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Debate: Sectarian tension in Algeria is a serious problem - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Ethnic and sectarian conflicts represent a real challenge to Algeria’s stability, as they adversely affect the unity and cohesion of the country’s national fabric. This is principally due to the fact that such conflicts are classified, in most cases, as protracted social conflicts. These social conflicts exist in part because they represent value systems that cannot be negotiated or exchanged.

Indeed, social and cultural clashes form some of the most serious challenges confronting Algeria. The most severe clashes are between Arabs and minority groups, namely the Berbers. This type of conflict is not new to the political, social and security situation in the Algerian state, having existed since independence from French colonial rule in 1962. However, these issues are playing out more clearly in Algeria today than ever before.

It is quite possible that new phenomena—such as the worldwide information revolution, the emergence of cross-border social movements, globalization and growing fears among minorities of losing their identities—are playing a pivotal role in creating tension between the many elements of Algerian society, although we must admit these phenomena can affect any country and are not limited to Algeria alone. Within Algeria today, however, the tensions between different cultural groups appear to be more pronounced, and they are becoming a recurrent problem. This can be attributed to the inability of the Algerian government to reach an agreement to settle these conflicts. The government has given priority to security options to deal with the conflicts, rather than focusing on the phenomena that cause the conflicts in the first place.

This has made room for the emergence of fundamentalist movements, especially those of a radical religious orientation, to aggravate social conflicts and threaten the social fabric of the state. These fundamentalist groups dramatically affect existing conflicts in Algeria, the greatest example of which can be found when looking to the conflict between Arabs and Berbers in Ghardaïa province, southern Algeria. That province has recently witnessed renewed tensions and sectarian clashes between followers of the Maliki and Ibadi streams of Islam and the Berbers. All attempts to defuse the crisis, both by the Algerian government as well as by civilians, have so far failed.

The conflict in Ghardaïa is rooted in the historical relations and ethnic problems that have existed between the two groups since the days of independence, and they serve as fuel to re-ignite tensions at any time. As a result of these confrontations, many on both sides have been killed, causing the gaps between the different factions in the province to widen and deepen. Each side accuses the other of treason and of following agendas that serve third parties, yet the most enduring criticism is always directed towards the Algerian government, which stands accused of serving one party to the conflict at the expense of the other. This has led to the failure of the Algerian government in containing the conflict and developing solutions to settle these issues.

It could be argued that the emergence of the cross-border religious groups that have recently come to the fore, especially the growing phenomenon of fundamentalist Sunni militants in the Arab world, is one of the factors that has aggravated and extended the conflict. The hardline speeches given by Sunni militant and fundamentalist groups have challenged Ibadi doctrine, not only intensifying and solidifying the conflict over time but also engendering a struggle for identity among the people of the region. These factors, coupled with the deteriorating economic situation and high unemployment rates, have served to create divisions and instability.

In addition, Algeria has witnessed a conflict between Arabs and Tuaregs, mainly in the city of Bordj Badji Mokhtar in the southern Adrar province bordering Mali. Algerian authorities are seeking to contain the conflict by working with the elders of both tribes, as well as with religious authorities. Yet the spread of the population over the borders remains one of the most dangerous factors of this conflict, as the Arabs and Tuaregs of the region turn to their cousins in neighboring countries to provide support whenever clashes arise. This in turn could give the conflict a regional—even international—dimension. It could also lead to secessionist moves. At the very least, damage would be the certain result of any entry of external actors into the heart of the conflict.

The government has dealt with this conflict—so far unsuccessfully—through security measures. The state must consider other, more effective options to solve the conflict, such as development initiatives.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.

Kamel Abdallah

Kamel Abdallah

Kamel Abdallah researches Maghreb affairs at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

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