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Algeria: Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia

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In late April 2001, lethal provocations by elements of Algeria’s National Gendarmerie triggered protracted and deadly rioting in Kabylia. That the unrest from Kabylia’s Black Spring continues to this day reflects the political system’s nation-wide failure to adopt reforms that address its deficit of democratic representation. Neither the regime, nor the Kabyle political parties nor the so-called “Coordinations” that lead the protest movement in the region has to date proposed a serious formula for ending the impasse. The recent invitation by the new head of the government, Ahmed Ouyahia, to the protest movement to engage in dialogue over its platform is a welcome, if belated, development. But more will be needed to enable the Algerian polity to resolve what is much more a national problem than the local or ethnic disturbance it is often mistakenly portrayed as.

The unrest has been significant in at least three respects: as a local conflict with considerable human and material cost; as both an issue in and an arena for manoeuvring by regime and opposition forces in anticipation of the presidential elections to be held by 15 April 2004; and especially as the reflection of broader national issues.

The conflict carries dangers for Algeria as a whole, aggravating instability within the regime and putting in question Kabylia's relationship to the nation. More generally, it is a manifestation of the fundamental problem that has plagued Algeria since independence, the absence of adequate political institutions for the orderly representation of interests and expression of grievances.

Since President Abdelaziz Bouteflika took office in April 1999, the government has partially succeeded in reducing the Islamist rebellion and restoring Algeria's international standing and state finances. However, other issues have come to the fore, the most important of which has been the syndrome Algerians refer to as la hogra (literally "contempt"), by which they mean the arbitrary nature of official decisions, the abuse of authority at every level, and the fact that state personnel are not accountable and can violate the law and the rights of citizens with impunity. Resentment over this issue has been articulated with unparalleled force in the Kabylia region.

In response to the rioting of late April 2001, a new movement arose, consisting of self-styled "Coordinations" in each of the six wilayât (governorates) of the Kabylia region. In seeking to channel the anger of Kabyle youth into non-violent political protest, it initially demonstrated a remarkable capacity for mobilisation and eclipsed the region's political parties. It has since dominated political life in Kabylia and has been the object of intense controversy.

For some, the principal cause of the unrest is the conflict between Algerian Berberists and Algerian Arabists over the issue of Kabylia's - and Algeria's - cultural identity. Others argue that the movement is based on "tribal" structures ('aarsh) and represents a regression to archaic sentiments and forms of political action. The reality is more complex. Identity has been only one of the issues addressed by the movement. Its other - essentially democratic - demands have been more important to it. At the same time, while the "tribalism" accusation is largely groundless, the movement has been based on Kabylia's local traditions, and this has severely hampered its efforts to articulate the modernist aspirations of its population.

The movement's own weaknesses are partly responsible for its failure to expand beyond Kabylia or to achieve its principal goals: the punishment of those responsible for the Gendarmerie's excessive repression of protestors during the Black Spring, the withdrawal of the Gendarmerie from the region and the granting of official status to the Berber language, Thamazighth, not to mention more radical demands for Algeria's rapid democratisation.

Outflanked by the Coordinations, Kabyle political parties reacted by projecting their own political rivalry onto the movement. The regime, crippled by internal divisions and resistance to change, failed to respond effectively to legitimate demands, thereby contributing to the movement's degeneration into unrealistic, intolerant radicalism that alienated public support.

The result is that the unrest has produced no significant gains for democracy and rule of law while la hogra remains an unresolved problem rooted in the absence of effective political representation. Ordinary Algerians have scarcely any influence over or defence against the ruling coalition of military and technocratic elites and are citizens in little more than name. This is disadvantageous to the state itself because it both guarantees popular resentment and disaffection, expressed in propensity to riot, and precludes effective government. In the case of Kabylia, moreover, given the identity issue, it is has put great strain on national unity.


To the movement of the Coordinations in Kabylia:

  1. Foreswear the use of violence in order to recover the moral high ground and public support and set an example by:
  1. conducting all campaigns peacefully and within the law; and
  2. abandoning the aim of preventing elections, seeking instead to influence voters' electors' choices peacefully by putting political parties under public pressure to support the movement's objectives.
  1. Focus on realistic, attainable goals by:
  1. concentrating on securing redress of legitimate grievances arising out of the events of the Black Spring and their aftermath;
  2. dropping the demand for withdrawal of the Gendarmerie as a whole from Kabylia;
  3. recognising that the aim of a democratic transformation of the state (El Kseur Platform articles 9 and 11) cannot be achieved quickly and requires a long-term campaign of peaceful political education across the country; and
  4. abandoning blanket insistence that all demands are non-negotiable.

  1. Reaffirm that the movement is independent of all political parties.
  2. Reach out to other associations and movements of civil society, especially women's groups, professional associations and trade unions.
  3. Establish rules guaranteeing debate within the movement, abandon practice of ostracism and vilification of dissidents, and invite dissidents to return to the movement.

To the government of Algeria:
  1. Acknowledge publicly that the movement of the Coordinations in Kabylia has raised valid concerns and undertake to ensure that the government and parliament consider these and respond appropriately.
  2. Confirm its recent invitation to the movement to enter into a dialogue by formally inviting the Inter-Wilaya Coordination (CIADC) to send a delegation to discuss the government's proposed response; should the CIADC reject this invitation, proceed independently to implement a series of measures, which should include:
  1. releasing all activists of the protest movement and dropping all judicial proceedings, except with respect to those charged with serious crimes against persons or property;
  2. providing without further delay proper compensation to victims of the Black Spring repression and their families and full coverage of medical costs;
  3. properly punishing gendarmes and other members of the security forces guilty of violating their rules of engagement or otherwise exceeding their authority in the course of the Black Spring and thereafter;
  4. reviewing the functions and rules of engagement of the Gendarmerie Nationale;
  5. providing full state funding for the core elements of the newly established Centre for the Linguistic Development of Thamazighth, and inviting the organisations of civil society and the Algerian community abroad to support it; and
  6. establishing a parliamentary commission of enquiry into the economic crisis of the Kabylia region, to consider evidence from the political parties (including those without current parliamentary representation, notably the FFS and the RCD), economic actors and voluntary associations present in the wilayât of Kabylia, as well as other independent experts, with a view to formulating recommendations for action to the government.
  1. Strengthen the various elected assemblies, notably by:
  1. increasing the power of the National Popular Assembly, including the oversight powers of its Commission on National Defence, if need be through a constitutional revision;
  2. introducing a new Communal Code, granting the elected executive of municipal councils (APCs) legal authority over the administrative services of the commune and abolishing the power of the wali (Prefect) to dismiss or suspend APC presidents or other elected members;
  3. introducing a new Wilaya Code reinforcing the authority of the elected Wilaya Popular Assembly (APW) in relation both to the wali and to the officers commanding the security services (Army, Gendarmerie Nationale, Sûreté Nationale) at wilaya level;
  4. reviewing the status of the daïra (district) as an intermediate level of administration at which there is no elective political representation and reinforcing the element of political accountability operative at this level.
To all political parties in Kabylia:
  1. Acknowledge that with the establishment of a properly funded, staffed and equipped Centre for the Linguistic Development of Thamazighth and constitutional recognition of Thamazighth's national status, the government will in principle have substantially discharged its present obligations on the language issue.
  2. Prepare, publish and canvass proposals for the enhancement of the powers of the elective assemblies at every level.
  3. Call for a parliamentary commission of enquiry on the economic crisis of the Kabylia region and prepare to make submissions. To the European Union:
  4. Support efforts to enhance the role and powers of Algeria's elective, legislative and representative institutions.
  5. In consultation with the Algerian authorities and in the framework of the Association Agreement, explore what further assistance can be provided, notably through the European Investment Bank, to the financing of infrastructural and other development projects which may help stimulate economic activity in Kabylia and promote its economic integration with the rest of the national economy.
Cairo/Brussels, 10 June 2003

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