Declaring Tamazight an official language sparks controversy in Algeria

The fourth article of the new constitution states that “Tamazight is a national and official language”.

Thursday 24/09/2020
A 2019 file picture shows Algerian demonstrators dressed in traditional Berber or Amazigh minority outfits take part in a protest in the capital Algiers. Placard calls for unity of Algerians. (AFP)
A 2019 file picture shows Algerian demonstrators dressed in traditional Berber or Amazigh minority outfits take part in a protest in the capital Algiers. Placard calls for unity of Algerians. (AFP)

ALGIERS – Controversy broke out in Algeria after Tamazight was declared an official national language in the country’s new constitution.

Proponents and opponents of the move are again engaged in a debate about national identity, especially as the constitutional measure is seen as a goodwill gesture to a certain region of the country and does not permanently resolve the issue.

Local media in Algeria recently reported a decision by the ruling National Liberation Front party to stop using Tamazight in its official documents and dealings. This was viewed as a message that the party is not on board with the move to formalise the language in the constitution, even though its representatives, who form a majority in the two chambers of parliament, supported the new constitution.

Supporters of Tamazight believe the ruling party leadership’s decision is antagonistic to the country’s fundamental national identity, and barely conceals its intent to stop Algerians from reaping the fruits of their long struggle to have Amazigh recognised as part of the national identity.

A party statement denied what it described as “allegations” that it was “removing the Tamazight alphabet from its documents and publications, when in fact, this alphabet did not exist before so as to be removed.”

Still, the ruling party has not reacted proactively to the new constitutional decision by, for example, introducing Tamazight in its publications and documents, despite its endorsement of the aforementioned constitution.

“The official documents have never been changed,” the party’s statement said, “except for replacing French with English as its foreign language, and the intentions of those behind the lie of removing the Amazigh language are to distract the party and its members, and to sow discord in the circles of society.”

The fourth article of Algeria’s new constitution states that “Tamazight is a national and official language,” and that “a governmental institution will be set up to develop and structure this language in the country.” Of course, such a change was not to the liking of its opponents, especially the pro-regime group describing itself as the “Baddisian Novembrian Current” that has been very vocal about the issue since former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, as well as some forces affiliated with Islamists and conservatives.

The head of the Islamist Justice and Development Front, Abdallah Jaballah, stated that “the constitution-drafting committee had worked for a political agenda that ensured the continuation of the regime, by courting a certain party in the country at the expense of the rest of the bodies and components, and this is an implicit threat to national unity, especially since the aforementioned constitution derived the state’s history from that of the Numidian Berber state.”

Jaballah found it strange that the country had two national and official languages ​​at the same time, unlike most of the successful experiences in the world, such as in Germany, France, Britain and others, even though these countries contained dozens of languages ​​and nationalities. He also considered the constitutional step as just a palliative to the crisis and not a solution to it.

This is the fourth time that Algeria has declared Tamazight as a national and then official language in the constitution. Former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika previously made such declarations through constitutional amendments in 2002, 2008 and 2016, but the identity crisis in the country has continued to rage, especially after the smear campaign launched in recent months by former regime circles against the popular movement and the entire Kabyle region.

As preparations for a popular referendum on the new draft constitution intensify, so does debate surrounding its Article 4. Many of Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s supporters have declared their intent to vote against the constitution because of this article, in a clear display of intolerance and unjustified bias towards the Arab and Islamic component in the country.

On the other hand, Amazigh activists, such as historian and researcher Mohamed Arezki Frad, consider the constitutional amendment a victory for Amazigh identity in Algeria. But this enthusiasm is not shared by the anti-authority Amazigh street, which considers the issue to be merely a trap designed to win the region over to the regime’s side and isolate it from the rest of the country’s existing political protests. These Amazigh opponents to the new constitution continue to insist that “the civil state is the only way forward to address all (of the country’s) problems.”