Sheila Amrouche interviewed Henia Sadi, a teacher at a local high school in the Kabylia region of Algeria during a visit in July 2019. Henia has been active in the weekly protests which have led to the forced resignation of President Bouteflika, and which have progressed on to the demand for an end to the system, for a civil not a military state.
In the mountainous region of Kabylia in the north of Algeria, the village of Ihitoussène is one of about 20 villages in the municipality of Bouzeguene (population 26,000) within the wilaya or province of Tizi Ouzou, and about 170km from the capital Algiers. The nearest city, Tizi Ouzou, is 60km away. The area is known for its high number of emigrants in different parts of the world, especially in France, where many locals left to find work during French occupation. That continues today, with many families reliant on the support of their relatives abroad. The founder of Ihitoussène village was a blacksmith, and villagers also migrated across the east of the country to establish forges.
The Kabyle people are one of several Berber or Amazigh groups indigenous to North Africa, and comprise about seven million of the 12 million Berbers in Algeria. They have their own language and identity which they are fiercely proud of. Kabylia has a long history of struggle before, during and after the war of independence. The ruling FLN decided Algeria would be a monolingual Arab and Muslim country, denying any other languages and cultures. In 1980, during the Berber Spring, demonstrations and strikes demanded the recognition of Berber or Tamazight as an official language. The movement was violently suppressed. In the Black Spring of 2001, riots took place following the killing of a young Kabyle student by gendarmes, who subsequently killed 126 Kabyles, mainly by gunfire, and severely injured or tortured thousands more. Villages like Ihitoussène still display portraits of the victims today. Marches in the capital Algiers have remained banned during the 18 years since the Black Spring.
It is this background that makes this year’s hirak or protest movement so significant. It has united the Kabyles with the entire country for the first time in opposing the regime, whether in large urban centres, remote mountain villages or steppes and deserts of the south. And it has resisted the divide and rule tactics of repression.
The first local demonstration against the fifth mandate of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and against the regime took place on 16 February 2019 in the Kabyle town of Kherrata, in Béjaïa province. On 19 February protests broke out Khenchela, a city in the Aures Mountains populated by Berber Chaouis. By 22 February, the movement had become a national popular revolt, with protests spreading across the country.
The spark for revolt in Khenchala was the attempts by the regime’s local officials to secure a further five years in office for president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, says Henia. “The mayor of Khenchela told the citizens to vote for Bouteflika, for a fifth term, for a man we have not seen for seven years, since 2012 exactly. So the citizens tore down the portrait of Bouteflika, they wrecked everything, all the press knew that. But unfortunately here we can’t talk; we are still under censorship in Algeria. And then, on 22 February, everybody came out on the streets.”
Henia and other women from her village first joined demonstrations in a neighbouring town, but as the movement developed they began to make a regular journey to the city of Tizi Ouzou.
“On 8 of March I was with fifteen women from our villages. We walked to Bouzeguene town, without saying anything, with Amazigh flags and Algerian national flags, to say that we were against the fifth mandate. And then just after the 8th of March we did another march in Bouzeguene, a major one. That is to say that everyone understood that something must be done. So after the march of Bouzeguene we joined the marches at Tizi Ouzou, giving our messages with songs.”
“It’s routine now, the Friday of the hirak. We leave Ihitoussene for Tizi Ouzou 60 kilometres away. We start from the University of Mouloud Mammeri and walk the two or three kilometers to the Bougie, which is the monument to the martyrs of the revolution. We shout messages for the rulers, who are really oppressors, we call them el issaba, the gang.”
Abdelkader Bensalah is acting head of state and was to run Algeria for a period of 90 days during which a new presidential election should have been held. With the election canceled, he is still in office.
“The one guiding everything now is General Gaid Salah. We don’t want him or his laws. Since July 9th, the period for Bensalah as president is over, so now Gaid Salah is acting unconstitutionally. Gaid, he has managed to put everyone against him, with his actions.”
In late June Gaid Salah, Algeria’s strongman since Bouteflika was ousted on April 2nd, played the card of Algerian nationalist allegiance and banned the carrying of the Berber or Amazigh flag. Many protesters have since been arrested and imprisoned.
“All the races, all the wilayas, they were all against it. Nobody accepted that decision. He tried to divide the Algerian people, but after that the Algerian people became united. This decision, it was more of an advantage than an inconvenience! He incited the people to unify. Because before it was a bit ‘you’re Kabyle, you’re Arab’, there were differences. Now we’re all Amazigh of North Africa. They continue to seize our flags, and that’s why we continue to march. We don’t stay at home on Fridays, we are in Tizi Ouzou, we are in Algiers, we are everywhere.”
On the marches, Henia and her colleagues sing a song in the Amazigh language defying Gaid Salah’s attempts to divide the movement. She translated the words for me.
“Gaid banned the Amazigh flag.
We understood that he wants a war.
We have come today to tell him we are not afraid.
We understood he wants to put us down, to annihilate us.
We have come today to tell him we are united.”
Women are playing an important role in the movement, Henia said, despite facing oppression in many areas of their lives. “In the east of the country the situation of women is lamentable. For example a woman in Sétif can’t go out like in Tizi Ouzou. In big cities in some provinces she can go out, but in the small towns she can’t freely, unless her husband accompanies her or authorizes her. That’s the situation of women.” There are differences between some provinces, and between cities, towns and villages, however. “But in Tizi-Ouzou, Algiers, Oran, Constantine, in Kabyle areas, there is the scent of liberty for women. It’s not total freedom though, it’s limited.”
Yet when it comes to the demonstrations, women are often very visible. “Women are put in the forefront, and the men make blocks to surround and protect us from violence.” Protesters fear the police, who regularly attack the demonstrations and arrest activists. “The world should know that there are police who are paid a premium, paid money in order to break the movement. There are people in prison at the moment.”
Activists from the RCD opposition party, which has strong support among Kabyles have been targeted by the state. “There is a young woman who we march with every Friday and she is now in prison. Her name is Samira Messouci, and she was elected for the RCD to the provincial assembly of Tizi Ouzou. She’s been in prison in Algiers since 21 June. They tried to take the Amazigh flag from her and she resisted. They are doing everything to break our unity, banning the flag.”
“Samira Messouci told her lawyer “I don’t want you to free me because I am a woman. I want to be freed with my brothers, with the men. If not, don’t free me because I am a woman.” That’s a woman who is fighting for the condition of women, for equality. “Secondly, if they imprison me, I want it to be for ten years, so that I won’t find this Gaid still living”.”
For the moment, the focus of the hirak is on getting rid of the regime. For Henia, the struggle for women’s rights has to be put on hold until the movement reaches its goals. ““Before the Hirak, there were women in the RCD, progressive women, women looking for their rights. But now we put that all to one side. We just want the system to go, all of them. We have the time for other things, afterwards.”
University students are also an important part of the hirak. “The students organize every Tuesday. They go out in the streets on the demonstrations, peacefully, with leaders, with guides, it is well organized, without incident at the moment. The leaders come from the students themselves. They feel oppressed, they rebel, they miss classes at the university and they go out on the streets. The teachers are in the movement, with their students. It’s the holidays now, but it continues. Because of the disturbance all the exams are postponed till the month of September in the universities. Schools are working normally, but they are in the movement.”
As the movement has developed, activists have debated the best tactics to force out the regime. In the major cities, independent trade unions have organised general strikes. Meanwhile some activists have raised calls for civil disobedience. Henia sees civil disobedience, not strikes as the way forward. “When you call a general strike, everybody responds, everyone obeys, but after three or four days things start happening again. People need to eat, shops have to open, for a minimum service. In Algeria during a general strike, everything closes, shops, even cafeterias. In Kabylia we don’t have factories to close, we have cafeterias to close, schools to close, transport. But in Algiers it worked for two or three days, then little by little some shops started to reopen.”
The hirak has raised big questions for the millions of Algerians who have taken part, Henia told me.
“Nobody can say what is going to happen tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. After Gaid Salah goes, there are other Gaids behind this Gaid. We demand a complete end to the system. But how? In my opinion, the Hirak must be represented – by lawyers, by people who can do something for this country. There are people who could be representatives but they hesitate because we don’t have a country of rights. You represent in the morning, in the evening you are killed. That’s why they refuse. As long as the military regime rules in Algeria, nobody can commit suicide and say they represent the movement and can do something. So we are in an impasse.”
The movement has deep roots in ordinary people’s frustration at the way in which the regime and its cronies keep Algeria’s wealth for themselves. The minimum monthly wage in Algeria is quoted as 20,000 Dinars, approximately £135, and the average wage 40,000 Dinars or £270. “An Algerian works hard, full time, for a baguette, for a bag of milk,” Henia explained. “He can’t take a holiday because the pay is miserable. To buy a car he has to work and save his whole life, on an average salary. So when an Algerian works, he works seriously.”
“Algeria is a rich country. Where there’s petrol there’s wealth. Of all this wealth, the Algerian people have nothing. They work hard for 30,000 dinars (£200) month. You can spend that in two or three days. For someone who wants to eat normally, with five or six children, in three days his pay is gone. What is 30,000 dinars, or 60,000 dinars? It’s nothing. He lives on credit, or he finds a second job. There is money sent from abroad, or from the south where they are paid relatively well. Here it is pitiable. As a teacher, I have 25 years of experience; I get 60,000 dinars (£400) month. A less experienced teacher gets half that.”
Many young people have been leaving Algeria and risking their lives by crossing the sea to Europe.
“When an Algerian goes abroad to work, to England for example, he succeeds because he doesn’t choose the work. He will do anything, he won’t refuse anything. He is paid well even though the conditions are bad. Someone who works in the black economy is badly paid, but the pay over there is three thousand times better than over here.”
“What hurts is that people leave, especially the young, they die in the oceans, they die in the sea. They’re called ‘harragas’, those who attempt to illegally migrate to Europe in makeshift boats. We want to stop that. I have a boy. I don’t want him to say to me ’Mum, I want to leave because I want to live’. I want him to live in front of me, because we have a rich country, we have petrol, we have metals but the money is taken by the rulers we want to get rid of.”
This social injustice is a powerful factor driving the mass movement, Henia said. “We have misery in our blood. Abroad, even when misery is forced upon us, it’s nothing compared to Algeria. That’s why we won’t stop hitting back, to shout out against repression, against division. After accepting 20 years of nothing, we’re a people that will continue to struggle to the end.”
Sheila Amrouche is a member of Lewisham National Education Union.
What you can do:
- Send a letter of protest to the Algerian embassy in your country, calling for the release of all political prisoners and for an end to attacks on Algerian citizens’ rights to organise and speak out.
- Put a resolution to your trade union branch calling for action in solidarity with Algerian political prisoners
- Read more on how to build solidarity with political prisoners in Algeria here