• Indigenous peoples in Algeria

    Indigenous peoples in Algeria

    The Amazigh are the Indigenous Peoples of Algeria that has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Still, the Indigenous status of the Amazigh is not recognised by the Algerian government, and they continue to face a number of challenges.

Indigenous World 2020: Algeria

The Amazigh are the Indigenous people of Algeria and other countries of North Africa who have been present in these territories since ancient times. The Algerian government, however, does not recognise the Indigenous status of the Amazigh and refuses to publish statistics on their population. Because of this, there is no official data on the number of Amazigh in Algeria.

On the basis of demographic data drawn from the territories in which Tamazight-speaking populations live, associations defending and promoting the Amazigh people estimate the Tamazight-speaking population to be around 12 million people, or 1/3 of Algeria’s total population. The Amazigh of Algeria are concentrated in five broad regions of the country: Kabylie in the north-east (the Kabyl represent around 50% of Algeria’s Amazigh population), Aurès in the east, Chenoua, a mountainous region on the Mediterranean coast to the west of Algiers,  M’zab in the south (Taghardayt), and Tuareg territory in the Sahara (Tamanrasset, Adrar, Djanet). Many small Amazigh communities also exist in the south-west (Tlemcen, Bechar, etc.) and in other places scattered throughout the country. It is also important to note that large cities such as Algiers, Oran, Constantine, etc., are home to several hundred thousand people who are historically and culturally Amazigh but who have been partly Arabised over the years, succumbing to a gradual process of acculturation.

The Indigenous populations can primarily be distinguished from other inhabitants by their language (Tamazight) but also by their way of life and their culture (clothes, food, songs and dances, beliefs, etc.). After decades of demands and popular struggles, the Amazigh language was finally recognised as a “national and official language” in Algeria’s Constitution in 2016. The Constitution does, however, specify that the official nature of this language will need to be set out in an act of parliament. Meanwhile, the Amazigh identity continues to be marginalised and folklorised by state institutions. Officially, Algeria is still presented as an “Arab country” and anti-Amazigh laws are still in force (such as the 1992 Law of Arabisation).

2019, a year marked by popular resistance

Algeria experienced significant political instability throughout 2019 due primarily to a power struggle at the highest level. When the President of the Algerian Republic, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82 years of age and in a very poor state of health, announced on 10 February that he intended to run for a fifth consecutive term of office, popular protests first broke out six days later in Kherrata, in the east of Kabylie. In the days that followed, further demonstrations were organised in different towns around Algeria. Since then, every Tuesday and Friday, people from across Algeria, including the Amazigh regions, have been publicly protesting to demand an end to the “corrupt and violent” political/military system that has governed Algeria for more than 60 years. Mr.  Bouteflika was forced to step down as President on 2 April 2019, to be immediately replaced by an interim President. New presidential elections were planned for 4 July 2019 but rejected by the people, who called for “an end to the system”. The date of the election was finally set as 12 December 2019, despite the protesting crowds who continued to pour out onto the streets every week. In the end, four candidates participated in the election, all a product of the system in place. This understandably resulted in a particularly low turnout (an average 39% across Algeria) and 0% in the Amazigh region of Kabylie, which has over eight million inhabitants. The Kabyl were the only people to refuse to take part in the vote so massively and unanimously. Following the election on 12 December, a new President was elected although the person in question suffers from a clear lack of legitimacy.

Serious human rights violations against members of the At-Mzab community 

Kamel-Eddine Fekhar, doctor and defender of human rights and of the Amazigh community of At-Mzab, was arrested and thrown into jail on 31 March 2019 in Ghardaya (Taghardayt) following the publication of an interview in which he denounced the segregationist treatment being suffered by the At-Mzab community. In protest at what he considered his arbitrary detention, he refused to eat. After 53 days on hunger strike, on 28 May 2019 he died in prison. The following 18 July, his grave was desecrated. His lawyer, Salah Dabouz, has  been subjected to intensive police harassment and judicial supervision since 9 April 2019. On 9 September, he suffered an attempted assassination by hooded knife-wielding men in the streets of Ghardaya. There has been no investigation that might shed any light on either the circumstances of Kamel-Eddine Fekhar’s death or the attempted murder of Salah Dabouz.

On 18 June 2019, UN experts stated that they were alarmed at the death in detention of a human rights defender following a 53-day hunger strike in Algeria. “We are particularly concerned that the necessary care was not provided to  Mr. Fekhar while under the responsibility  of the prison authorities, in violation of principle 241 and of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment,” stated the experts.2

In November 2019, the Ghardaya Court sentenced a number of defenders from At-Mzab community to between 18 months and 10 years in prison. They were accused primarily, on the basis of Articles 79, 144 and 147 of the Algerian Criminal Code, of “threatening the integrity of the national territory, jeopardising the honour of Algerian institutions and attempting to discredit judicial decisions”. These defenders were Salah Dabouz, Mohamed Dabouz, Hadj Brahim Aouf, Khodir Babaz, Khodir Sekouti,  Dadou Nounou Noureddine, Chikh Belhadj  Nacereddine, Khiat Idris and Tichabet Noureddine. To escape the threats and arbitrary detention, Hamou Chekebkeb (At-Mzab community rights defender and Amazigh World Congress member) was forced to flee Algeria in July 2019 and seek political asylum in France.

Ban on carrying the Amazigh flag 

The Amazigh often fly their flag alongside that of Algeria during public demonstrations. Algerian Chief of Army Staff, General Gaid Salah (who passed away on 23 December 2019) decreed on 19 June 2019 that “only the Algerian flag would henceforward be authorised” during popular marches. From Friday 21 June onwards, the police began  to arrest and imprison anyone waving or even simply carrying in their pocket or bag an Amazigh flag. Only Kabylie was unaffected by this ban on the Amazigh emblem. Consequently, between June and October 2019, some 50 people were arrested and imprisoned for possessing an Amazigh flag. Officially, they were prosecuted for “threatening the integrity of the national territory” as set out in Article 79 of the Criminal Code, punishable with a sentence of up to 10 years in prison or a fine of between 3,000 and 70,000 Algerian dinar (20 to 500 euro).

And yet Algerian law does not explicitly prohibit carrying an Amazigh flag. Quite the contrary, the recitals to the Algerian Constitution recognise that the Algerian identity is based on “Arabism, Islamism and Amazighness” and the Amazigh language (Tamazight) has, since 2016, had the status of “national and official” language (Article 4). Consequently, according to the lawyers of those “arrested for the Amazigh flag”, the material facts of which the detainees were accused “under no circumstances constitute a threat to the unity of the country, nor any offence under the law. It is therefore unacceptable that people are thrown into prison for waving an Amazigh flag”.

On 5 July 2019, Amnesty International stated that: “Arresting, harassing and intimidating a person or prosecuting them simply because they are carrying a flag constitutes a flagrant violation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful association and of the cultural rights of the Amazigh community, these rights being guaranteed by the Algerian Constitution and by the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which Algeria is a party.”3

Ten of the Amazigh prosecuted for carrying their flag were quickly released, particularly in Tamanrasset, Constantine, Chlef and Annaba, but some 40-odd more were sentenced to prison terms of between six months and two years. This resulted in the European Parliament adopting a resolution on Algeria on 28 November 2019 in which it called particularly for “the immediate and unconditional release of 42 protesters arrested for carrying the Amazigh flag.”4 

Attacks on freedom of religion

The Algerian authorities have closed down around a dozen Christian churches in Kabylie since July 2019. Worshippers inside the religious buildings were violently removed by the police. Christian Amazigh are therefore being stigmatised and banned from practising their religion, in violation of the Algerian Constitution, Article 42 of which states that “freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable. Freedom of religion is guaranteed.” 

Attacks on individual and collective rights and freedoms

For three years now, an unknown number of Kabyl citizens have been deprived of their passports by the Algerian authorities, without a judicial order and for no reason. To defend their right to a passport, they formed the “Collective of Kabyl Citizens Deprived of their Passports” in 2019. They have organised a number of protests and have written to UN bodies, particularly the Human Rights Committee, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on Racism and Racial Discrimination.5

Defenders of the cultural and linguistic rights of the Amazigh, long with members of the movements for Kabylie’s right to self-determination and Mzab’s right to autonomy, have been particularly targeted, among other things, by police surveillance, physical attacks, arbitrary arrests and detention, threats and barriers to employment.

Challenges of global warming and sustainable development

As a country on the south coast of the Mediterranean, Algeria is facing numerous ecological and climate challenges, including increasing temperatures, desertification, a decline in agricultural production, falling water levels, decreasing biodiversity and recurrent forest fires, with serious consequences for the health and life of its citizens. Amazigh populations living in the mountains or in the arid or semi-arid zones in particular are the first to suffer the negative impacts of climate change. Algeria ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2004, the UN Biodiversity Convention in 1995, the UN Convention on Desertification in 1996 and the Paris Climate Change Agreement (COP21) in 2015. Nationally, Law No. 03-10 of 19 July 2003 on environmental protection in the context of sustainable development sets out the legislative framework in this regard. Article 2 of this law specifies in particular that the aim of the law is “to promote the environmentally rational use of available natural resources, as well as the use of cleaner technologies”.6 However, a new law governing hydrocarbon activity (Law No. 19-13 of 11/12/2019) and authorising the exploitation of shale gas has been adopted despite its negative environmental consequences and despite mass popular protest.7 The government has had a national climate plan in place since 2010 but its implementation has thus far been limited to communication and awareness raising activities. In addition to this, Indigenous communities’ knowledge and know-how on environmental protection and sustainable development has been totally ignored.

Notes and references

  1. Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, adopted by UN General Assembly Resolution 43/173 (9 December 1988)
  2. “Algérie: la mort d’un gréviste de la faim en détention est alarmante, selon des experts de l’ONU”. Press statement signed by José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders; Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues. Published at https://news. un.org/fr/story/2019/06/1045711
  3. “Algeria. 41 arrested for carrying the Amazigh flag as authorities crack down on freedom of expression”, Amnesty International Press Release published 5 July 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ pdf
  4. European Parliament Resolution dated 28 November 2019 on the situation of freedoms in Algeria (2019/2927(RSP)) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/ document/TA-9-2019-0072_EN.html
  5. “Tizi-Ouzou, des citoyens privés de passeports investissent la rue”, 5 February 2019, Algérie Nouvelle, http://algerienouvelle.com/index.php/2019/02/05/tizi- ouzou-les-citoyens-prives-de-passeports-investissent-la-rue/
  6. Law No. 03-10 of 19 July 2003 on environmental protection in the context of sustainable development, http://ancc.dz/pdf/Loi%2003-10.pdf
  7. “Algérie: un enjeu caché, le gaz de schiste”, Mhamed Rebah, 12 March 2019, https://reporterre.net/Algerie-un-enjeu-cache-le-gaz-de-schiste


Belkacem Lounes holds a PhD in Economics, is a university lecturer (Grenoble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh rights.


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here





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