Berber identity politics assailed by Algeria’s military chief

“Algeria has only one flag for which millions of Algerians have fallen as martyrs,” said Gaid Salah.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Flag politics. Algerian protesters wave the Amazigh (C) and national flags during demonstrations in Algiers, June 21, 2019.  (AFP)
Flag politics. Algerian protesters wave the Amazigh (C) and national flags during demonstrations in Algiers, June 21, 2019. (AFP)

TUNIS - For the first time since the start of demonstrations calling for regime change, Algeria’s army chief issued a strong warning to Berber-speaking protesters for raising their own standards in a challenge to the primacy of Algerian nationalism as embodied by the country’s flag.

“There is only one flag that is the unique symbol of Algeria’s independence, territorial integrity and popular unity,” said General Ahmed Gaid Salah, speaking from army barracks in the south-western region of Bechar before hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets on June 21. The protesters, demonstrating for the 18th Friday, called again for a “democratic transition” that would overhaul the political regime, including the fundamental role of the military, which has ruled Algeria for 57 years.

Gaid Salah, Algeria’s strongman since the ouster of long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika April 2 under the pressure of the demonstrators, pulled the card of Algerian nationalist allegiance, challenging, for the first time, the advocates of Berber identity politics.

His previous speeches had emphasised respect for the constitutional order and the electoral process to bring about broad reforms.

The general took issue with protests’ leading figures, many of them known Berber-speakers and advocates of “Algerian identity and culture diversity.”

“It is unacceptable to manipulate the feelings and emotions of the Algerian people,” Gaid Salah said, adding that “orders and firm instructions have been given to the security forces to strictly enforce the law and crack down on individuals assailing the feelings of Algerians in relation to the sensitive and delicate matter of the flag.”

Gaid Salah described flying “other standards” as “an attempt to infiltrate the protests by a minority.”

“Algeria has only one flag for which millions of Algerians have fallen as martyrs,” added Gaid Salah.

Protest leaders surprised observers by blending Algeria’s symbols of nationalism and identity politics with demands for a democratic transition and deep overhaul of the system.

Algerians, who marched in main cities, including Algiers, have tolerated the presence of protesters holding up Amazigh flags as a symbol of the struggle of Berber-speakers for the respect and recognition of their culture, home tongue and identity.

No political leader or leading activist had previously expressed reservations about flying the Tamazigh symbol since protests began February 22.

Protesters also raised Palestinian flags to display their support for the Palestinian cause, although in fewer numbers.

Protesters, fearing the flag could be a bone of contention, chanted in reaction to Gaid Salah’s warning “Djazareen khawa khawa” (Algerians are brothers, brothers).

“No to regionalism,” repeated others while protesters in the Berber-speaking regions of Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira singled out the military by chanting “Algeria, democratic and free nation,” “no to the military rule” and “Algeria, civilian not military state.”

Protesters in central Algiers brandished the Algerian flag that has been a mainstay of the demonstrations, but some also carried the Berber colours as they had in previous weeks despite the new ban on the Berber Amazigh flag imposed June 21 by Gaid Salah.

Police detained dozens of demonstrators carrying the Berber colours from around the capital’s main post office, a landmark of demonstrations since they first erupted last February.

On previous Fridays since the fall of Bouteflika, those detained have been released at the end of the day. It is not clear whether this would change after Gaid Salah’s warning.

Despite his anti-corruption campaign and the continuing trials to “cleanse Algeria of graft and dirty money,” demonstrators have kept up calls for Gaid Salah’s own departure along with the entire ruling regime, including the personnel that used to surround Bouteflika.

Two former prime ministers joined a long list of prominent politicians and businessmen who have been detained as part of the graft investigations.

Authorities detained businessman Hassan Larbaoui in an anti-corruption probe June 21.

Larbaoui is the director of a private company called Global Group, which runs a car assembly plant set up in joint venture with South Korea’s Kia Motors.

Mourad Eulmi, head of family-owned firm SOVAC, partner of Germany’s Volkswagen AG at a car assembly plant in western Algeria, was detained seven days ago over corruption allegations.

Authorities have put off a presidential election previously planned for July 4 because of a lack of candidates, with no new date set for the vote, underlining the country’s political impasse.

The political quandary stems from many factors, including the stark contrast between protest leaders and opposition parties often headed by Berber-speaking figures with bold ambitions to put Algeria on a reform path towards establishing a civilian and democratic state free of military control. They are at odds with the army command led by Gaid Salah, which seeks a “change within the regime” and for elections to be held “as soon as possible.”

Algerian political analysts say Gaid Salah’s warning about the Berber flags could revive suspicions and mistrust of Berber speakers. Some see it as an attempt by Gaid Salah to divide the protest movement.

“Gaid Salah’s statement risks provoking anger in large parts of the society and opposition parties they interpret as an attempt to sow division and rift among the protesters,” said political writer Abdelghani Aichoun.