I’ve always wondered why Algeria bears the official name, “People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria,” when the only democratic thing about the country is, well, its official appellation. In fact, the Democracy Index of 2014 classifies the regime as authoritarian, while the Freedom of the Press 2015 report assessed the country to be “Not Free.”
Democratic? Yeah, right.
It is not unknown either that corruption reeks from every rank of the country’s government and administration, nor that the laws are often—if not always—amended in a way to benefit a few, to the detriment of the masses. In fact, corruption within the government has become almost like a custom—to the point where the people have turned their backs completely. After a bloody and unfruitful revolution in the nineties, and a passive uprising that failed during the Arab Spring that was barely covered by the local and international media, it is understandable that the Algerian population has tried to stay away from fighting back the power as much as possible.
The reasons behind the people’s anger towards the current government, led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, vary greatly. Many reproach him of desperately holding onto his position despite his highly deteriorating health; some criticise Algeria’s awfully stagnant government; others, who have been fighting against Algeria’s dictatorial tendency for much longer than Bouteflika’s reign, mostly accuse the country’s military of having way too much influence and power in all of Algeria’s internal affairs.
Democracy in Algeria is a sham, and so is freedom of thought. The power is almighty, minorities have very few opportunities of speech, and the population has no real civil rights. A striking example would be the Berber Spring of the eighties—a revolution featuring the country’s most visible minority, the Berber people of Algeria. During that time, several armed fights broke between the country’s dictatorial government and the Amazigh revolutionaries who fought for the recognition of their language and culture on a nationwide scale.
The Berber people of Algeria, commonly called the Amazigh people (or Imazighen) constitute the indigenous people of Algeria and North Africa. Although they represent a minority on the territory, they have managed to keep their language and culture alive through history, despite the number of invasions throughout centuries. However, after the arrival of Islam and the Arabs in the region and more recently, with Algeria’s independence in 1962, there’s been a lot of oppression on Berbers, and attempts of assimilation from the Algerian government towards the Amazigh people were numerous.
And so, the first time I heard that Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh people, would become an official language in Algeria, my eyebrows shot up in surprise; if it was due to happiness, or skepticism, I’m still not sure.
The formalization of the Tamazight language is only one of the multiple measures presented in the new Algerian Constitution, brought forward to the Algerian government and adopted in early February. Along with it, reforms meant to enhance democracy, and the improvement of social structures in the country, also make up the new Constitution.
Don’t get me wrong—for my native language to finally be considered as equal as Arabic, the dominating language in the country ever since the independence, is something incredibly gratifying. Recognition of their language and culture is something the Amazigh people of Algeria have been requesting from the government for an awfully long time.
However, despite how great they are, those reforms—nearly all of them, in fact—seem too good to be true. For instance, this sudden recognition of the Amazigh culture comes after decades of oppression from the Algerian government towards the Berbers of the country, and doesn’t sit well with everyone in the community.
The Berber Spring of 1980 counts amongst one of the greatest demonstrations of Berber activism in the country, following nearly twenty years of great measures of Arabization and heavy repression of the Amazigh culture in the entire nation. Since then, aside from granting Tamazight the status of national language in 2001, very little has been done by the government to give the Amazigh the recognition of their culture.
So can we really take this sudden measure of formalization seriously, after decades of oppression? Not only does Algeria now consider Tamazight an official language, but the country even plans to create an Algerian Academy of the Tamazight Language.
To consider this measure’s legitimacy, I’ve decided to take a look at the other ones proposed by the amended Constitution. Amongst them, the one that strikes as the oddest is the limitation of a president’s re-election (article 74 in the Constitution). Before the beginning of the Bouteflika era, such a law was already in place, restricting the number of terms per president to two. However, in 2008, about five days following a series of amendments to the Constitution, it was announced that article 74 would drop the end of its statement. In other words, the law would now permit a president to be re-elected as many times as “the people” would allow it.
And now, eight years later, the law is amended again, to restore the same exact measure that was dropped by the very same government. It is hard to take Bouteflika’s claims of democracy seriously, when apparently, all he’s been doing is playing with the law ever since he took power in 1999.
It is true, however, that such a measure would limit political monopoly and would be more beneficial for the country’s democracy. Many assume this to be the beginning of the end of the Bouteflika reign. Optimism amongst the population—especially the Imazighen—is present, but remains numb. There’s a feeling that despite how progressive and attractive those new democratic measures seem, they only constitute a way to keep the precarious status quo in the country.
With an increasing unemployment rate and the alarming worldwide decrease of hydrocarbon prices, petrol being Algeria’s main economic pillar, animosity starts to agitate the Algerian population more and more as time goes by. Can these measures truly halt a possible revolt of people who are more than sick of their government, despite its agitated but vain revolutionary past?
And what about the Imazighen? Can they truly rely on Bouteflika’s government—and whoever might follow—to give their culture and language the proper recognition and promotion it deserves?
I guess only time will tell.
By Sarah Boumedda
Originally Published: March 2016