The Berbers have tended to be forgotten during the brutal conflict which has torn Algeria apart over the last six years.
It is however becoming apparent that the region is experiencing the worst unrest since the Berber uprising 18 years ago. It was precisely that assertion of Berber cultural rights that enhanced the rise of Lounes Matoub and other politically motivated Berber performers.
With the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, the Berbers found themselves fighting on two fronts, despising the religious zealots as much as the regime which sought to suppress them.
Western media have largely presented the conflict as involving only two parties—the government and an armed Islamic opposition—ignoring the Algerian civilians who find themselves caught in the middle.
Lounes Matoub, a whisky drinker who wrote lyrics mocking the Islamists, was the man many non-Berbers loved to hate. It is generally believed it was the Islamists—not the government—that was behind his killing at a fake roadblock.
Nevertheless, his death has served as a Berber rallying call to attack government targets.
The death of Lounes Matoub has come at a dangerous moment, only a few days before a new law comes into effect making Arabic the sole official language.
Berber speakers like Matoub argued this is a government attempt to appease the fundamentalists and which the Berbers would fight to prevent.
In his music and his political activity, Matoub was radically pro-Berber and anti-Arab.
Now—regardless of the circumstances of his death—young Berbers see him as a martyr and as a potent symbol of their continuing struggle for their cultural rights
The Berbers are the original inhabitants of north Africa. When the Arabs came in the seventh century AD, they were the latest in a long line of conquerors.
They brought with them their language, Arabic, and their religion, Islam, but Algeria has always remained a multicultural society where Arabic has coexisted with Berber dialects and, more recently, with French.
The Berbers played a prominent role in the war of independence against the French. But ever since independence in 1962, successive governments have stressed the Arab character of the state—and the Berbers have been denied official recognition as a distinct minority with its own cultural heritage.
The Berbers are Muslim but few of them share the militant ideology of the FIS—the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front—which came close to winning power through the ballot-box in 1992.
That was the moment when Algeria’s recent troubles began. The military took power, cancelled the elections the FIS was poised to win, and drove the FIS underground.
The authorities tried to exploit anti-Islamist sentiment among the Berbers, seeing them as natural allies in their war against the armed Islamic groups.
But the Berbers’ deep-rooted suspicion of the authorities remains strong—as the violence of the last few days has shown.