Tamazight declared official language in Algeria, Arabic remains only state language

Amazigh groups, parties criticise constitutional amendment for not granting both languages equal status

National Assembly building (lower chamber of the Algerian Parliament.)
National Assembly building (lower chamber of the Algerian Parliament.) Author: Magharebia
The Algerian Parliament yesterday approved a constitutional amendment proclaiming Tamazight an official language in the North African country. But the initiative is receiving criticism from various Amazigh sectors, who believe the change is cosmetic, insufficient or unsuited to realities on the ground.

Tamazight had been declared a "national language" in 2002, but it was not until now that it has been also labelled an "official language." However, the language will remain one step below Arabic, as the Constitution's new wording says Arabic is "the state language."

Besides the language issue, the wider constitutional amendment will help "extend the rights and freedoms of citizens, enshrine pluralist democracy, strengthen the foundations of the Rule of Law and consolidate the independence of justice in our country," Algerian PM Abdelmadek Sellal said.

But several sectors of Algerian politics and society see the matter differently. "Except for the two parties in the government coalition," writes one of the leading newspapers in Algeria, El Watan, "the new Constitution has met almost massive resistance by opposition parties and other political and social actors."

Another leading newspaper, Le Matin, writes in an editorial that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika regards the Constitution as nothing but a "banal, useless document." According to El Watan, the new constitutional provisions are a "marketing operation" seeking to prepare "the next stage of politics."

Although it is formally a semi-presidential parliamentary republic, most of the political power in Algeria is concentrated in the hands of a group made up of unelected civilian and military leaders, popularly known as "Le Pouvoir" ("The Power"), about which little is known. The group has de facto power to decide who holds the Algerian presidency, and maintains close links with the economic power -which it may also hold in part.

Amazigh views

The Amazigh World Congress (CMA, an organization seeking to represent the political and cultural Amazigh movement) says the Constitution's new wording does not recognize the place of the Amazigh as the indigenous people of the country, centuries before the arrival of Arabs and Islam. Furthermore, the CMA says the amendment "consecrates the supremacy of the Arabic language." The Congress had requested -without success- that references to the "indivisible" nature of Algeria and Islam as its "state religion" be deleted from the Constitution.

The Movement for the Self-determination of Kabylia (MAK) also rejects the new charter, arguing that the only thing that the Kabyle people want is the recognition of their right to freely decide their own future. The Kabyle are one of the several peoples making up Algeria's Amazigh population.

Besides, MAK points out that it is Kabyle, and not Tamazight, which should be declared an official language in Kabylia. MAK regards Kabyle as a language of its own, while it deems Tamazight to be a group of related languages.

Kabyle sectors opposed to Kabylia's self-determination are also voicing criticism against the amendment. More than 20 Kabyle academics, lawyers, and historical political leaders -such as Abdennour Ali Yahia, who was a prominent FLN member during the 1950s- have signed a manifesto demanding a true democratization process for Algeria and criticising the official recognition of Tamazight as a "distraction operation" that will remain "void of any meaning."

The Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) opposes the reform too. The party -which draws most of it support from the Amazigh population- boycotted the Parliament's last extraordinary session in which the amendment was being discussed.

Opening doors

However, Amazigh voices in support of the amendment have also been raised. As an example, professor and writer Mohand Akli Haddadou argues the change brings an "end to the old denial of an important part of Algerian identity." Haddadou furthermore says that the reform will allow the establishment of a Tamazight Language Academy charged with drafting a standard norm for the language.

The writer also believes that newly acquired official status means the Algerian government will now allocate funds for the the promotion and standardization of Tamazight.