A New Twist in Interpreting Algeria’s Ethnic Riots

Trying to understand the logic of the Berberist leaders is an entertaining exercise. A few months ago, when ethnic Berber riots first took place in the Kabylie region of Algeria, the most popular story that we heard at the time was that the Berbers were revolting against a repressive Arab population. We were told that the Berbers were virtually oppressed and discriminated against and thus, as the Irish Times once put it, ‘the Berbers were merely struggling against a Nation of Islam’.

Complementary to such reports were those overestimating the number of rioters to try to provoke more people to join in. More importantly, there were those exaggerating the share of the Berbers in Algeria’s total population in attempt to justify the riots. Evidently, if you are claiming that 90 per cent of Algeria’s population, instead of 10, is of a Berber origin, then everyone is likely to ask: and the Berber language is not yet official?.

Added to these are those who took the task of launching assaults on the ‘traitors’ — a portion of the Berber population which is considered to be ‘too Arabized’. A large number of Algerian Berbers do speak Arabic, so the Berberist leaders are frustrated that these Arabized people may have little incentives for joining in.

That story of ‘the Berbers are oppressed’ is now being dressed up in new and colorful clothes. We are now told that the riots were not actually about Arab repression at all, neither were they against the Islamists: They were fundamentally about anger over poor social conditions, high unemployment and limited housing that has spread beyond the Berber homeland in Kabylie province.

This ‘spread beyond the Berber homeland in Kabylie province’ gives a big hint to the political analyst. The theory that the riots were mainly against the Arab population, evidently, did not work for that the Berberist leaders soon discovered that they were facing a textbook ‘collective action’ problem. More precisely, the non-Berber population (and even the Mzabs, Chaouis and Tuaregs) was not interested in joining the protests. One reason is that this same population was presumably responsible for all that was happening; the other is that the vast majority of Algerians did not approve mass economic destruction.

In attempt to overcome this collective action problem, the new version is that all Algerians, not just the Berbers, are oppressed, so it is in the common good to revolt hand in hand. If you argue that everyone is oppressed by the government, hence we all face the same ‘enemy’, the probability that you will collect support is presumably far greater than if you accuse people of oppression and historical invasions.

But luckily, this is not working either. In fact, the population is now saying that those who planned for the mass economic destruction of Algeria (i.e. the Berberist leaders) should still be brought to justice. The Berberists, after all, are no less dangerous than the Islamists.

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