This week's window on the Middle East - June 3, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: A toast to the Brotherhood

Arab Awakening
3 June 2013
  • A toast to the Brotherhood
  • Does Tunisia need Femen?
  • A story of two occupations
  • Clouds over Tripoli
  • On the World Economic Forum and globalization
  • Syria and pressing concerns for the region
  • Algeria: has the post-Bouteflika era already begun?
  • A toast to the Brotherhood

    By Ahmed Kadry

    Walking into the trendy shisha café in downtown Zamalek, I make my way to the open-aired area where they told me they would be sitting. Rich flavours of grape and apple tobacco sifting through the air keep me company as I spot them at a round table cluttered with pots of mint tea, novelty small shisha pipes that rest cutely in the middle, and a selection of IPhones and Blackberries that complete the picture.

    Khaled is the first one to stand up and embrace me. It’s been nine months since I left for London and one by one I give each of my friends a hug and a kiss on both cheeks – all the while they make wise cracks like “We haven’t even missed you yet, go back to London,” or “ Don’t they have any food over there? You’re wasting away!”

    After all the niceties we sit down. Ibra (short for Ibrahim) grinning asks, “Tell me about the girls over there?” and I reply “I wouldn’t know – I only get to date my PhD – but tell me, Ibra, how’s your fiancée?” I ask with a wink and he laughs back as if to say “Nice one you got me.”

    We carry on in that way for a few minutes until the young waiter in uniform approaches. “Would you like to order anything, sir?” The menu’s been in front of me for ten minutes but I haven’t looked at it – I don’t need to. “I’ll have a Coke, a mint tea, and a grape shisha, please.” The waiter writes it down, and is about to walk away when Mahmood waves his hand to get his attention.

    “And I’ll have a Stella,” he says, and before I know what’s happening, Ibra chimes, “I’ll have one too,” before the waiter looks at Khaled who lifts three fingers. I’m in the Twilight zone as the waiter walks away.

    “Sorry guys, am I missing something? Stella is alcohol, right?” I ask like someone who knows he’s about to be laughed at, and right on cue, they all chuckle to one another the way people do with an inside joke that only they would understand.

    “I told you he wouldn’t be drinking in London,” Ibra says to the other two as if I’m not sitting right in front of them.

    As I search their faces, it turns out to be Khaled who is willing to explain.

    “In nine months things can change, Ahmed, and it has, here in Egypt.” I’m still looking at him with a confused expression, wondering why on earth he’s linking the wider topic of Egypt to my three very good friends ordering alcohol, friends who to the best of my knowledge have never drunk alcohol before. 

    He sees this and continues. “It’s like this – people our age have gone one of two ways in the last year; some are growing beards, cutting off the bottom of their trousers, fiddling prayer beads all day long and YouTube nothing but religious sermons. Even their Facebook pages are hilal,” he laughs at his own joke and Ibra and Mahmood chuckle too.

    I nod letting him know that I’m listening attentively.

    “And then there are people our age who are like us, Ahmed. Young guys and girls who won’t be bossed or guilt tripped into believing we have to change our clothes, internet habits or even our entire personalities because the beloved Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi’s tell us to! I’m my own man and I choose how to practise my religion. They should either choose politics or be preachers – they shouldn’t be involved in both,” finishing his sentence calmly.

    I look at Ira and Mahmood. “And you two believe this as well?” They nod.

    I look back to Khaled. “But don’t you see that by drinking alcohol or doing anything else you didn’t use to do before the Brotherhood or Salafi’s rose to prominence, that indirectly you are allowing them to dictate your actions?”

    He shrugs his shoulders. “Ahmed, I’ve thought about that too. But right now I need to be everything they don’t want me to be so that they can see that this country will not bend to its will. They need to know that Egyptians will protest and resist in all its forms.”

    The waiter comes back with a tray of three Stella’s and my Coke. “Your shisha and tea is on the way, sir,” he says to me.

    We each take our drinks and open them. Khaled holds his beer high in the middle. “Here’s to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says with a smile, and we all chink our bottles together.

    Does Tunisia need Femen

    By Sana Ajmi

    A Tunisian member of the feminist group Femen was fined last Thursday and charged for carrying an “incendiary object'', in the central Tunisian city of Kairouan. A hearing has been scheduled for June 5 pending more serious charges, including desecrating a cemetery and offending public decency.

    Amina Sboui, known as Amina Tyler, who was arrested on May 19 in Kairouan was charged with carrying a canister of pepper spray while protesting against a planned congress of the conservative religious group Ansar al-Sharia last Friday.  The media reported that she was seen painting the word “Femen” on a wall near the Kairouan mosque. Amina admitted to possessing a gas spray when arrested.

    Escorted by police, she entered the courthouse wearing a safsari, (white robe) a traditional cloth wrap worn by Tunisian women. Meanwhile outside the courthouse, hundreds of protesters gathered, shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is almighty) and “degage.”

    Last March, 19-year-old Amina posted a photo of her naked upper body on Facebook bearing the slogan “my body belongs to me, and is not the source of the honor of anyone”. She announced that she is representing the Femen movement in Tunisia.

    Founded in 2008, Femen, a Ukrainian feminist protest group with members around the world, organizes topless protests to advocate for women’s liberation. A day before the trial, two French women and a German Femen activists conducted a topless protest in Tunis in support of Amina: the first such protest organized by Femen in the Arab world. The three European women were themselves arrested and will be tried next week for public indecency, which carries a possible prison sentence, their lawyer said on Friday.

    AFP reported that they will appear in court in Tunis on June 5 for “public indecency” and an “attack on public morals,” crimes both punishable by six months in jail in Tunisia.

    Amina’s case has sparked controversy on the social media as well as among Tunisian society. During an interview with a commercial Tunisian channel last month, Amina said, “If I posted a picture of myself wearing a t-shirt with that slogan, it wouldn’t have had any impact.” She added that Tunisian women must “wake up” and realize they are living under oppression.

    Tunisian filmmaker Nadia elFani, director of the controversial film Neither God nor Master, has also joined the movement. She posted a picture of herself on her Facebook page with “freedom” written in Arabic on her forehead and “for Amina” written on her arm in French. She bares one breast painted with an Arabic word meaning “dignity.”

    In a press release, the Ministry of Religious Affairs condemned the Femen protests, considering them “provocative” and “contradictory to the morals and values of Tunisian Muslims.”

    While Amina’s case is gaining notoriety, the Tunisian economy is still struggling to recover. Many protests over economic hardship have increased in a number of Tunisian cities to pressure the new government to create job opportunities and to improve our social conditions. In fact, according to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INS), Tunisia's unemployment rate stood at 16.7% in the fourth quarter of 2012. 

    A story of two occupations

    By Omer Harari

    This coming Thursday marks a new chapter in the long, convoluted story of Natan Blanc, a 20 year-old who has been imprisoned 10 times (for 178 days all in) since last November not for any violent crime, but for refusing to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.

    In Israel, the army is the most important socializing institution, the true 'ticket into society'. Jewish men are conscripted for 3 years, women for two; so far, Arabs are exempt, and as of this week, Orthodox Jews are no longer (but I'll get to that in a minute). As Uri Misgav has written, Blanc's objection, unlike those of his predecessors, is primarily political.

    "And this type is difficult to deal with on a theoretical level. This difficulty is understandable, but at the end of the day the practical decision the system has made has been to trample a lone man who posed an obstacle. Blanc’s 178 days of imprisonment represent cowardice, vindictiveness and mostly, a terrifying inflexibility."

    But conscientious objection isn't new to Israel. This has been with us since 1982, when Israel was in the grips of the war within Southern Lebanon, which was opposed on the basis that Israel's involvement was arbitrary, ineffective, and a burden too far on the military. It arose from the experience of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon  - a shared excruciating experience that came to be described as an exercise in 'shooting and crying', wherein soldiers said they had no choice but to shoot at enemies hidden in an urban population. This was the context in which conscientious objection first appeared in Israel, among soldiers reporting for their second tour. Many of them, if they were able to change the terms of their service, still had to face intense public scrutiny, often portrayed as unpatriotic - or worse, as traitors. Blanc, instead, sees his objection, as patriotic in its own way, in that it is a moral indictment of the state's policies:

    "The main reason for my refusal is the feeling our country is going towards a non democratic condition of civil inequality between us and the Palestinians. There are two people in the same land but only the Israelis can vote in the elections.

    Once they said "This is temporary," that "the occupation will end", that soon we will have two states or a different democratic solution. Today it's clear to everyone that it is not going to end in the near future. This state of inequality is going to stay.The Israeli army has an important role in preserving this condition, and my conscience does not allow me to take part in that."

    To Blanc, the structural (and direct) violence in the Territories operates on structural violence domestically as well. It is clear that to Blanc, the Occupation of the West Bank is at least ineffective and burdensome in the way the occupation of South Lebanon was for soldiers in the 1980s.

    Natan Blanc's refusals to serve and repeated imprisonments come in the context of mass demonstrations against the inclusion of Orthodox Jews in the army  alongside their less religious peers. As the law stands now (awaiting ratification in the Knesset), the number of Yeshiva (seminary) students exempted from service each year will be limited to 1,800, out of the 8,000 or so required to register annually for the draft. It was a deal that nearly tore apart the new government's coalition in addition to the thousands who poured out in protest.

    All this said, I can't help but think that Natan and these Orthodox objectors meet at a profoundly interesting place: outside of Israel, in the Occupied Territories. Religious objectors refuse by claiming their prayer as its own form of patriotism and many Orthodox young men, for their part, have threatened to reject or disobey orders if they contradict their rabbi's teachings, particularly if they involve dismantling Israeli settlements in the West Bank - the same settlements and occupations which so shape Natan Blanc's conscientious objection.

    George Orwell once wrote, “by becoming continuous, war had ceased to exist.” The occupation isn't the only issue deeply dividing Israeli society, of course, but it is true that it has far outgrown its physical boundaries.

    Clouds over Tripoli

    By Rhiannon Smith

    Over the past few weeks even the weather in Libya seems confused about whether it is coming or going, let alone those in charge of running the country. While the climate has been unseasonably cold and overcast, Libya's politicians appear to have been caught in a storm of their own making as they are buffeted along from one faltering predicament to the next, with little in the way of tangible progress being made along the way.

    On May 5, the General National Congress (GNC) was coerced into passing the controversial Political Isolation Law by 'revolutionary' militias who besieged key ministries and refused to leave until the law was passed.  Since then the Libyan state has been trying to reassert its authority and convince the Libyan people that it is doing the best it can for the country under the current circumstances. The message which has been stressed time and again by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is that the state is still weak, therefore the public must be patient and not expect too much too soon.

    While this sentiment is undoubtedly sincere, it is not what Libyans want to hear. More than 18 months after Libya was officially declared liberated, the formation of the Commission of 60 charged with drafting Libya's constitution is still yet to take place, and the vote on the draft law for the election of this committee looks likely to be postponed over concerns about the lack of seats guaranteed for women and other minority groups.

    In terms of security, the latest attempt by the government to stamp their authority on Libya's capital city backfired in spectacular fashion when state security forces attempted to raid alleged drug and alcohol dens in Tripoli's Al-Hendi district. The alleged dealers resisted and after a heavy gunfight the security forces were forced to withdraw. This led to days of blockades and sporadic gunfire by affected residents, leaving one of Tripoli's main shopping thoroughfares in disarray and the alleged criminals still at large.

    To add to this, the current political hiatus following the passing of the Political Isolation Law (PIL) has  compounded the sense of bewilderment which many Libyans are feeling regarding the state of their country's transition. The law will come into effect on June 5 and is likely to exclude many of Libya's top politicians under sweeping rules which will ban anyone who held a key official post between 1969 and 2011 from holding political office for 10 years.

    Indeed, the law has already claimed the first of its high profile victims. Mohamed Magarief resigned as President of the GNC on May 28 in anticipation of his removal by the soon to be constituted PIL Commission. A number of ministers have also submitted their resignations.

     Magarief served as an ambassador during the early years of Gaddafi's reign although he split from the regime in 1980 and has been in opposition to Gaddafi ever since. In his resignation speech, Magarief stated that he would be one of the first to accept the legitimacy of the GNC's decision as it is in the national interest. However his departure has left many to question the legitimacy of a law which tars a man who spent 30 years opposing Gaddafi with the same brush as those who supported Muammar to the bitter end.

    This is not to say that everything in Libya is currently doom and gloom. A case in point are the two highly successful events which took place over the past two weeks and attracted foreign exhibitors and investors from all over the world. The annual Libya Build exhibition took place 19  - 23 May and attracted 715 companies interested in rebuilding Libya, while an exhibition on studying English in the UK drew over 20 schools from across the UK as well as a crowd of Libyan students eager to discover more about opportunities to study abroad.

    The challenges facing Libya are only likely to grow in the coming months as more politicians and civil servants are removed from their positions and various forces jostle to have their interests represented within the state.  Holding elections for the Constitutional Commission will be a step in the right direction but to stop this process being hijacked or derailed the state has to show some strength and follow through on their actions. I believe Libya has the will and potential to move forwards towards a more stable, coherent future, but there is no doubt there is a storm brewing;  the question is whether the state can respond fast enough to Libya's growing disillusionment to ensure that the country stays its course.

    On the World Economic Forum and globalization

    By Munir Attala

    The World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East and North Africa took place at the Dead Sea in Amman, Jordan last weekend.  Those invited were some of the region’s wealthiest businessmen and influential politicians.  The halls were packed with important people as well as people who believe themselves to be important.  For every participant in attendance, there are hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of people who are directly impacted by their decisions on a daily basis.

    As with most WEF’s, the goal was networking.  The conference provides a space where people of influence can meet, discuss, and profit from company that views the world similarly.  Although there are several information panels going on at any given moment, the’ networking area’ is never empty.  At the panels, very little is said that people have not already heard.  It is well known that the most interesting conversations take place behind closed doors, like the negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas, John Kerry, King Abdullah II and Shimon Peres, the most visible result of which so far seems to be an awkward, premature photograph.

    The organizers of the conference are realistic.  Their job is to round up the leaders of the region and bring them together for the elite version of a circle jerk.  WEF makes no moral judgments on its participants - although it claims to.  Bankers sit next to journalists, Oil Sheikhs next to educators, and CEOs next to princesses.  Although the WEF claims to be “committed to improving the state of the world”, the organization seems content to open its doors to the likes of people who have objectively made it worse.  Some years the leaders of the Arab world are better than others.  When they aren’t?  WEF can cope with that too.

    One of the most glaring issues at WEF was that of representation.  Time and time again, panels went into discussions about groups of people who were not present to voice their concerns.  A panel on employment spent a good half hour discussing the gender employment gap in the Middle East without one Arab woman there.  One panel called “Safeguarding Syria” had not a single Syrian speaker. “The youth bulge” was an oft-repeated buzzword, yet the average age of panelists (by my estimation) was 67.  Males dominated speaking time, panels, and attendance statistics.

    In the wake of the Arab Spring, the WEF featured an abundance of pro-regime voices.  At times, it almost seemed like a refuge for the 1% of the region where they could congratulate themselves without facing reality, criticism, or difficult questions.  My intention is not to demonize the rich; there are some good, well-intentioned people at WEF.  Key word: some.

    Both the King and Queen of Jordan gave eloquent, articulate speeches where they said all the right things.  I would like to congratulate Queen Rania’s speechwriter, who is a brilliant human being.  Her speech was inventive, realistic, and inspirational.  It even identified the elephant in the room - that her speech from two years ago is similar to her speech this year to the point of being interchangeable - and contained the phrase “nothing has changed”, while managing to deflect any sort of blame.  This handsome, charming couple is in their home patch at the WEF, and it is natural that they should come off as Prom King and Queen.  After all, WEF is one of the monarchs’ pet projects.

    Min Zhu, the Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, was not even talking about WEF when he best summarized what the conference strives to do; “to prevent macro instability”.  Not macro human rights violations.  Not macro wealth disparity. Macro (economic) instability. This is the WEF mindset in a nutshell.

    And I think it is dangerous.  When one looks at any situation as an aggregation of numbers and statistics, it is exceedingly difficult to empathize with those numbers.  If a CEO does not know the name of every employee in his or her company, the company is too big. There inevitably comes a time - and the world is experiencing one of those times - when a company, community, or country is asked to make a sacrifice. It is human nature to look out for the people who we know and love, but one cannot love and look out for numbers. 

    When a corporation is asked to sacrifice, those who suffer are the ones at the bottom of the chain; those nameless individuals with lives and families and no way of holding the person accountable that forced them to this point.  Instead, entire companies should have to come together, explore the situation at hand, and hold whoever is responsible accountable for their actions.  If no one is to blame, then a community consensually distributes its burden on the members who can best handle it at that time.  This model is not unheard of: it happens in the most successful of extended families and religious communities every day.  It is the core of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community”.

    An obvious question remains; what about the macro? Let’s be clear, the macro should not be the primary force of influence on people’s lives.  Globalization as we know it was born from the exploitation of natural resources and white supremacy.  The legacy of colonialism is globalization.  In order to de-colonize our societies, our economies, and our communities, we must de-globalize.  This proposal is not unheard of; anti-colonial thinkers and politicians like Mahatma Gandhi made these proposals long ago when he suggested that humans are best organized in small compounds he called “Swadeshi”.

    De-globalization is not likely in the near future, and the arc of history is long.  For now, WEF would do well to consider inclusion as an option.  Until it does, it will remain as out-of-touch as it has been to date.

    Syria and pressing concerns for the region

    By Sarah El-Richani

    While the repeated condemnations of Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of the Syrian regime are justifiable for a variety of reasons, they are myopic and overlook the foreign intervention on the side of the rebels, be it logistical or financial.

    Indeed, intervention on both sides of the conflict has become a reality and is one of the main reasons the militarised conflict has dragged on for as long as it has.

    The primary concern should therefore not be the inevitable foreign intervention in this conflict but the need for a political settlement, which would prevent the increasingly radicalised and sectarian conflict from spilling over into the region.

    Spill over events in wobbly Lebanon have thus far been scattered and contained. Last week, a fragile and, no doubt, temporary ceasefire was reached in the flashpoint city of Tripoli, which has witnessed intense fighting. Meanwhile the so-called FSA in Qusair has been lobbing rockets on the nearby Hermel district in Lebanon. Last week, two rockets fell in the southern suburb of Beirut, a stronghold of Hezbollah, less than a day after the party’s secretary general justified his movement’s involvement in Syria and called on Lebanese factions to spare Lebanon and battle out their differences in Syria. 

    Despite Hezbollah’s call to spare Lebanon and battle out differences in Syria, the rockets and an unrealistic FSA ultimatum for Lebanon to withdraw Hezbollah fighters from Qusair, amplified fears that losses in Syria might be avenged in Lebanon.

    Furthermore, and although it is yet to be confirmed, initial investigations into the murder of three Lebanese soldiers in the border town of Arsal last Tuesday have linked the crime to members of the Farouk brigade fighting against the regime in Syria. This is the second time this year Lebanese soldiers have been targeted and killed in the border town of Arsal, known to be sympathetic with the rebels and a main conduit for weapons and fighters.

    As the Lebanese parliament unconstitutionally voted on extending its term by 17 months, citing the precarious situation as well as disagreements over a new electoral law, another neighbour seems to be getting jittery. Israel has struck Syrian targets for the third time this year. While the Syrian army has done very little to liberate the occupied Golan heights in recent decades, contrary to what Assad claimed in his latest interview, Israeli involvement in Syria or clashes with Hezbollah are feasible.

    All the while, the number of refugees continues to rise, overwhelming neighbouring countries who are straining to cope financially and logistically. Furthermore, the kidnappings and sectarian atrocities committed in Syria show no sign of abating. While the Geneva talks, if they are actually held, are tipped to fail, a political settlement may well be the only hope, not only for Syria, but also for the region. 

    Algeria: has the post-Bouteflika era already begun?

    By Hicham Yezza

    Looking back on half a century of post-independence policies, the most damaging, and least forgiveable failure of Algerian governance is arguably not economic or political (though there have certainly been plenty of those) but a cultural and moral one: the failure to honour Algeria’s foundational ethnic and cultural diversity in all its rich and varied dimensions - in particular, the unwillingness of the country’s successive political elites to properly address Algeria’s “Question Berbère”.

    Anyone with a passing knowledge of Algerian - and, indeed, Maghreb - history knows it is a land of linguistic, ethnic and cultural hybridity: whilst virtually the entire Algerian population is nominally Arabic-speaking, at least a quarter (some unofficial estimates put this as high as 75%) of Algerians are Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa (though most prefer the autochthonous term: Amazigh). This has been the case for most of the fourteen centuries since the early waves of Arab-Muslim foutouhats (conquests) reached North Africa in the early eighth century, leading to the whole region embracing Islam and, as a direct result, the Arabic language. Nevertheless, Tamazight - the family of disparate but connected Berber languages and dialects - has persisted, and remains dominant in a number of regional enclaves across the Maghreb.

    Unsurprisingly, one of the key strategies of early French colonialism in Algeria has been to drive a wedge between Arab and Berber identities by vigorously constructing a narrative pitting an indigenous Berber population against an Arab, alien one. This classic ‘divide and rule’ approach proved militarily crucial to France’s ultimately successful conquest of the country over the course of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent efforts to consolidate its colonisation project. In line with the standard Orientalist blueprint, significant French academic and intellectual efforts were centred on sharpening this detected Berber-Arab dichotomy, and pushing its accompanying thesis that no such a thing as a Nation Algerienne had ever existed. This thesis, conveniently enough, was itself the cornerstone of the Algerie Francaise myth-making, later deployed to undermine the legitimacy of Algerians’ mounting calls for their right to self-determination. Ultimately, in launching their war of independence in November 1954, Algerians emphatically rejected this divisive bait, presenting instead an unshakeably united front against French hegemony, and rejecting numerous attempts to re-cast them into warring tribes fighting one another.

    Once independence was clinched in 1962- against overwhelming odds and at the cost of immense sacrifice - the challenge awaiting the young nation was enormous: in particular, the reversal of 132 years of systemic colonial assaults on Algerians’ indigenous cultural and linguistic heritage and identity. Many thus welcomed post-independence education policies that reaffirmed and rehabilitated Algeria’s Arab and Muslim identities. However, on the Berber question, the expected acknowledgement of what was, after all, an undeniable linguistic, historical and anthropological reality never materialised. Instead, the question was simply ignored, swept under the carpet like an unpleasant, minor historical interlude nobody was allowed to mention or revisit. To add insult to injury, those who dared challenge the official orthodoxy were routinely dismissed and silenced as enemies of the revolution and agents of la main étrangère (the ‘foreign hand’ of external powers).

    In the years since, in spite of a plethora of national charters and constitutional revisions, the recognition of Tamazight remained conspicuously absent from the menu of reforms on offer: a language that was spoken by millions of Algerians, often as their native tongue, officially did not exist. Instead, there was plenty of the opposite impulse: successive governments engaging in provocative, irresponsible, opportunistic policies seemingly intended to exacerbate differences, stoke up resentment and feed regionalist discourses. The largely well-intentioned Arabisation policy, aimed at overturning the damage inflicted by more than a century of colonial cultural suppression, morphed, for some, into a politicised drive to entrench an absurd supremacy of one facet of Algerian identity over another.

    Unsurprisingly, this perceived cultural injustice against the nation’s Berber heritage was seen by many as a mere confirmation of the systemic economic and political injustice against Berber-speaking regions. Over the years, these grievances have given birth to a number of protest movements and initiatives – official and clandestine, cultural and political, peaceful and less so – that have continued to grow and evolve. Earlier this week, on Saturday 20 April, Algeria marked the 33rd anniversary of the Printemps Berbère (the ‘Berber Spring’) of April 1980, a landmark episode that saw the country’s first major popular protest and strike movement demanding the recognition of Tamazight as a national language, which was brutally repressed by security forces at the time.

    On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Tizi Ouzou, the capital of the Grande Kabylie, to commemorate the events, and to reiterate their calls for Tamazight to be constitutionally granted official status. In an ominous development, there were, in fact, two parallel protests. The first was organised by the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie (RCD), a national political party with an established constituency in the Kabylie region. The second, smaller demonstration was organised by the MAK (Mouvement pour l'autonomie de la Kabylie), a fringe movement that openly advocates the creation of a separate Kabyle state. For many observers, that a movement as extremist as the MAK has gained enough political ground to stage such public demonstrations is, more than anything, a serious indictment of the failure of successive national policies on the question of Tamazight.

    Official responses to these developments have been typically slow in taking shape but the signs, as always, do not encourage much optimism. Although a constitutional revision project is currently under way, there has been little indication that the status of Tamazight will be seriously reconsidered. Such complacent inertia is hardly surprising: to examine the history of Algeria’s handling of the question is to behold a litany of missed opportunities. At every major historical turn, the leadership of the day often wavered, prevaricated and then - more often than not - opted for the status quo or for the path of least resistance. With President Bouteflika poised to run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in 2014, it remains unlikely that he, or any of his potential challengers, will think of the question as an urgent one. There are some positives, however: Louisa Hanoun, the leader of the Parti des Travailleurs (PT) - and, incidentally, the first female presidential candidate in the Arab world - this week became the latest political figure to support the official recognition of Tamazight.

    In today’s Algeria, it is nonsensical to speak of strict territorial delineations along ethnic or linguistic lines. The acceleration of the decades-long process of population movements from rural hinterlands to various urban agglomerations (itself a consequence of myopic politico-economic mismanagement), has meant that virtually every town has its fair share of the country’s ethno-linguistic palette. And yet, due to the coarsening of the discourse around the issue, the subject of national cultural identity remains largely taboo, best avoided if one wants to be left in peace or not treated as a trouble-making pariah.

    One thing, however, is certain: whatever happens in the immediate future, the handling of the issue of Tamazight will be a defining test of the courage and maturity (or otherwise) of the next generation of Algerian political leaders. After half a century of petty, divisive, irresponsible identity politics, a serious reconciliation project will be needed if Algerians are to start celebrating the fascinating multiplicities that make up their shared identity and heritage rather than seeing them as perennial, toxic battlefronts.

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