The Magazine

Democracy in Algeria

Singer-activist Ferhat Mehenni's campaign for liberal self-government.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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ON THE MARGINS of the Arab world, the United States has some little noticed allies. These are ethnic or religious minorities who have never accepted the inevitability of strongman rule. Some of them have fallen on hard times--the Maronite Christians of Lebanon are scattered and defeated for now; the Copts, in Egypt, have been lying low for decades--but others see their fortunes rising. The Kurds of northern Iraq flourished under the protection of American jets in the last years of Saddam Hussein and are throwing themselves into the rebuilding of their country. Less familiar is the story of the Kabyles of Algeria and the bard-activist Ferhat Mehenni, who is one of their better-known leaders.

The Kabyles number about 10 million. They are Berbers descended from the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. Converted to Islam by the 9th century, the Berbers now make up about a third of Algeria's 30 million people. Some 5 million Kabyles are concentrated in a region called Kabylie, east of Algiers, itself a predominantly Kabyle city. Another 2 million Kabyles are scattered around the world, primarily in France. They have their own language, Tamazight, and a unique form of grass-roots democracy: a network of citizens' committees, called ârchs (from the word for traditional village councils) that has sprung up in the region in the last two years seeking political liberalization and regional autonomy. The Algerian government, which at first responded to the ârchs with repression, now says it will negotiate with them. After September 11, when most Arab governments were content to express formal condolences, the ârchs openly supported the United States. And this spring, they were the only organized political institutions in the Arab world to applaud the American intervention in Iraq.

Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is that the Kabyles have been battling Islamic terrorism for over 10 years. In this, of course, they are scarcely alone in Algeria. But at the same time, they've been engaged in a classic civil-rights struggle with the country's authoritarian leaders. They stress that the best way to oppose "totalitarian Islamism," as Kabyle activists have called it for years, is to create a free and democratic society. The movement in Kabylie has been mostly peaceful, but some demonstrations have gotten out of control, prompting police repression and over a hundred fatalities in the last two years, and the arrest and imprisonment of 57 ârch delegates.

Though the aarouche movement is young, the democratic aspirations of Kabylie have a long history. Singer-songwriter Ferhat, as he is popularly known, has been serving the cause for most of his 50 years, and he stands on the shoulders of earlier leaders whose fight against the French colonial regime and its authoritarian successors was rooted in aspirations for liberty. Active in the opposition since the 1970s, jailed in the 1980s, under threat of death from Islamic terrorists since the 1990s, Ferhat Mehenni was one of the founders in 2001 of the Movement for Kabyle Autonomy, which supported the formation of the ârchs and partakes of their work. His party calls for a federal democracy in Algeria, for which the United States provides a model. "We need to diffuse power throughout society," he says, "not to concentrate it at the top."

FORTY-ONE YEARS after Algeria won its independence from France, the country is still searching for a way to balance the powerful Algerian national sentiment--which many in Kabylie share and defend--with the regional diversity that remains inescapable. Part of the difficulty lies in North Africa's complicated cultural legacy of migrations, invasions, colonization, wars, civil wars, and the process we used to call the melting pot. Today, how much importance one attaches to the difference between "Arabs" and "Berbers" is a matter of perspective.

Various branches of Berbers are indigenous to the Maghreb, the region stretching from Morocco to Libya and Mali. Willingly or not, they played host to Romans, Vandals, Goths, Jews, and of course Arabs, who conquered the region in the 7th and 8th centuries. The hero of the Berber resistance to the Arabs, according to the great 14th-century African historian Ibn Khaldun, was a woman named Kahina, whom he identified as a Jew. Be that as it may, the Jewish contribution to Algeria is considerable. Jews got along well with their neighbors, and cities like Constantine, Fez, Annaba, Tunis, and Tlemcen became important centers of Jewish culture.