The battle of Ghardaïa

Algeria is one of the most under-reported of the Arab countries, at least where English-language media are concerned. In the article below, Alex Russell discusses a little-noticed conflict which has been rumbling on for several months in the city of Ghardaïa. The article was first published by Muftah, a website which aims to cover issues and views that are under-represented in mainstream media.

Algerians question stability after eight months of local violence

by Alex Russell

Since December 2013, the Algerian city of Ghardaïa has witnessed ongoing violent conflict between the city’s ethnic and religious groups. The city is home to both Sunni Arabs and a large Mozabite population, an Amazigh ethnic group that practises Ibadi Islam. Misunderstandings between the groups have resulted in tensions in the past, but the current crisis is unprecedented.

For the first time in the city’s history, national troops have been deployed to keep peace in the city. Despite the presence of security forces in Ghardaïa since January, clashes and assassinations have continued. Since December, at least 10 individuals have died, hundreds have been wounded, and over 1,400 homes and businesses have been damaged.

Each group blames the other for the escalating violence, but some parties have also suggested that the presence of outside extremist forces is at the root of the problem. Salafi groups, which believe in strict adherence to a narrow interpretation of Islam, have been accused of anti-Ibadi rhetoric and aggression in the city.

As a result of national attention, the issue has sparked demonstrations organised by Mozabites and by the Barakat (“enough”) Movement, a group formed in opposition to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s continued presidency. Demonstrators recently protested under the slogans “enough insecurity,” “enough injustice,” and “a corrupt regime equals a weak state.”

Internationally, the conflict has drawn the ire of Amazigh populations. In solidarity with the Mozabite population, Moroccan Imazighen organised a sit-in in front of the Algerian embassy in Casablanca to protest international silence on the issue.

Marketplace in Ghardaia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The attention received by the crisis has forced Bouteflika to call a meeting of the National Security Council to find a resolution. Although such a measure suggests the situation has deteriorated, the Minister of the Interior recently stated the city was moving toward “security, stability, and coexistence.” A government plan has been developed to resolve the conflict, including an investment of $31 million to develop the area’s economy and rebuild damaged buildings.

While the conflict in Ghardaïa is cut off from other population centres in Algeria, it represents a significant problem for the national leadership. Emerging from its civil war in the 1990s, Algeria has attempted to portray itself as a stable nation above the fray of mass protests and conflict. Given the country’s vast and largely empty southern region, the potential for terrorist groups to move through Algeria is worrisome for the international community. By exploiting this fear, Algeria has become a major ally in the West’s counterterrorism efforts in the region. Should the nation’s leaders appear unable to resolve local conflicts and deter the growth of extremism in its interior, the United States and other funders of counterterrorism measures may fear that Algeria is no longer the reliable partner it once was.
Posted on Wednesday, 30 July 2014