such tribes and peoples.

It is then no surprise that throughout the 1980s, as the Algerian state's economic and political project ran into increasing difficulty, it was across the Berber populations that the first large scale rebellions against the state emerged.

Algerians are also set on rewriting the many wrongs that have surrounded the Berber question in Algeria for over six decades

Claiming the right to be recognised became much more than the defence of an ignored identity, it was the vehicle through which activists put forward an image of a different, freer, pluralistic, and democratic republic; decentralising the identitarian narrative in order to decentralise the power of the state.

The millions in the streets since February who are marching with both Amazigh and Algerian national symbols are therefore standing in a long tradition, as are the generals trying to suppress them.

The movement is bringing back all the voices and actors that the military has tried to silence since the early 1960s, reminding their oppressors that they kill revolutionaries but never the revolution.

The Amazigh flag is not - as the regime claims - a sign of separatism or division. It is a promise of a future built on a unity of all the peoples who make up the beauty, strength, and radical tradition of the Algerian people.


Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

 

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