Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Bouteflika's victory fueling Berber defiance

MARGINALIZED The minority making up about one-fifth of Algeria's population want the government to devise a viable development plan that also involves them

AFP , TIZI OUZOU, ALGERIA

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's landslide re-election victory, seen by many minority Berbers as predictably fraudulent, has only deepened their defiance against a leader they refuse to trust.

At a small cafe in Tizi Ouzou, the main city in the Berbers' northeastern Kabylie homeland, barman Youcef Nttah said on Saturday: "It's the same old song. You vote, you don't vote, it doesn't change anything."

Outside the small village of Bou-Nouh, perched high in the Kabylie mountains, Rachid Hamoudi, a truck driver, gestured towards the lush but fallow land around him where a few cows were grazing.

"People around here are too poor to start up viable farms," he said, adding that long-promised government aid had never come to an area where unemployment is far greater than the national average of 25 percent.

"There is nothing here for us. That's why there are so many Kabyles in Paris," said Hamoudi, whose brother owns a bistro in the French capital.

Another brother, Arezki, works for the state oil company Sonatrach in the far south of the country near the border with Libya.

Berbers, proud of their culture and language, Tamazight, feel that their marginalization from the mainstream of Algeria's economy and society is an insult to their history -- one that dates back centuries further than that of the dominant Arab culture.

In addition to a recognition of their Berber identity, the minority making up about one-fifth of Algeria's population of 32 million want the government to devise a viable economic and social development plan for Kabylie.

Posters in Tamazight calling for a boycott of Thursday's presidential vote -- with a drawing of a ballot box doubling as a tombstone -- could be seen everywhere in Tizi Ouzou.

The call to shun the election, made by part of the region's traditional leadership known as aarchs, was widely followed, with only 18 percent turning out among the Tizi Ouzou district's more than half a million voters, compared with the national average of 59 percent.

For legislative and local elections in May and October 2002, the aarchs were united in their call for a boycott, and turnout was next to nil in Kabylie.

Not everyone wanted the boycott this time, but hardly anyone wanted Bouteflika, and they let him know their feelings in no uncertain terms when he tried to campaign in Tizi Ouzou early this month by rioting outside a rally venue, forcing him to flee through a back exit.

But few people here harbored illusions that their vote would make a difference.

At a shop offering telephone and photocopying services in Tizi Ouzou, an attendant said of Bouteflika's landslide: "Of course it was fraud."

But he requested anonymity, saying: "We're in a country where repression has reached such a level that people are afraid to give their names."

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