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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Although today's Islamist fanatics are obsessed with cleansing Islamic lands of infidels, most Muslims throughout history have been hospitable. This is not a stereotype. In the Maghreb, in particular, customs, laws, habitat, and economics conspired to make hospitality a virtue highly prized. Closely related is the virtue of neighborliness, which explains why traditionally Arabs, Jews, Kabyles, and other Berbers never thought of denying one another the right to exist and, perchance, to thrive side by side. Transcending tribal wars, clannish suspicions, and the rest of the usual run of human folly, there was and still is the assumption that if you have no quarrel with a man, you might as well be nice to him.

The French colonial system (imposed after a dreadful war of conquest in the 1830s and '40s) introduced European-style racism into Algerian politics. Some of France's leading anti-Semitic politicians represented Algerian districts in the French parliament under the Third Republic (1871-1940). And it wasn't only Jews who were despised: Their French overlords treated nine-tenths of the population as an inferior species. Not surprisingly, during World War II the overwhelming sentiment among the French in Algeria was Vichyite (at least until the arrival of a huge American army caused them to rethink their interests). Albert Camus, who grew up in Algiers, observed that the French system was bound to fail in Algeria so long as it was based on one group's denial of others' rights, and of course it did.

The Algerian war for independence, which raged with escalating cruelty from 1954 to 1962, left nearly a million dead out of a population of 12 million. The government that emerged from the struggle adopted French-style centralism--or "Jacobinism," as Ferhat Mehenni and his fellow Kabyle activists term it--perpetuating some of the worst aspects of French colonial policy. The first government of independent Algeria copied the bureaucratic and arrogant French administrative system. President Ahmed Ben Bella and his defense minister, Houari Boumédiene (who would overthrow Ben Bella), insisted on a monolithic state to galvanize Algerian nationalism. Ferhat asks why, rather than draw on the cultural resources of Algeria itself, Boumédiene and the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) chose to appeal to a distant concept with little tangible value, the "Arab Nation."

Actually, Arab nationalism had its uses. Boumédiene decided that Arabic should be the only language in Algeria. It became a crime even to keep a Tamazight dictionary--at precisely the moment when the Berber languages, traditionally oral, were beginning to be given written expression by the generation of intellectuals, writers, and activists who influenced Ferhat in his youth. Since there were few teachers of Arabic in Algeria, Boumédiene turned the job over to narrow-minded bigots from Egypt and Syria, many of whom were influenced by or were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Islamic organization started in the 1920s that is widely viewed as one source of today's Islamist extremism. This was not an arbitrary move. The anti-French revolution had brought together a coalition of ideologies and interests, including pan-Arabists and pan-Islamists. Thus, the National Liberation Front's slogan was "Algeria is my country, Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language." While the generally secular Kabyle leaders may not have entirely shared this sentiment, they went along with it until they realized it could be turned against them.

President Boumédiene died in 1979 and was followed by a weak successor, also a military man. It was at this time that the Berber cultural movement came to the fore. The "Berber spring" of 1980 is generally credited with being the first grass-roots, pro-democracy movement in the Maghreb since the fight for independence. It was based in the principal Kabyle city, Tizi-Ouzou, and brought together young activists from a variety of backgrounds. When the Boumédiene system cracked up in the late 1980s, the Kabyles pressed for both a democratic opening and greater cultural freedom. "We felt like strangers in our own land," Ferhat notes. "We were defined by [in effect] racist criteria, that denied our language and identity."

This seems overdrawn to many Algerians. As a group, Kabyles have done no worse than others in Algerian society. They have achieved distinction in the professions, the army, the high civil service, and politics. The current prime minister is a Kabyle, Ahmed Ouyahia, who is serving for the second time in this capacity. "Whenever the Kabyles get into trouble," a Moroccan once told me, "they wave the Berber flag, and expect us to rally around and bail them out." Yet the Berbers' frustration with the glacial pace of change is understandable. The signature demand of their movement for two decades--linguistic pluralism--was granted only last year.