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For a fair deal

The Berbers of Algeria have risen in protest since the beginning of this summer. KESAVA MENON details the issues involved.

IN A match at the last soccer World Cup, France's striker and hero, Zinedine Zidane, stamped on an Arab, if one remembers correctly a Saudi Arabian, player. France went on to win that match and the World Cup of course. But for a Berber woman living in a Marseilles tenement the defining moment of that match, and perhaps of the Cup, was the one in which Zinedine's studded boot smashed down on to an Arab leg. ``That was Zinedine's revenge against the Arabs,'' she was to tell a reporter.

The Berbers of Algeria have risen in protest since the beginning of this summer. They do not appear to have made any declaration that they are fighting ``Arab oppression''. Neither does it appear that Berbers have necessarily suffered on an individual basis merely because of their belonging to a linguistic minority since they have reached high office in their country. However, the Berbers have a very deep if quiet pride in their separate identity. In any casual conversation with an Algerian Berber, it does not take too long before the talk veers to the topic of how able their people are and to an accounting of the Berbers who have made a name for themselves. As a collective it is a different matter.

Berbers have for long demanded that their language should be given a status equal to Arabic. Successive Governments have resisted the demand fearing that the grant of such recognition would disrupt Algeria's unity and undermine its independence. At the height of the Islamic militancy in the 1990s, the Algerian authorities took another measure that the Berbers could have considered as inimical to their interests. In an effort to outflank the fundamentalists, the Algerian Government gave pre- eminence in the constitution to the Holy Koran in the Arabic language. At the time the Berbers, who largely kept out of the fundamentalist movement, did not appear to have made much of an issue of it.

Now that the fundamentalist wave has subsided considerably in Algeria, other more enduring tensions appear to have re-surfaced. When the French ruled Algeria, they gave special treatment to the Kabyle region where the Berbers predominate. It was perhaps on account of the Mediterranean origin of the Berbers, as against the `eastern' origins of the Arabs, that they were given the privileges under France's divide and rule policy. Being the better educated, the Berbers were also well accommodated in the administrative hierarchy. Such special treatment did not, however, stop the Berbers from joining the fight for independence and the strongest Beber party of today, the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), was set up by Hocine Ait Ahmed a hero of the revolutionary war.

The FFS claims that the current confrontation with the Government is not directly the result of pent-up Berber frustration at the authorities failure to concede their long-standing demands. In fact, the Berbers say the Government is trying to mislead the rest of Algeria by saying that the people of Kabilye are only agitating for the fulfilment of these demands. The FFS says that it trying to give raise issues that are common to all Algerians such as employment, housing, more demo cratic rights and an end to corruption. From the fact that the protests were to spread to non-Berber regions, the FFS appears to be right to the extent that a great many people in the country are agitated by these issues.

It was the death of a youth in custody on April 18 that sparked off weeks of anti-Government protests in the Kabilye region. By mid-June, it was estimated that about 80 people had been killed by security forces in this region. When they launched their protests, the Berbers' main demand was for the withdrawal of the gendarmerie, a branch of the security forces that is regarded as brutal and corrupt. As protests spread to other parts of the country, the issues raised more often were those of unemployment and corruption. The official rate of unemployment is 20 per cent but it is believed to be as high as 80 per cent among people under 25 years of age.

Half a million Bebers are estimated to have taken part in the march to Algiers on June 14. The marchers, called out by the FFS, tried to submit a list of demands to the President, Mr. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but were stopped by the police who unleashed batons and water cannons. To the FFS' later regret, the marchers turned violent and much property was damaged in the capital. This development, of course, played right into the Government's hands. They could portray the protests as being Berber-centric and fuelled solely by Berber demands. Whether this new application of the divide and rule policy will do any good for an Algeria that has barely recovered from the decade of Islamic militancy is not something that the hidden coterie of generals, who are believed to be the real power in the country, appears to have considered carefully.

Algeria's Islamic movement has failed as the outlet for peoples grievances. But those grievances, all ultimately traceable to Algeria's failure to develop a healthy and viable democratic system, have not disappeared. The Algerian establishment might be in a self-congratulatory mood after surmounting the dire situation that Islamic militancy had created. But it needs to realise that the people of Algeria are tired of the studded boots that pin them down.

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