Violence in Ghardaia is a symptom of Algeria’s stagnant polity, but also shows up a dangerous, exploitable fault line. The most recent violence between Mozabite (Berber) and Arab communities, who belong to different sects of Islam, respectively observing the Ibadite and Malekite rites, flared up in the week, and reportedly caused 19 deaths in the small oasis village of Guerrara, 70 km from Ghardaia.
According to El Watan, 25 people died in the first three days of this week. Victims died from gunshot wounds and head injuries, inflicted by gangs of youths from the rival communities. Another two people died in Berriane and one more in the town of Ghardaia, where violence of this kind has been sporadic for the past two years. There were many other incidents of vandalism, arson and destruction of property. Violence was especially heated in what the security services call ‘buffer zones’ – neighbourhoods where members of the two communities live side-by-side.
On Wednesday, July 8 there was a small march of Mozabites in Algiers, to call on the government to take action. They were reportedly chased away from the square in front of the main post office building by a fairly aggressive police intervention before they regrouped in front of the press syndicate, where journalists’ presence may have ensured they were left alone.
On Wednesday afternoon, the presidency announced that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika had presided over a special meeting dedicated to the crisis in Ghardaia. He charged the local army command to supervise the activities of the other security services and local authorities to secure the “re-establishment and preservation of public order,” and instructed the justice minister to ensure that all crimes be prosecuted, “especially offences against the security of persons and property.”
Violence between the two communities in Ghardaia was first reported in 1975, but it has grown worse in the past two years owing to failures by the State. Many of the vendettas between families from the rival communities have their origins in petty property disputes, which courts did not resolve satisfactorily. Instructions given to police were indecisive and sometimes dangerous to individual officers, and the policemen, too, found it impossible to seek redress through official channels.
The problem has only festered and grown worse, and the current murderous explosion of violence is to a large degree attributable to State negligence. The religious difference in Ghardaia is especially worrying as Islamic State (IS) seeks to exploit divisions and fault lines in Muslim countries to generate the kind of chaos in which it operates.
Algeria has been a victim of Islamic extremism before, and more recently we have pointed to some very concerning signs that the State is tolerating extremist ideas – partly, we think, to take people’s minds off economic issues and partly to placate the large number of religiously conservative people in the country. Importantly, preachers at Salafist mosques in Ghardaia have reportedly encouraged violence against the Mozabites, on the pretext that the Ibadite rite is khariji – a deviation from the true message of Sunni Islam.
The religious and ethnic differences present in Ghardaia are, to varying degrees, present in other parts of Algeria. Tensions between Kabyles and Arabs in the Tizi-Ouzou region are very old, and part of the reason why the region remains a stronghold of militants of the former Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) – now Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
There are tensions between Islamists and secular Algerians everywhere. Extremists will try to widen these cleavages by means of violence, and may succeed if the State’s response is insufficiently prompt and thorough. The State being what it is, we fear that problems in Ghardaia may fester and that similar scenes of mob violence will appear elsewhere. The current slow negative trend in political risk would then accelerate, and outcomes could be very serious indeed.
Francois Conradie (Political Analyst)