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Recently, there has been a surge in the news about the Amazigh Movement for the self-determination of Kabylie (MAK) that seeks the independence of Algeria‘s Kabylie region. In August 2021, the Algerian judiciary issued an international arrest warrant against the movement leader, Ferhat Mehenni, accusing him and his movement of setting fires that destroyed large areas of the mountainous region.
According to the Algerian judiciary, Mehenni was also involved in burning the singer Jamal Ben Ismail alive, who volunteered to put out the fires in the Nath Irathen region. The singer was killed by the Amazigh residents who suspected his involvement in setting the fires. As per the accusation against Mehenni, the investigations confirm that foreign funding was responsible for the escalations in the region. In a press conference, Public Prosecutor Sayed Ahmed Murad stated that the investigation revealed it was done with premeditation by the MAK, not to mention the accusations of collaborating with foreign parties. Murad also pointed out that international arrest warrants have been issued against 28 people, besides Mehenni, who has been in exile in France for several years.
That is the first time that Algeria has issued an arrest warrant against Mehenni. Previously, the Algerian government had indirectly accused him of collaborating with foreign forces hostile to Algeria. As for Mehenni, he denied all the accusations against him. He wrote on his Facebook account: “On what basis did Algeria issue an arrest warrant against me? This is insane. We are peaceful political fighters. We only demand the right to live like the rest of the world.”
He added: “I asked Lawyers Without Borders to defend my rights. I am ready to surrender myself to the Algerian authorities if they find the slightest evidence of my involvement in the murder of Jamal Ben Ismail or in setting fires in the Kabylie region.”
As for the interim Kabylie government established by the MAK, its spokesman, Aksel Ameziane, told AFP: “We demand an international investigation into the young man who was burned to death and about the fires that are breaking out in the Kabylie region in northern Algeria.” Ameziane stated that they wrote to the UN and contacted the Security Council, the EU and the African Union. According to him, there are ongoing calls with Amnesty International about this issue. He also stressed that the movement “continues to refute these allegations,” asserting that the MAK is peaceful and that the Algerian state considers it a terrorist organization “because it criticizes the actions of the regime.”
An Amazigh Identity
The MAK is one of the most well-known political organizations opposing the Algerian regime since the early 2000s. It is an Amazigh movement that demands self-determination in the Kabylie region. Demanding independence from Algeria prompted the Algerian authorities and its media to consider the MAK a separatist movement.
Ferhat Mehenni, who founded the movement, is known as aka Ferhat Imaziɣen Imula. He is an Algerian Amazigh singer, poet, politician and dissident, born in the Kabylie region, specifically in Ilula Amalou in the Bozeguin district of Tizi Ouzou province, east of the capital Algiers. The movement emerged in 2001 during violent clashes that erupted within the Kabylie region between the Algerian security forces and the protestors that lasted for a year and rendered many victims.
Ferhat appointed himself president of the state of Kabylie and repudiated Algeria. Therefore, the Algerian authorities decided to strip him of his citizenship. He named nine ministers in his government and established the currency of Kabylie and a passport for the region, despite the lack of official recognition.
Since its founding in the early 2000s, the MAK has been active in France, where it found a haven to escape security pursuits. Most of its activists settled in Paris, where its president, Ferhat Mehenni, also resides, especially since the AFP described it in May 2021 as a qualified for and pro-democracy organization.
Most leaders of the MAK originated from the region of Kabylie, whose inhabitants speak the Amazigh language. Some of them demanded the recognition of all the different cultural traditions in Algerian society and then called for independence.
The movement’s activity is completely banned in Algeria, as the government accuses it of being a separatist and racist movement against the Arabs, especially since it considers it a matter of unity and Algeria is unfamiliar with separation, but rather, there is ethnic and cultural diversity. The advocates of autonomy, such as Kamal Eddine Fekhar, think that the government is complicit in committing crimes against humanity by Sunni Arabs against the Amazighs. Fekhar comments followed arresting 25 people in 2015 by the Algerian authorities. The authorities prosecuted several minority rights activists on terrorism charges despite the lack of evidence.
Motives for Escalation Against the Movement
In 2021, the Algerian government began comprehensive confrontation measures against the separatist MAK by listing it as a terrorist organization and intensifying security crackdowns. There are different justifications for the government’s behaviour, for example, the movement’s adoption of armed action.
In 2018, Mehenni called on the people of the Kabylie to form a popular protection force in the region to replace the “occupying” Algerian security services. Mehenni justified this at a conference in London by saying: “Why am I asking you to do that? Because without power we will only be poets who sing about our hopes. We are now like this, and I am now like that. We will not control our reality, and we will not be able to protect our children from the Algerian security forces who attack them using brute force whenever they want to protest.”
Mehenni then rejected the accusations levelled against him of inciting the Kabylie to an armed uprising. He said that he called on advocates of independence from Algeria to only “protect themselves.” In defence of his argument, Mehenni said: “The activists of the movement are subject to all forms of persecution. The Algerian security forces arrest them arbitrarily, whether in groups during protests or individually inside their residences and even from universities. Therefore, we must have the power to protect ourselves. This is our legitimate right.”
There are other explanations for the government’s escalations against the movement, including the support it appeals from foreign parties, such as European and American support for its cause and its coordination with neighbouring countries such as Morocco.
In July 2021, Morocco’s permanent representative to the U.N., Omar Hilale, called for the right of self-determination for the inhabitants of the Algerian Kabylie region. Outreaching to Israel was also one of the movement’s international activities. Mehenni gave a speech in the Knesset in 2012, which sparked widespread political condemnation in Algeria, especially as he announced his support for having an Israeli embassy in the Kabylie region.
The escalation repercussions
The political isolation of Kabylie increased with the region’s boycott of the general elections in Algeria. The last legislative elections, held in June 2021, witnessed a state of violence, coinciding with closing many polling stations. Participation rates in the Kabylie region did not exceed 0.85 per cent, which is a faint rate.
The Kabylie boycott of the general elections foreshadows to isolate the region, mainly after they refrained from participating in the presidential elections and the referendum on the constitution. However, the Algerian government is making exceptional efforts to contain the anger of the Kabylie region, as it recognized the Amazigh language in the 2016 constitutional amendments, which paved the way for the recognition of the cultural rights of the Amazighs.
Also, this escalation had international repercussions, such as Algeria’s severing of diplomatic relations with Morocco and the deterioration of its relations with France. Despite issuing an international arrest warrant against Mehenni, Paris is still stalling his extradition. This stance increased tension in the Algerian-French relations. Mohamed Antar Daoud, the Algerian Ambassador in Paris, issued a statement of condemnation against AFP that described the MAK as a qualified for and pro-democracy organization.
On the other hand, the pro-MAK supporters believe that the escalation of the Algerian government is nothing more than an attempt to defeat the entire movement. Emily Hawthorne, an analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa at Stratfor, emphasized that this crackdown “is a strategy to divide and conquer the whole protest movement.”
It seems clear that there has been a change in the government’s policy towards the separatist movement since its inception until today. There is a tendency to increase the pace of repression against the movement accused of terrorism. What made it easier for the government to execute its agenda for the movement was the popular anger over the brutal assassination of Jamal bin Ismail, and the great resentment it left behind and holding the separatist organization responsible.
The authority also utilizes the fear of this movement, and the Islamic Rashad movement, to accuse the movement’s rallies of being infiltrated, as a pretext for persecuting them. It seems that the state of tension in the Kabylie region will continue, given the absence of compromises between the Algerian government and the Amazigh people in the region who wish to have more space to express their cultural and political identity.