Whether he caressed a tender love song or cried a lament for his homeland, the singer Matoub Lounès could stir the feelings of Berber-speaking Algerians. When shadowy commandos assassinated the 42-year-old folk hero three years ago June 25, he instantly became a martyr for the Berber cause.
This year, the protests that accompany the emotional commemorations of his death started a little early. In fact, the demonstrations first erupted April 18, after an 18-year-old Berber high school student died from injuries sustained in police custody in the mountainous region of Kabylie, a Berber strip along the Mediterranean. Soon other young Algerians similarly enraged by joblessness, official corruption and police brutality extended the demonstrations beyond the Berber areas. Some 500,000 Arabic and Berber-speaking protesters battled police while attempting to march on the Presidential Palace in Algiers. Days later, back in Kabylie, mobs of youths threw stones at security forces, torched government buildings and looted shops owned by regime officials. Riots then spread to cities in the east and south of Algeria in what is fast becoming the biggest popular revolt since the end of more than 130 years of French colonial rule in 1962. Altogether, two months of mayhem have left around 90 people dead and some 2,000 wounded by gunfire.
The protesters are demanding the dismantling of le Pouvoir, the army-dominated military, political and business clique that has effectively ruled Algeria since independence. Their slogans denounce the hogra, or arrogance of power, of the regime, their banners are emblazoned with the words, "You can't kill us because we are already dead." Most are young men, a category for whom the unemployment rate has soared to a reported 70% despite the country's substantial oil and gas wealth. "The youth are not afraid to fight," says Reda Belarbi, 36, an Algiers doctor. Adds Ahmed, 56, a businessman in the capital afraid to give his surname: "There will be no true democracy until the departure of the generals."
The new crisis darkens a landscape already soaked in blood. Since 1992, an estimated 100,000 have died in a civil war that began when le Pouvoir canceled parliamentary elections that a major opposition group, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was poised to win. While the army has managed to crush the main Muslim rebel force, pockets of Islamic radicals continue to attack government troops and massacre civilians. Now, as le Pouvoir unleashes its security forces on the Berber-led uprising, another spiral of violence is tearing through the country. It's a severe blow to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who despite his links to le Pouvoir, campaigned in 1999 as an independent promising greater peace, prosperity and democracy. The protesters denounce him as a puppet of le Pouvoir, and the Algerian press calls him out of touch. In a jibe against his love of foreign trips, the Algiers daily Le Matin ran a cartoon of an army general with a tiny caricature of the President in his pocket, with the caption, "The unrest is everywhere. Where is Bouteflika?" The President has vowed not to resign, and few analysts expect le Pouvoir to oust him: they have no publicly acceptable alternative.
In the byzantine world of Algerian politics, some analysts suggest that a faction of le Pouvoir actually provoked the Berber unrest to jettison Bouteflika's promises of democracy and highlight the army's role in maintaining order. Three years later, even the killing of Lounès remains a mystery. While the government blames Muslim terrorists, many Berbers believe the regime had him murdered, perhaps as a twisted way of winning Berber support for Algiers and against the Islamic insurgency.
If le Pouvoir lacks a serious plan for addressing the mounting grievances, the Berbers, who call themselves Imazighen, or noble men, are more determined and organized than ever. Seeing themselves as the original inhabitants of North Africa before the 7th century Arab invasion, they have voiced growing complaints about discrimination since Independence, when victorious Algerian nationalists Arabized the country. Comprising about 20% of Algeria's 30 million people, Berbers are not asking for a separate state, since even "Arab" Algerians largely descend from the same ethnic stock. But most are demanding equal recognition of the Berber language known as Tamazight, access to better housing and employment and an end to police abuses. The protests are being directed by traditional village and tribal networks known as tajmaats and aarchs that are enjoying a rapid revival of influence.
Algerians have ample reason to fear a hot summer, as angry young protesters face an entrenched regime determined to keep power at any cost. It may take many more seasons of bloodshed for Algerians to grasp the lyrics of one of Lounès' most popular songs. "Our destiny," he crooned in the months before his death, "is one and the same."