Since the Algerian government announced, on January 5, that the new constitution would recognise Berber (Tamazight) as an official language, the North African press has been abuzz with speculation and opinion.

In mid-January, as Amazigh communities across the Maghreb celebrated Yennayer, the Amazigh new year, activists hoped that 2966 (2016 on the Western calendar), would be the year when their language was finally honoured by the Algerian government. 

Arabic-language media in the Middle East took notice of the anticipation, and began running primers and roundtables on Amazigh history, pondering if the National Liberation Front (FLN) government would indeed recognise the language after decades of stalling. In 2002, the government had granted Tamazight status as a "national" language, after large-scale rioting in Kabylia left dozens dead, but there had been little progress since.

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On Monday, February 7, the Algerian parliament declared that a package of reforms had been passed, including a measure making Tamazight an official language. The constitution will also reinstate a two-term limit on presidential terms and establish an electoral commission.  

Official status 

The Amazigh movement has been pushing for "official" - and not just "national" - status, so that their language can be accepted on administrative documents.

Tamazight will now be accepted on official documents, while Arabic will remain the language of government. 

As the new constitution states, "Arabic is the national and official language. Arabic remains the official language of the state."


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A subsequent article adds: "Tamazight is also a national and official language. The state shall work to promote and develop it in all of its linguistic variety used within the national territory. An Algerian Academy of the Amazigh Language shall be created, placed under the president of the republic."

The most common explanation for the timing of this decision is that the political reforms are intended to facilitate a presidential transition.

 

Last week's declaration has unleashed a firestorm of debate: What script will the Tamazight language be written in - Arabic, French, or Tifinagh (as in Morocco)? Which dialect of Tamazight spoken by 10 million Algerians - Chaoui, Kabyle, Mozabite, Touareg - will become the "standard" one? And why is the regime doing a sudden turnaround on language policy?

The issue of what language best expresses the identity of modern Algeria is decades old, and inextricably linked to the French colonial period. 

French colonialism viewed Arabs negatively as despotically inclined outsiders, while the Berbers were seen as "fiercely independent" and, with their village councils, more democratically oriented - "almost European" in their love of freedom.

In La Berberie, l'Islam, et la Francaise (1950) the French colonial historian Eugene Guernier wrote: "The Berbers are part of the rational Occident in formal opposition to the Arabs, who are above all of the imaginative Orient."

He predicted: "[The Berber] will easily assimilate to our ideas, to our labour methods." 

Arabisation policies

Upon gaining independence, the FLN government inverted this colonial ordering, and established a state said to be historically Arab and Islamic. Arabisation policies were put in place, and Berber dialects were suppressed.

Abandoned Berber village, Algeria [Getty]

In the 1970s, the Boumediene regime would describe Amazigh identity as both backward (part of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya) and colonialist (favoured by the French). 

Amazigh political agitation, through the 1980s and 1990s, would lead Algerian state officials to, in 1996, adopt a constitution that acknowledged "Amazighite" as one of the  three "fundamental components" of Algerian identity, alongside Islam and "Arabite". 

Twenty years later the Algerian government has finally granted Tamazight official status, with the FLN's secretary-general, Amar Saidani, straight-facedly declaring that "The FLN was the first political party in government to demand the officialisation of Tamazight".


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The most common explanation for the timing of this decision is that the political reforms are intended to facilitate a presidential transition.

Algeria's 78-year old president is ailing, and the country is facing tumbling oil prices - which means cuts in subsidies could unleash public anger. The new constitution is thus a way to pre-empt civil unrest

Others think that Algerian officials are mobilising Amazigh nationalism and language - along with Sufism - as a way to counter the Islamist and Salafi-jihadist currents emanating from the Middle East.

Others yet - especially critics - opposed to the officialisation of Tamazight suspect that external pressure is behind the decision. Speaking on a roundtable, the Algerian pundit Idriss Rabouh warned that the new language policy would open the "gates of hell" in Algeria, as different Amazigh groups would fight to have their particular dialect chosen as the official one.

Critics opposed to the officialisation of Tamazight suspect that external pressure is behind the decision.

 

He also noted that the article in the Algerian constitution that dealt with Tamazight was suspiciously similar to that section of the Moroccan constitution that officialised Tamazight in the kingdom in 2011, adding that this resemblance was probably due to French pressure on its former colonies.

His interlocuter, Ahmed Assid, a Moroccan linguist, responded that there was no need to resort to conspiracies: the lawyers who crafted the Algerian constitution looked to the Moroccan document simply because their next-door neighbours were the first North African nation to officialise Tamazight.

The role of the French language also looms large in this debate.

Abdallah Djaballah of the Islamist justice Party wrote that if the Algerian Academy decided that Tamazight would be written in Latin alphabet that would be "very dangerous" for the Arabic language: It would empower the French language and set Algeria on a disastrous course towards Turkish-style secularism. (The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, abandoned the Arabic script for a modified Latin alphabet in 1928.)

Amazigh activists have been cautiously optimistic, welcoming the new constitution yet decrying the way the ruling party has tried to claim credit for this hard-won achievement.

They also point out that despite the recent decision, Arabic still has a higher political status - and will continue to do so until the Algerian Academy creates a standardised Tamazight language - and perhaps even thereafter.

Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

Source: Al Jazeera