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Algeria: The case for diversity; Demagogues and Arabisers

By Gilbert Grandguillaume, Le Monde diplomatique, February 1997

The future of the Maghreb hangs on the outcome of the struggle being waged in Algeria between the ruling military junta and the various armed Islamist groups. In recent weeks the violence, which the authorities in Algiers call residual terrorism, took a spectacular turn for the worse. During the month of Ramadan the everyday tragedies of the civil war escalated into a frenzy of throat slitting and car bombing.

The new surge of violence can be partly explained by the rejection (confirmed by President Liamine Zeroual on 24 January) of a political settlement based on the document produced by the Rome meeting of the combined opposition in January 1995, known as the Sant’Egidio platform. It can also be attributed to the government’s policy of continued repression. Not for the first time, a valuable opportunity was allowed to slip away after the November 1995 presidential election, which gave General Zeroual a measure of legitimacy and showed the people’s attachment to peace. Yet the military junta intensified the formation of civil defence militias. This privatisation of the war has accelerated the disintegration of society. Inevitably, personal actions by the armed groups have led to reprisals and vendettas. No prisoners are taken on either side. The situation has become so confused that recent car bombs in the pro-Islamist working-class areas of Algiers have been attributed to the security forces.

Although Washington does not rule out the possibility of an eventual Islamist victory, the western powers are still backing the junta. With their loans and investments they are financing the escalation of the dirty war and the arrangements for next spring’s legislative elections. These could give rise to a new blood bath.

On 17 December 1996 the Algerian Transitional National Council (CNT), the non-elected legislative assembly, voted unanimously to adopt a law on generalisation of the use of the Arabic language. Its main stipulation is that by 5 July 1998 (or the year 2000 in the case of higher education) all public administrations, institutions, enterprises and associations, of whatever nature, are required to use only the Arabic language in all their activities, including communication and administrative, financial, technical and artistic management. The act specifies that The use of any foreign language in the deliberations and discussions of official meetings is forbidden (1).

At independence in 1962 Algeria was extensively French-speaking and French-educated. Today’s Algeria is largely Arabised, and the new law purports to make the Arabisation total. In fact it is a demagogic measure which the government hopes will appeal equally to the Islamists and the old war-horses of the FLN (which ruled Algeria from independence until 1991). Uselessly on both counts: nothing is going to win the Islamists over, and the sacred cause of the Arabic language has been worn out by misuse. The only way for Algeria’s rulers to establish their legitimacy would be to develop democracy, starting with freedom of expression for the people; whereas the Arabisation law constitutes an obstacle to this process.

In the west, which is ill-informed on the subject of Algeria, this measure can only deepen the incomprehension and confusion. Many people in France, for example, already see Arabisation as synonymous with Islamism. To dispel some of the confusion, clarification is needed on three points: the nature of Arabisation and what is at issue; what has already been done about it in Algeria; and the connection between Arabisation and the basic question of political legitimacy.

Arabisation, as the term is understood in the Maghreb, means restoring the Arabic language. The people of Algeria speak their various mother-tongues, either Arabic or Berber, depending on the region. Each of these languages, which are unwritten, has several local variants or dialects. Before colonisation, the only written language was the so-called classical or literary Arabic introduced, together with Islam, in the seventh century. After colonisation, French—both written and spoken—was imposed and acquired the status of official language.

When they achieved independence, the Maghreb countries all decided to restore the Arabic language to the place it had lost under colonisation. No one, however devoted they may be to French or European culture, can reasonably question the legitimacy of this choice. A society whose true identity had been denied for a hundred and thirty years could not begin to reconstruct itself without restoring the bedrock of that identity: the Arabic language, closely associated with Islamic culture. No government, faced with a population that expected independence to bring domination by the roumis (2) to an end, would have found it politically expedient not to promise to restore Arabic to its pre-eminent place. And the Arab countries of the Middle East, which had supported the Algerians in their independence struggle, exercised friendly pressure in the same direction.

Two methods were regarded as feasible. One, which may be called translation, consisted of saying and doing in Arabic what had previously been said and done in French. In the other, which can be called conversion, Arabic was seen essentially as the expression of a different culture: the wish was not to reject modern technical advances, but to restore close links with the culture that, for lack of a better term, can be called Arab-Islamic. The choice was between two ideological options: to accept the attainments transmitted through colonisation or to reject them. One was bilingual, the other monoglot. It is not difficult to see what political uses could be made of these ideologies; no radical choice was possible between them and the only practical solution was compromise.

Factional struggles

The group most actively promoting Arabisation after 1962 consisted of Algerians of predominantly or exclusively Arabic culture, anxious to find their own place in an overwhelmingly French-speaking setting. Cadres educated in Koranic schools (medersas) and intellectuals from the Arab universities, often with a religious or literary training, ruled that only a non-bilingual Algerian educated in an Arab country could be considered Arabised. During the presidency of Ahmed Ben Bella (1962-1965) their influence was counterbalanced by the progressive wing of the FLN, and the president openly declared that Arabisation does not mean Islamisation.

Houari Boumedienne, Algeria’s second president (1965-1979), adopted a more radical approach. In 1968 he imposed Arabisation on the civil service, ordering bureaucrats to learn enough Arabic to work in the language within three years. Not many of them managed to do so, but this measure had the effect of opening the doors of the civil service to Arabists. Much the same happened in education, where Arabisation was intensified after 1970 under the influence of Abdelhamid Mehri, head of primary and secondary education. Higher education resisted for a while longer before it too was drawn into the reform.

During the presidency of Chadli Bendjedid (1979-1991), the state was plunged into factional struggles. Arabisation of higher education was pursued through the 1980s, when Berber movements opposed to the process appeared on the scene, followed soon afterwards by the Islamist movement. The absence of development and the institutionalisation of corruption prompted the appearance of an opposition which progressively adopted the Islamists’ discourse. Faced with this tidal wave casting doubt on its legitimacy, the regime tried to restore its fortunes with concessions to Islam (3). The confusion culminated in electoral campaigns, during which the Islamist parties presented themselves quite straightforwardly as parties of God.

The Arabic language is linked to the two sources of legitimacy on which the government draws: the struggle for national liberation and the defence of Islam. When Algerian leaders want to assert their legitimacy, they refer to their fight for independence against French colonisation during the armed struggle launched on 1 November 1954. They govern in the name of the one and a half million martyrs (even though history makes it clear that the struggle was not just between the Algerian revolutionaries and France, but also between different factions of mujahedin) (4). From this point of view, Arabic was the national language and French that of the colonist. The endless repetition of this argument had effectively tarred the francophone classes, who had a virtual monopoly of power, with the colonial brush; so to assuage this guilt by association they cooperated readily with Arabisation measures.

At the same time, the Arabic language is closely associated with the birth and development of Islam. So the promoters of the Arabisation strategy sought to extend the ultimate legitimacy, embodied in Islam alone, to the political establishment. However, the excesses of the past few years have made clear the difference between Islam and Islamism. The majority of the population disapproves of the extremist form taken by the Islamist movements and dislikes their attitudes. The Islam to which it is attached as the foundation of its identity embodies a morality whose broad lines—apart from certain specific practices—(5) approach those of the universal morality practised by believers and secularists everywhere.

In the political discourse, Arabisation is presented as a competition between Arabic and French. This is true enough in the sense that Arabic, as the national and official language, is to replace French. But Arabisation is also presented as a conflict with France, and even with those Algerians who use French in their working or private lives, denounced as hizb fransa (members of the party of France).

Ordinary Algerians quickly understood that the Arabic-French split overlaid another: the rift between Arabic and people’s spoken mother-tongues, especially the Berber languages (of which Kabyle is the most widely known). Like their former French Jacobin masters in their day, the ideologues of Arabisation want to see the total linguistic unification of their country. Hence their tirades against the Arabic dialects, which they consider degenerate forms of pure classical Arabic. Hence, too, their attempts to confuse the situation by declaring, for example, that written Arabic is the mother-tongue since it is the ancestral language. Educational directives have been issued ordering this written language to be taught as a spoken one. Like regional patois in yesterday’s France, Arabic dialects are seen in Algeria as incorrect forms, faults that teaching ought to correct, if necessary by accusing the pupil or even the adult citizen of unworthy behaviour. The Algerian speaker, once called a bougnoule (wog) by the French colonists, is now termed an uncivilised sauvage by his own rulers—an example of what the Algerians call hogra (contempt) on the part of the leadership. Yet Arabisation was supposed to restore their cultural dignity (6).

In the case of the Arabic dialects, the linguistic policy pursued by the Algerian authorities might have ended in an Egyptian-style solution: a subtle blend of classical Arabic and local colloquial speech. But with Berber dialects, it is a different story. Their principal vice is that they prove the existence of an Algeria pre-dating the Arab conquest. Furthermore, they have nothing in common with Arabic dialects. Their disappearance is programmed into the very logic of Arabisation, as well as the practices of government. This has the unfortunate consequence that large sections of the population, whose identities are partly dependent on local languages, feel excluded from the new project of nation-building.

The reality is that Algerian society is pluralist: in its regions, its languages, its attitudes to the past and the future, and its view of the west and the Arab world. So far, this diversity has never been properly acknowledged, in the context of a general will to live with one another. That is because the country’s unity has not been perceived clearly enough at the top. In the absence of a symbolic enclave of government which, like the keystone of an arch, would hold the entire edifice together, each individual element not only feels threatened, but is seen by the others as a threat to unity.

So there is only one way out of the present crisis: the establishment of a consensus on this central enclave, in which the rule of law would be recognised and the government could at last be seen as the guarantor of society’s real pluralism. Such a consensus, of course, would have to emerge from elections transparent enough for the result to be incontestable: this was the hope expressed in the presidential election of 16 November 1995 and it also explained the disappointment following the constitutional referendum of 28 November 1996.

The new Arabisation law does not go in that direction. While the essential task is to forge a consensus around the acceptance of pluralism, official linguistic policy proceeds by constraint and exclusion. On one level, it is forcing a language on people when the sensible thing to do is to persuade them to love it. On another level, it is again hurling anathema at the languages people actually speak, Berber in particular, but also French (ironically now enjoying something of a revival owing to the satellite TV explosion). Arabisation, to put it bluntly, tends to exclude every language except one—the one spoken by the authorities and no-one else.

The periodic repetition of these radical measures demonstrates their ineffectiveness, denounced as scandalous by Arabist ideologues. But is the failure to make Arabisation total any more shocking than the fact that, for a large part of the population, it has come to symbolise waste, mess and educational failure. The linguistic policy pursued by Algiers has always been dictated primarily by political objectives. But aside from these imperatives, the authorities show no interest in the educational side, no desire to give Arabic its true value by encouraging historical research and reflection. The real scandal is the government’s failure—in a universe of languages that reflect the plurality of Algerian society—to try to create a space for tolerance, openness, efficiency and respect for differences—the true framework for democracy.


(1) El Watan, Algiers, 18 December 1996.

(2) A word in colloquial Arabic, originally applied to the Byzantines, that has come to mean Christian foreigners, and (in Algeria) colonists, defined by their religion.

(3) A good example is the Family Code, strongly tinged with Islamism, adopted in 1984.

(4) See, among others, the work of Mohamed Harbi, Benjamin Stora and Omar Carlier.

(5) The principal religious observances (Ramadan, prayer, festivals, Hajj) and other features, for example the status of women, symbolised by the veil: it is unclear whether these originate from religion, traditional culture or everyday male machismo.

(6) A point of view well expressed by Mohamed Benrabah, La langue perdue, in Esprit, Paris, January 1995.