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Oasis city clashes suggest tough challenges for Algerian officials

Abdelkader Cheref unpacks the ethnic violence unfolding in Ghardaia, Algeria
A Mozabite Berber man reacts at his burnt house after clashes between Arabs and Mozabits in Guerrara near Ghardaia, Algeria. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
A Mozabite Berber man reacts at his burnt house after clashes between Arabs and Mozabits in Guerrara near Ghardaia, Algeria. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

According to independent reports, more than 20 people died and hundreds were wounded last week when clashes broken out between Chamba Arabs and Mozabite Berbers around the Algerian oasis city of Ghardaia, a Unesco world heritage site.

The two communities are ethnically and religiously divided. The Chamba are nomadic Bedouins who hail from an Arab tribe and are Sunni-Maliki Muslims. The Mozabites are Ibadhi Muslims. They practise a form of Islam that is distinct from Sunni and Shia. They differ both in culture and in religious rite from the Maliki majority in Algeria. 

Tensions first surfaced between the two groups in the 1960s when the Algerian government encouraged the Chamba to settle in Mozabite-majority areas. This has caused hostility over land and housing between the two communities that has not been resolved.

Though the Mozabite community, which consists of some 300,000 people, is indigenous to the region, its survival is in the balance today.

There is a palpable hostility towards religious minorities, spread by some Takfiri-Salafist imams, reactionary media and even by a former minister of religious affairs, who has repeatedly stigmatised the Mozabites.

Confrontations between the Chamba majority and the Mozabite ethnic and religious minority began when a Berber cemetery was desecrated in December 2013, leaving a dozen people dead. But the recent clashes in Ghardaia and two nearby cities – Guerrara and Berianne – have a particularly grim feel about them.

Violence flared up right after interior minister Noureddine Bedoui threatened those who would “undermine public order”. He also declared that “within the framework of the laws of the republic, he would be strict with those who kindle discord”.

Following these statements, Mozabite-owned shops were ransacked and hundreds of homes, businesses and vehicles were torched. According to many witnesses, these heinous acts were perpetrated by hordes of armed young men.

In 2013, police forces fired rubber bullets to restore order, as reported by independent observers, this time the police have chosen not to get involved.

As a reaction, thousands of Mozabites staged large rallies in Algiers, Oran and Constantine. Some protesters carried Algerian flags and banners that read “Mozabites are Martyrs”, chanted the national anthem and recited Quranic verses before they were dispersed by riot police in a heavy-handed fashion.

Some have already pointed the finger at “foreign hands” as the ones behind the mayhem. Louisa Hanoune, general secretary of the Trotskyite Workers’ Party, believes that “foreign services have a vested interest in the ‘Iraqisation’ of Algeria”.

According to Dr Kamel-Eddine Fekhar, a Mozabite activist, “the Chamba are not the problem, but the Algerian authorities are creating a sense of insecurity among the Mozabite community”.

Some analysts indicate that recent shale gas discoveries explain the authority’s impassiveness. The suggestion is that the atrocities would justify the eventual displacement or disappearance of the Mozabite population from the area.

The recent violence also prompted Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president, to order the regional military to “supervise the actions of the security services and to re-establish public order”.

So far Algerian security forces have arrested 35 people, including Dr Fekhar, but many believe that the security measures fail to address the root cause of the tension.

In terms of conflict resolution, the Algerian authorities favour negotiations with selected tribal chiefs rather than authentic representatives of civil society and young people who have taken matters in their own hands.

For the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, an Algiers-based NGO, “the authorities have failed to resolve this intercommunity conflict because of the inefficiency of the institutions and the inconsistency of the proposed solutions”.

Opposition figures have criticised the government and asked those who have failed in their duties to resign.

Dr Abdelkader Cheref is a professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam

Updated: July 12, 2015 04:00 AM

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