The mountainous region Kabylia in Algeria is seeking secession. DW talked to a prominent Berber political activist on an underreported yet key issue amid the growing unrest in the North African region.
Located on the northern Mediterranean coast of Algeria, Kabylia was an independent country throughout the Middle Ages and the Ottoman days until it become part of Algeria proper during the French colonization period in the mid-19th century. Its inhabitants are Berbers, North Africa's indigenous group, whose plight is often ignored amid the ongoing upheaval across the Arab world. DW talked to Bouaziz Ait Chebib, the president of the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia (MAK).
When, how and why was the MAK established?
The MAK was set up in 2001 following the terrible events of the "Black Spring" in Kabylia - a series of violent disturbances and political demonstrations by Berber activists that were repressed by the police. Its aim was to work for a large autonomy status and to fight the oppression of the Algerian government. The group held its founding congress in 2007 and today there is an executive committee and a national council in which all Kabylian communities are represented. The MAK is the first political force in Kabylia and we struggle to regain our sovereignty lost in 1857 after the French colonization.
How can you say that you are the first force in Kabylia without participating in the elections?
Algeria does not recognize our people and, therefore, we do not participate in any election organized by the government. During the parliamentary elections in February, we conducted an intense campaign against voting. Kabylia got the lowest participation percentage in Algeria, that shows that only the MAK is able to mobilize the Kabylian society. Besides, all independent observers have recognized our huge mobilizing capacity. We work under constant intimidations, arrests, interrogations as well as a media boycott. We are denied access to public buildings to hold our meetings and we are presented as "separatists paid by foreign powers." However, the people of Kabylia are politically more mature than Algeria's current rulers. Popular support is our biggest shield against the Algerian regime's racist barbarity.
Are those the reasons behind your desire to break away from the Algerian state?
In 1962 there was a transfer of power. Arab Algerian replaced French Algeria, that's why we claim that we are still under an occupation. From Ben Bella - Algeria's first president - to current President (Abdelaziz) Bouteflika - all systems have followed the same pattern: anti-Kabylism. Non-Arab Algerians are not recognized in their own country, it is the denial of the existence of the Berber people as a whole. In fact, the Algerian government and the Islamists are both sides of the same coin and they even join forces when it comes to oppress the Kabylia. To date, 1,228 of our young people have been killed by the police amid the total indifference of other Algerian regions. They may show their solidarity toward the Palestinians but never to us.
You describe your region as "non-Arab" and "secular" but Kabylia is becoming a safe haven for armed Islamist groups of all sorts. How do you explain this?
Kabylia is the natural stronghold of democracy in Algeria. Our socio-political organization is historically committed to values of freedom, secularism, respect and solidarity. Accordingly, it is impossible to think that this region can possibly be the cradle of Islamic terrorism. It's actually the Algerian government who is shifting those armed groups into Kabylia. We're subjected to a severe punishment due to our refusal to submit to the Arab-Islamic yoke.
Today, Kabylia is an open air military barrack. Over 40 percent of the Algerian security services are bases in our region but the terrorist groups acting in full impunity. Since 2005, more than 69 people have been kidnapped in Tizi Ouzou, the administrative capital of Kabylia. Added to the bombings, kidnappings and the abuse of authority, Kabylia is also the victim of a "scorched earth" policy. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Algerian army is setting our forests ablaze with the sole aim of depriving us of our rich natural resource. They want us to choose between hunger or the Arab-Islamist yoke.
During a visit to Israel last May, Ferhat Mehenni, president of the Paris-based Kabylia government in exile, called for "strengthening ties with Tel Aviv." Do you recognize the rights of the Palestinian people?
We seek to establish relations with all peoples in the world. Wars have never been the work of people but of states. We do recognize the state of Israel but we also support the Palestinian people in their struggle for rights and independence. A nation without a state is condemned to extinction, that's why we support all stateless people fighting for their rights.
Are there any links between you and the Touareg, who are also Amazigh people, as a whole? What about Azawad?
In our project we stress our solidarity with all the Amazigh in North Africa. They have our full support in their struggle for emancipation from the neo-colonial regimes. We are also the first to recognize the independence and legitimacy of Azawad. The MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) is struggling to establish a sovereign, democratic and secular state. Unfortunately, there are Islamist groups who want to hijack the independence of Azawad with the complicity of the International Community. The Arab-Islamist Algerian racist state has set up a terrorist group, Ansar Dine, to abort the creation of the first independent Amazigh state ever. A delegation of this group was even recently officially received by the Algerian government to coordinate their efforts against Azawad. Algeria recognizes the independence of the Saharawi people but not Azawad's. The reason is simple: the first are Arab while the latter are Amazigh.
Would an "Arab Spring" type uprising be the solution to your problems?
The term "Arab Spring" embodies an historical injustice that has lasted for too long in northern Africa. A revolution like that in Egypt, where Islamist fanatics have taken over another totalitarian regime, is not in our interest. That talk about "revolutions" is a fraud because there is no difference between the fallen regimes and those who replace them. Libya's example is very telling: our Amazigh brothers from Zwara, northwest Libya, were the true architects of the fall of Gadhafi but, today, they are back at the same starting point. The Islamists have taken control of the country and they are perpetuating the policy of denial of the Amazigh people.
Is there any chance for a peaceful solution in the scenario you depict?
We believe it is impossible to democratize Algeria as long as the rest of the Algerians don't recognize the values of secularism, democracy and progress. That's why we demand our right to self-determination to build an independent, democratic, secular and social state through a referendum. Ours is not a project against the other Algerians; we can serve as a catalyst for a plural Algeria as well as for the rest of the peoples in North Africa. The international community should abandon its double standard policies and support Azawad and the Amazigh people as a whole as they did with Tunisia, Kosovo, South Sudan... If we want to build a fair world, human rights must prevail over economic interests.
Interview: Karlos Zurutuza, Kabylia, Algeria
Editor: Rob Mudge