Celebration of Amazigh new year reflects Algeria’s diversity but also stark contradictions

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune officially congratulated Algerians on the occasion of the Amazigh New Year, January 12, but demonstrators who raised the Amazigh flag remain in jail.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Celebrating identity. Algerian Berber women prepare couscous as they mark the Yennayer New Year in the village of Ait el-Kecem, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers. (AFP)
Celebrating identity. Algerian Berber women prepare couscous as they mark the Yennayer New Year in the village of Ait el-Kecem, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers. (AFP)

ALGIERS - Algeria celebrated the Amazigh New Year amid great controversy over national identity, especially considering the authorities’ conflicting positions regarding political and cultural identities and diversity in the country.

While Algerian authorities officially recognise and celebrate the occasion, they also criminalise brandishing the Amazigh flag during protests. Dozens of protesters have been jailed on charges of threatening national unity.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and the military leadership officially presented their best wishes to the Algerian people on the occasion of the Amazigh New Year, January 12, but the president did not pardon, as expected, those imprisoned for raising the Amazigh flag.

Following a constitutional amendment in 2016 declaring January 12 a national holiday, the Algerian government has staged official celebrations of the Amazigh New Year in the state’s institutions. The government also created an academy for the advancement of the Amazigh language as a national language next to Arabic.

However, confusion over conflicting positions of the authorities regarding the status of the Amazigh component in Algeria’s national identity is still prevalent, especially after the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of Amazigh activists accused of raising the Amazigh flag during demonstrations that have swept the country for nearly a year.

The issue has been exacerbated by the enormous tension on social media, intentionally created and fed by anti-Amazigh elements who consider the Arab-Muslim components as the only ones of Algerian national identity. Activists of the popular movement and politicians said they considered the trend part of the authorities’ manoeuvres to dismantle the popular movement and sow discord among members of the same society regardless of the risks to Algeria’s internal cohesion.

While authorities have not publicly endorsed the anti-Amazigh sentiments, they haven’t disavowed the constituencies behind the campaign either. The campaign is supported by political and media elites who did not hesitate to accuse Amazigh Algerians of “treason” and of being “unpatriotic” by branding them as “Zouaves.”

Algerian authorities are accused of observing a dubious silence regarding the issue and of not punishing parties behind the divisive campaign, compared to the enthusiasm they show in suppressing political protests by all Algerians and the Amazigh in particular.

The hostile anti-Amazigh campaign turned the accusation of being “Zouaves” into a synonym for the tribal region and its inhabitants, even though history suggests the contrary.

The Amazigh people and region were strongly and widely involved in the Algerian liberation struggle (1954-62). The first congress of the Algerian revolution, perhaps the founding act of the Algerian state, took place in the Soummam Valley in 1956. Those facts are purposely ignored by the perpetrators of the hate campaign.

The Armed Zouave Faction was created by the Ottoman Empire during its last days in Algeria. It was used by the French colonial authority at the beginning of the occupation to suppress local resistance and that’s how “Zouave” became synonymous of treason in Algerian imaginary.

The anti-Amazigh campaign is part of a vision promoted by political and media elites who met secretly in Mostaganem, in north-western Algeria, to draw up a plan that became known as Zero Kabyle Algeria, which aims at ridding the country’s identity and institutions of the Amazigh element.

A systematic campaign on social networks is responsible for fabricating an unprecedented controversy about “national identity” and for escalating and nurturing a charged discourse between Arabs and Amazigh. Of course, the campaign trivialised important historical and cultural issues that ought to belong to purely academic debates.

The forces of the popular movement were not duped by the manoeuvre and countered with slogans of unity and cohesion in marches in Algiers and other cities in the country.

Legal experts say that by forbidding Amazigh flags in protests and marches, Algerian authorities committed a major violation of the country’s legal statutes since nothing in current legislation criminalises brandishing a flag other than the official national flag.

The authorities changed the charge against the arrested protesters to threatening national unity. They also obstructed, on Tuesdays and Fridays, travel to Algiers by Kabyle residents, in absolute violation of constitutional provisions that guarantee freedom of movement except when proscribed by a court decision.

Given the seriousness of the social rift created by the authorities, Tebboune sent positive messages to the Amazigh community as soon as he assumed office. He apologised for not visiting Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia provinces during the election campaign and appointed a significant number of figures from those regions to his administrative staff or in the government of Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad.

Amazigh activists cannot fathom the logic behind Algerian authorities’ double and triple standards when it comes to the Amazigh question. Overnight, the Amazigh flag gets hoisted atop of the major administrative buildings of Algeria and the president flirts with the Amazigh street and recruits Amazigh personalities for his cabinet but dozens of Amazigh activists remain imprisoned for hoisting the Amazigh flag in the street, a charge that no law in the country has criminalised.

Activist Gillas Agrad, from Bouira, declared: “The (popular) movement picked up on all the manoeuvres of the authorities and won’t accept anything less than the departure of the current authority and the achievement of a comprehensive political change in the country. Algerians stand as one people and won’t be divided by anyone.”

Celebrating identity. Algerian Berbers celebrate the Yennayer New Year in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers.            (AFP)
Celebrating identity. Algerian Berbers celebrate the Yennayer New Year in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers. (AFP)
The Berber flag hangs next to the national Algerian flag as Berbers celebrate the Yennayer New Year in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers.   (AFP)
The Berber flag hangs next to the national Algerian flag as Berbers celebrate the Yennayer New Year in Ath Mendes, south of Tizi-Ouzou, east of Algiers. (AFP)
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