The struggle for ethnic identities in Morocco and Algeria: A colonial legacy of inequalities

The struggle for ethnic identities in Morocco and Algeria: A colonial legacy of inequalities

“The sentences of Hirak protestors were recently confirmed in appeal by the Casablanca court, reaching up to 20 years of prison on the ground of ‘conspiracy against State’s Security’. The Hirak movement that occurred in Al-Hoceima, 5 years after the ‘20th February movement’ (which called for the end of corruption better political, social and economic opportunities, and an official recognition of the Amazigh’s culture and language), underlines the inherent connection between recognition of an identity, and the political, social, and economic inequalities for the Berbers. Properly named Amazigh, Berbers are considered the first and most dominant ethnic group in Morocco, despite its identification as an “Arab country”. In reality, the question of identity and political rights in Morocco could be hardly understood without acknowledging the country’s colonial past[1].”

by Shahar Lahdifi

Similarly to Algeria, Morocco’s notion of national identity is the result of a long process of colonial and post-colonial legitimisation of power. Contemporary national identity is in reality the legacy of a social division imposed by the French colonial state, between Arabs and Amazighs on the one hand, and Muslims and non-Muslims on the other[2]. Two different approaches and types of colonial rules were enforced by the French in both countries. The colonisation of Algeria was characterised by an assimilationist approach through direct colonial rules, whereas Morocco was a protectorate controlled through associationism and indirect colonial rules[3].

While the colonisation of Algeria in 1830  resulted in full control by the French following a debt crisis,  occupation in Morocco from 1912 maintained the existence of the Makhzen (Moroccan government) to favour financial recovery. As a consequence of these different colonial policies, Algeria has suffered from ethnographical blindness through the forced deletion of its different ethnic cultures and values and the adoption of those of the colonisers, while Morocco has been victim of an ethnographical simplification, consisting of the reinvention and simplification of the ethnographical map, history and culture.  Ultimately, both countries suffered from an arbitrary division created on the ground of ethnicity, aimed to establish a French policy of divide-and-rule.

Following a long struggle for independence, the two states had the important task of preserving the integrity of their respective territories. As colonial rule did little to create a shared identity, Algeria and Morocco’s first objective was to gain legitimacy through the shaping of national identity[4]. Both former Moroccan Sultan King Mohammed V and former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella imposed a collective identity enshrined in Islamic and Arabic roots, disregarding the Amazighs who were the first inhabitants of Morocco, before the arrival of Arabs and Islam in the 7th Century. In fact, the Arabic and Islamic roots were the two main features of political and social distinction between the colonists and the natives. In the Algerian colony, Muslims had to give up Islam to become first-class citizen. Thus, Islam closely associated to Arabs, became a symbol of resistance during post-colonial time. Indeed, Amazighs were deemed to be favoured and associated to the colonial state regarding their more secular customs, sometimes detached from Islam. Following the independence, their distinct legal customs were suppressed under Islamic laws and unification against the colonial state resulted in Islamisation and Arabisation of the national identity, reaching the demands of the Arab nationalists.

In parallel, Islam as a symbol of unity is also a social reality for a part of the Algerian and Moroccan diaspora in France[5]. Following post-colonial immigration in France, the third generation descendants of immigrants are sometimes facing “facial” discrimination, indifference, and humiliation by the police and the justice system, especially in some urban areas of France. Coming from a common colonial past, to a common discriminatory situation, young descendants lean on Islam, a common feature of differentiation. Furthermore, the immigrants and their descendents are also broadly identified under the category “Arab” or “Maghreb” population of France, disregarding any ethnic distinction, but creating an implied separation between descendants of immigration and French descendants.

However, in Morocco and Algeria, the increased Islamisation and Arabisation of national identity is rather a way of unification than distinction. Yet, this post-colonial unification contributed to large inequalities between ethnicities, as it had an impact on economic and social development for the Amazighs. Significant claims were made to decrease Arabisation in order to include the Berbers and Kabyles as part of the collective identity, especially concerning their language and culture in the educational system.

On March 1980, strikes occurred in Tizi Ouzou and the Kabyle districts of Algiers, known as the “Berber Spring”[6]. Thousands of young Berbers joined demonstrations for the official recognition of their language, as part of the Algerian national history and identity. It was not until the end of the violent Kabyle protests, called “Black Spring” in 2001, that former President of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika officially recognized the Tamazight as a national language through a constitutional amendment. In Morocco, the process has taken longer due to the complicated composition of the population, as the Berbers are divided into 4 major groups (Rif, Braber, Shluh and Soussi) and those groups are further divided into tribes.

On August 20th, 1994, King Hassan II of Morocco announced the teaching of Tamazight in middle-school following international pressure by the Human Rights Commission of Vienna[7]. The rise of the Arab Spring in February 2011 incited a movement in Morocco. Their revindications concerned a larger recognition of Amazigh culture and language, alongside wider political rights. This movement was judged too significant to ignore, considering the geopolitical context, and King Mohammed VI of Morocco was constrained to answer to the political demands. A new Constitution was enacted on the 30th July 2011, recognising the “Berber components” of the country[8].

The claim for identity recognition reveals a deeper struggle for economic, social, and political rights. In 2016, the death of a Berber fish vendor, Mohsen Fikri, who saw his merchandise confiscated by a policeman, unleashed the anger of thousands of Berbers in the Rif region of Morocco. The Hirak movement was born and spread throughout the whole country as well as in Algeria, claiming the end of an economic blockade affecting Amazigh regions[9]. Protestors also called for equality and the end of social discrimination, particularly in regard to employment and education. For example, illiteracy and unemployment rates in the Rif region of Morocco are higher than the national average, affecting almost half of the population. Despite infrastructure projects led by the state, the number of health facilities in the region remain fundamentally low. Access to water and electricity is disparate, as 13.3% of the population have access to clean water in rural areas compared to 91.4% in urban areas[10]. Berbers protest the discrimination experienced at  the hands of the elite governing class, who are out of touch with their reality, especially following the sentencing of protestors. Despite new participatory mechanisms enshrined in the new Constitution, civil rights and freedoms remain controversial in Morocco.

From colonisation to post-colonialism , collective identity in Morocco and Algeria has always been dynamically negotiated and reimagined in interaction with political, social, and economic dynamics. Indeed, questions of identity are often indicative of profound political, social and economic (in)stabilities and (in)securities.

 [1]Jonathan Wyrtzen, Colonial Legitimization-Legibility Linkages and the Politics of Identity in Algeria and Morocco, Yale University, European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 58, N°2, 2017, pp. 205-235 
[4]Jonathan N.C. Hill, Identity and instability in Postcolonial Algeria, The Journal of North African Studies, Vol.11, N°1, March 2006
[5]Hugues Lagrange, Le renouveau religieux des immigrés et de leurs descendants en France, Revue française de sociologie, Vol. 55, n°2, 2014
[6]Jonathan N.C. Hill, Identity and instability in Postcolonial Algeria, The Journal of North African Studies, Vol.11, N°1, March 2006
[7]Perspective monde, Reconnaissance des revendications berbères au Maroc,Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines, Université de Sherbrooke, Québec, 20 août 1994
[8]Preamble of the Moroccan Constitution of 201
[9]Reda Zaireg, Rif Crisis Reveals Failure of Development in Morocco, 2 January 2018, Orient XXI,,2197
[10]Nadia Lamlili, Tensions à Al Hoceima : les chiffres des inégalités sociales qui expliquent la grogne marocaine, 25 mai 2017, Jeune Afrique, 

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