The Mozabite people (Ait M'zab) are Amazigh (Berbers) who live in the M'zab valley in the northern Sahara in Algeria. The community, comprising some 300,000, is indigenous to the region, but today its survival is in question.
In December 2013 and January 2014, the Mozabites were the target of attacks by the Arab Chaamba people; the attacks occurred in several neighborhoods of Ghardaia, the capital city of the M'zab province, some 600 km south of Algiers. Mozabites were assaulted, Mozabite-owned shops were ransacked, and the city center was burned down in the clashes that ensued.
The Chaamba, a large and traditionally pastoralist, nomadic Arab tribe, have long used M'zab lands to graze their flocks. In time, they founded the town of Metlili, now an urban center with a population of about 40,000. The Chaamba also settled within and around the Mozabite cities. Over the last decade, Chaambas have repeatedly attacked Mozabites, sparking clashes between the two communities as well as casualties and destruction of mostly Mozabite property.
The Mozabites feel under attack not just from Chaambas but also, and primarily, from the Algerian state. Mozabite human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar, who resides in Ghardaia, told the Algerian daily El Watan on December 31 that the Chaamba are not the problem, but that it is the Algerian authorities that are creating the sense of uncertainty in the Mozabite community. Fekhar stated in the interview that the police allow Chaambas to attack Mozabites without intervening, and that they even sometimes participate in the aggression against the Mozabite community.
"Arabs are not the problem," he said. "Why don't the police do their job? If somebody attacks someone else, you take them to court and that's the end of it, but this is not what is going on here. They [the police] do this deliberately so that the psychosis [afflicting the Mozabites] can continue. They want the Mozabite to feel under threat.".
According to Algerian journalist Abderrahmane Semmar, the police's behavior can be explained as "Arab solidarity": "Policemen tend to be Arabs, because traditionally Mozabites do not work for the public sector but rather tend to be merchants. I imagine that the attitude of the policemen... is motivated by Arab solidarity. Most are from the area, and some are actually related to the Arab youths involved in the fighting. They also lack cultural awareness. In school, we learn nothing about the cultural diversity of our country. We graduate with only one mental framework."
Yet Algeria's General Directorate of National Security (DGSN) denies that police have been involved in the anti-Mozabite violence – even though YouTube videos, some of which have gone viral, show the police participating in the attacks alongside Chaambas.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal met with a government-created commission of Mozabite and Chambaa "wise men," but, according to human rights activist Fekhar, the government is not dealing with the real problems on the ground. He wrote: "Instead of looking after the real problems such as the shocking participation of the police in the aggressions against Mozabite houses and shops, and the desecration of tombs and mausoleums in the Chikh Baba-Salah and Chikh Ammi-Said cemeteries, which took place in the presence of the police, Prime Minister Sellal's commission proposed a bunch of solutions which are considered quite ridiculous by the Mozabites. These propositions consist of the creation of a body comprising [traditional] dignitaries – an unrecognized organization – and of the distribution of plots of land which, in fact, are already properties belonging to the Mozabite community!... Young Mozabites are asking for official apologies from the Algerian regime for the crimes committed by the police, [and are also seeking] the prosecution and punishment of those criminals, whatever their position might be, and the release of the Mozabites who were arrested in front of their homes while they were under attack."
According to Fekhar, state-sponsored racism is being perpetrated against the Mozabite because they are neither Arabs nor Sunni Muslims. The Algerian government has always stressed that the Maghreb (North Africa) is Arab, and promotes the concept of Al-Maghreb Al-Arabi – that is, an Arab North Africa free of Berber heritage. Therefore, the Mozabite, as well as the Kabyle population (Amazigh people from Kabilya, in the north of Algeria), are an obstacle to this definition. The Algerian Constitution itself states in its preamble: "Algeria, being a land of Islam, an integral part of the Great Maghreb, an Arab land..."
Furthermore, the Mozabite are Ibadi Muslims, a distinct form of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shi'ia. The Ibadis are few in number in comparison to the Sunnis and the Shi'ias, and for many centuries they have lived largely in isolated areas, principally in Oman and Zanzibar, the Tripolitania region in Libya, the island of Jerba in Tunisia, and the Mzab valley.The majority of Algeria's population is Sunni and follows the Maliki school. Hence, the Mozabite differ both in culture and in religion from the majority. According to Fekhar, the Algerian state is acting as a "colonizer" against the Mozabite, and that there is a "state policy aimed at wiping out the Mozabite identity." It is in this context, Fekhar says, that the Chaambas' violence against the Mozabites cannot be described as mere tribal clashes, as many media outlets have depicted it, but must be seen as a mirror of state discrimination against the entire Amazigh people.
The following articles are excerpts from a January 1, 2014 communique by the Amazigh World Congress (Congrés Mondial Amazigh or CMA) addressing the problem in the M'zab valley, and from the December 31, 2013 El-Watan interview with Fekhar.
Amazigh World Congress Communique: The Mozabite Community Is In Danger (Warning: Graphic Images)
"Ait M'zab, known as the Mozabite community, is one of the groups comprising the Amazigh people, which settled many centuries ago… in the valley of the M'zab river, about 600 km south of Algiers. The Mozabite community, comprising some 300,000 people, in general follows the Muslim faith of the Ibadi rite (very much a minority rite in Algeria) and is very attached to its unique religious and ancestral traditions. The Ait M'zab make a living from their crafts, trade, and oasis subsistence agriculture. According to the Algerian administrative system, the M'zab is a Wilaya (department or province) whose capital city is Taghardayt (Ghardaia in Arabic), and the other main towns are At-Isjen (Beni-Isguen), Bunur (Bounoura), Mlishet (Melika), Tajnint (El-Ateuf), Bergan (Berrianne), Zagrara (Guerrara). The M'zab belongs to the Saharan area with a desert climate and an area of some 32,000 square km. Taghardayt is included in the UNESCO Heritage List...
The M'zab Valley (courtesy Africanworldheritagesites.org)
The walled city of Ghardaia in Algeria's M'zab region
Mausoleum of Sheikh Sidi Aissa (Routard.com/photos/algerie, accessed February 3, 2014)
"Some nomadic Arab tribes, called Chaamba, who live by pastoralism, have long used the M'zab lands to graze their flocks. In time, some of these tribes settled down and founded the town of Metlili, which eventually became an urban center of about 40,000 inhabitants. However, the Chaamba also settled within and around the Mozabite cities. The Chaamba are Arabs of Bani-Suleyem [an Arab tribe that migrated to North Africa from Nejd and Hejaz in Saudi Arabia] descent; they are Sunni Muslims, of the Maliki rite (the official majority in Algeria) and have their own cultural and social practices. Consequently, the Chaamba and Mozabite communities have distinct differences on the religious, linguistic, cultural and way of life levels.
Road signs in Algeria (Ssl.panoramio.com/photo/53031901)
"After a long period of more or less peaceful relations characterized by intense commercial interaction, in the last 30 years violent conflicts have emerged between the Arab Chaambas and the Mozabites, particularly during the last 10 years, in which some died and hundreds were injured, and property belonging primarily to the Mozabites was destroyed. These outbreaks of violence reached their peak in 2013, when violent clashes recurred frequently throughout the year. According to journalists visiting the region, and also according to the testimony of many citizens and human rights advocates, there is no doubt that the Arab Chaambas, encouraged and supported by the Algerian police, have attacked [the Mozabites], while the Mozambites only tried to defend and protect themselves.
"However, the most serious fact, as reported by independent observers and supported by numerous videos and photos, is that the Algerian police are deliberately siding with the Arab Chaamba community when attacks on Mozabite property and persons take place. Groups of young Chambaas have wrecked, pillaged and set fire to shops belonging to Mozabites, and have torched vehicles, in the presence of police forces – who at the same time were firing rubber bullets and throwing gas canisters exclusively at the Mozabite population. The Algerian police also used torture as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading acts against Mozabites, very large numbers of whom were arrested arbitrarily.
"This is what was denounced by human rights organizations including the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH). In a communiqué of November 25, 2013, LADDH stated that 'the people [Mozabites] who were arrested and later released talked about inhumane practices from a previous era, and accused police of violently beating them, completely undressing them, pouring cold water on them, and standing them in front of an air conditioner.'
"In a subsequent communiqué, dated December 29, 2013, LADDH 'strongly denounces the scandalous conduct of the police, who are supposed to represent a republican institution and who [instead] uses inhuman and degrading practices.'
Following a visit to the M'zab region, a number of MPs from the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) [social democratic and secularist political party, mainly supported by Kabyles in Algeria] presented this case to the National Assembly on December 4, 2013 and [talked about] 'torture' practiced by 'those who are supposed to enforce the law,' meaning the Algerian police. They also denounced the 'racist' attitude of the police services that sided with the Chaamba community in order to attack the Mozabite community.…
"In any case, the mistreatment inflicted upon Mozabite citizens constitutes a serious violation of human rights, and the police authorities' biased behavior in favor of the Arab Chaambas is just one more piece of evidence of the Algerian state's racist attitude towards the Mozabites, and towards the Amazigh in general.
Warning: Graphic Images
Aissa Bazzine, Mozabite, attacked January 14, 2014 (Tamazgha.fr, January 17, 2014)
Kebayli Belhadj, Mozabite, 39-year-old father of three, attacked and killed January 19, 2014 (Tamazgha.fr, January 19, 2014)
"Besides, for many years now, Algerian authorities have been seizing Mozabite collective lands and sometimes even private lands, reassigning them to the Chaamba community or using them for building social housing projects for the Arab Chaambas or others from other areas of Algeria.
"This was stated by human rights advocate Kamel Fekhar, who denounced 'the appropriation of Mozabite lands' and who reports that 'presently, whole Arab neighborhoods are being built over Mozabite lands.' Citing instances of the Algerian administration's expropriation of private lands belonging to Mozabites, he claims that the lands 'were nationalized without any compensation [to the Mozabite owners] and, ultimately, some housing schemes were built on these lands aimed at accommodating Arabs who had come from afar.'
Mozabites outside a shop in a nearly deserted shopping district of Ghardaia
"According to this human rights advocate, 'it exists a State policy aimed at wiping off the Mozabite identity'. In fact, ever since the 1970s, the Algerian government has been trying to establish Arab populations in the heart of the cities of the M'zab, with the evident intent of deconstructing the Mozabite society in order to facilitate its destruction.
"It is also important to notice that the Algerian government rejects, without explicitly saying it, the Muslim Ibadi rite, which is practiced by the Mozabites or any other form of Islam different from the Sunni Maliki. On May 20 2013, Bouabdallah Ghlamallah, Algerian minister of religious affairs, insisted, in his closing address on the occasion a national symposium on religious issue, that 'the Maliki rite is nothing else, but the religious frame of reference of our country and we do not accept that this framework be touched'. This intolerant position towards different forms of Islam was subsequently relayed in the mosques though heinous speeches delivered by officials appointed by the State. This is very discriminatory and violates the freedom of conscience, which is contemplated by the Algerian constitution and by the different international agreements concerning human rights.
Policemen standing by the Chambaas
"Aware of the looming threats to their lives because of the singularity of their community, and convinced of their rights to follow and preserve their cultural traditions and customs, in 2009 some Mozabite representatives asked the government for official recognition of their community's socio-cultural and religious (Ibadi rite) uniqueness, and for juridical protection for it – but so far there has been no response. Since Algeria is... 'Arab, Islamic and Sunni Maliki,' it follows that everything that deviates from this definition is discriminated against, excluded, and fought. This is what is happening to the Mozabites, because they are Amazighs and Ibadi Muslims.
"Consequently, the Amazigh World Congress has strongly denounced the crimes and the aggressions against the Mozabite community, as well as the discrimination against and the violations of the rights of the Mozabites, and has demanded from the Algerian government:
"- The immediate creation, with the agreement of the legitimate representatives of the Mozabite community, of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the violence perpetrated against the Mozabite community, particularly the torture and the inhuman and degrading mistreatment perpetrated against it.
"- The arrest and severe punishment of the Algerian police responsible for inciting to violence and for the torture and inhuman and degrading mistreatment [of Mozabites].
"- The arrest and the judicial prosecution of the perpetrators of these crimes and acts of violence against members of the Mozabite community.
"- Just and adequate compensation for the owners of destroyed property.
"- The restitution or a just and adequate compensation for the collective lands and for the private lots which were arbitrarily taken from the Mozabites.
"- State recognition of the sociocultural, linguistic, and religious identity of the Mozabite community.
"- The state's official end to all forms of racism and discrimination against Mozabites.…"
Interview With Human Rights Activist Fekhar: "A State Policy Aimed At Wiping Out The Mozabite Identity”
Mozabites Were Culturally Killed
"First of all, what, in your opinion, triggered the events that rocked the city of Ghardaia?
"I must note that people are only looking for whatever is sensational. 'How many casualties?' 'How many wounded?'... It makes no sense to ask ourselves how it all started, as it will keep repeating itself. Ever since 1962 [Year of Algeria's independence], it is the same story that repeats itself. It has never stopped. What we are experiencing is different episodes of a horror movie. There is a political will, a consolidated state policy meant to destroy the identity of a group, and this is called ethnocide. Notwithstanding the fact that this identity should not be a threat to anyone: We are at home, on the lands of our forefathers, we speak a different language, and we practice religion in a slightly different manner. And that is all.
"But ever since [Algeria's] independence the authorities have been trying to break up this well-structured society. One should not forget that Mozabites have been living for centuries in the desert. [In the past] there was no central state. They could only rely on themselves, and organize themselves through institutions, which regulated all aspects of their lives: religion, economy, even defense. And that was fortunate, otherwise the Mozabites would have disappeared long ago. Neither the Ottomans nor the other dynasties have ever set foot here. It was only after the French invasion that a foreign power could rule over this region. After independence, there was a planned state policy aimed at eradicating the Mozabite identity. This identity has two components: Ethnically, it is one of the seven components of the Amazigh identity. The other aspect is Ibadism, which is a moderate and peaceful Islamic school of thought which is based on logic...
"Ibadism also draws from the Greek philosophy. Ibadis always favor rational argumentations […]. An Ibadis will never raise his saber to force someone to become Muslim. And this is most of what differentiates the Mozabite identity. We are peaceful and we mean no harm to anybody... There was a will to culturally dominate the peoples of North Africa. And, to our misfortune, we were colonized by the French and by their Jacobin state. Nowadays, our youth does not know Ibadism, they do not know Tamazight [Amazigh language], and they do not know anything, because of this state policy aimed at destroying our identity.
"Mozabites were culturally killed. And the most vicious tool used by the state to this end was fear... Mozabites were always considered second-class citizen who had to renounce their rights. When businessmen were investigated by dishonest inspectors, they had to pay up in silence, and those little corrupt officials lived off them. Later, the people grasped the situation, [and realized]: I am a citizen, I am a human being, and I do not accept these practices. Finally, in 2004 businessmen staged a large protest. The public authorities could not believe their eyes: 'Why? You are Mozabites and you are blocking the road?' This shows that, in their eyes, we still remain second-class citizens […].
"There Is A Problem Of Aggression Against Mozabites Carried Out By The Algerian Authorities"
"Does this mean that there is a sort of 'state racism' against the Mozabites?
"It is an avowed state racism. And since Mozabites are a minority – there are about 300,000 in the seven cities of the M'zab – they were crushed. In the beginning, the Arabs came from Metlili, and later on from other regions, and after independence many others migrated to Ghardaïa. They found jobs, peace, and, in the course of time, the one-party [National Liberation Front, FLN] state granted them benefits. We should also mention that Mozabites were deprived of their lands. At present, many Arab neighborhoods are built on top of Mozabite lands... They nationalized it without any compensation, and eventually they built housing projects for the Arabs who had come from far away.
"The Mozabites received nothing in exchange. Not even their children could benefit from these housing projects.
"Apart from this, we have no problems with the Arabs. Our problem is with the authorities which use the police to favor the Arabs and to attack the Mozabites. There is a problem of aggression against Mozabites carried out by the Algerian authorities.
"So this is neither a tribal nor an inter-community conflict?
"They want to show that these people are backward, that the Beni M'zab tribe is at odds with the Chaamba tribe. So a journalist came up with this story, he was happy [with it,] and his newspaper sold well.
"But this is completely untrue! Arabs are not the problem... Why don't the police do their job? If somebody attacks someone else, you take them to court and that's the end of it – but this is not what is going on here. They [the police] do this deliberately so that the psychosis [afflicting the Mozabites] can continue. They want Mozabites to feel under threat.
"You mentioned local dignitaries. What is your opinion about their role in this conflict?
"We are in 2013, not in the Middle Ages. They are talking about a meeting of the aâyane (dignitaries) and so on. They must be kidding! These dignitaries have no prerogatives. They have no power. This is nothing but folklore. They are only part of the ongoing injustice. These individuals are either aged imams who can do nothing and who consider the state an ogre who will eat them up, or small samasar (brokers), beznassia (wheeling and dealing) with vested interests. They are small profiteers who think only of how to gain a share of the oil revenues. This is what the aâyane are. They are the spokesmen of the Algerian regime within our society. Their task is also to frustrate the identity demands coming from our society. This is their role.
"What about the political class? Can it help defuse this crisis?
"I expect nothing from them. I myself was elected to the APC (Municipal Popular Assembly). In Algeria, elected people have no power. We live in a dictatorial, corrupt state that recognizes no right unless it has to. The parties in Ghardaia can do nothing. It is a clientele with vested interests. […]
"You have denounced incidents of torture and sexual assault during the Guerrara incidents allegedly perpetrated by the police…
"Yes, there were some cases of sexual assault and of rape in Guerrara... Policemen behave like colonizers. A policeman has carte blanche and can do whatever he likes. We also know very well that under a dictatorship, a policeman or a gendarme is not allowed to have his own opinion. When a policeman tortures or rapes inside a police station, it is because he received orders [to do so]. I said it and I repeat it: This is a war that takes different forms, waged by the Algerian regime against Mozabite society...
"The government just announced an initiative for Ghardaia. Your comment?
"This is merely smoke and mirrors!... The true problem is the police. There are laws and they should be implemented. They are talking about creating a commission, as though there were no state.... The source of the problem is known: the police. Had the police done its job right in Guerrara and Ghardaia, we would not have reached this point...
"If you are asked to take part to this dialogue, would you be willing to participate?
"No, never! I have no interest in this. I don't want to be used as tool for legitimatizing their policy. This is pure rubbish."
* A. Mahjar-Barducci is Research Fellow for North African Studies at MEMRI.
 Observers.france24.com, December 31, 2014.
 Siwel.info, December 12, 2013
 Youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=GZ5rAYGMB9U and Youtube.com/watch?v=DECRFe9vZzs&feature=player_embedded, accessed February 3, 2014.
 TSA (Algeria), January 4, 2014
 TSA (Algeria), November 29, 2013
 El-Watan (Algeria), December 31, 2013.
 El Watan (Algeria), December 31, 2013
 AFP Photo/Farouk Batiche, January 27, 2014
 Tamazgha.fr, January 19, 2014