Violent sectarianism on the rise in Algeria

Violent sectarianism on the rise in Algeria

Recently, the southern Algerian province of Ghardaia was the scene of intense clashes between Arab and Berber communities. Many Algerians are now demanding that the government do more to address the underlying causes of intercommunal violence.

The Algerian province of Ghardaia, 600 km to the south of Algiers, is famous as the site of the M’zab Valley. Known for its 11th Century UNESCO World Heritage walled villages, this historic region has been left reeling following recent intercommunal skirmishes between Mozabites and Arabs that killed 23 people and left dozens injured. The Mozabites are ethnic Berbers who practice a form of Islam known as Ibadi, while the Chamba Arabs adhere to Sunni Islam.

While the two groups have generally enjoyed good relations, in 2013 they deteriorated after a Mozabite shrine was desecrated. Since then authorities have attempted to curb tensions by deploying more police. However, these latest clashes have been the most violent to date as shops, homes, and vehicles belonging to Mozabites were attacked and set alight.

In response, President Abelaziz Bouteflika called an emergency session with Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Chief of Staff Salah Ahmed Gaid who issued the order for the head of the 4th military region, Major-General Sherif Abderrazak, to oversee efforts by the security forces. Sellal noted that the state was determined to take “appropriate and firm measures to eradicate all forms of violence and restore peace in the region.”  Dozens have been arrested, with the authorities proposing to impose curfews and ban public demonstrations and gatherings.

Who’s to blame?

Why the violence erupted at this moment has been blamed on reasons ranging from economic grievances to Islamist radicals preaching on social and other forms of media about the threat posed by Ibadis. Others closer to the government claim that foreign agents, most notably Morocco, were involved in fomenting chaos. Relations between the two countries have been frosty for decades, and critics in the days following the incident remarked on the frequent tendency of the Algerian authorities to blame outsiders for internal matters.

The obvious security presence is having little effect on allaying the fears of local residents, who say feelings of mistrust are on the rise. A highway separates the two communities, with media reports claiming that Arabs and Mozabites are avoiding each other’s areas.

Mozabites want better protection, but they are skeptical of the way the government is handling the situation. For instance, the former head of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, Dr. Kamel Eddine Fekhar, blames the Algerian authorities for creating a “sense of insecurity among the Mozabite community.” He and twenty others were arrested in the days following the upheaval. As a Mozabite activist, he had called for the UN prevent a “genocide” against the Mozabites.

Historic relations

The status of the Berbers in Algeria has always been a complex issue. After independence, Algeria’s leaders believed it necessary to mould a national Pan-Arab identity as a means to remove the shackles of colonialism. Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, declared in 1962, “We are Arabs! We are Arabs!” Since then, few leaders have made serious attempts to address the issues at stake for Berbers, which include their language, cultural heritage, and religious rites.

According to Professor Martin Evans, approximately 20% of Algeria’s population speaks some version of the Berber language. They include the Kabyles in the north, the Shawiya in the eastern Aurès region, the Tuareg in the Saharan Hoggar region, and the Mozabites in Ghardaia.

In 1980, Algeria experienced a Berber Spring, after demonstrations broke out in the Kabylia after notable Berber scholar Mouloud Mammeri was banned from speaking at a university. Those who protested were upset at the government’s disregard for the Berber identity and language. Even today the Berber language Tamazight, while considered a “national” language, is not considered an official language like Arabic.

Looking forward

Algeria has managed to avoid much of the upheaval that afflicts neighbouring Libya and Egypt. However within its own borders it has allowed intercommunal problems to persist unchecked. The growth of ISIS, as well as offshoots linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, pose a troubling challenge, as religious minorities are most vulnerable to extremist attacks. Algeria is a country already familiar with the brutality of civil war, as the dark decade of the 1990s revealed. Thus, if the Bouteflika government intends to preserve cohesion, it will need to make more of a concerted effort in the coming months to address the serious economic and social deprivations that exist across Algeria.

About Author

Emily Boulter

Emily Boulter is a Rotterdam-based writer, who is also the creator of the current affairs blog "From Brussels to Beirut". Previously, she worked as an assistant for the vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament.