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Algeria Table of Contents



Of all Arab countries subject to European rule, Algeria absorbed the heaviest colonial impact. The French controlled education, government, business, and most intellectual life for 132 years and through a policy of cultural imperialism attempted to suppress Algerian cultural identity and to remold the society along French lines. The effects of this policy, which continued to reverberate throughout Algeria after 1962, have perhaps been most evident in the legacy of a dual language system.

French colonial policy was explicitly designed to "civilize" the country by imposing French language and culture on it. A French report written on the eve of the French conquest noted that in 1830 the literacy rate in Algeria was 40 percent, a remarkable rate even by modern standards. Quranic schools were primarily responsible for literacy in Algeria, as reading meant being able to learn the Quran. Twenty years later, only half the schools continued to operate as a result of the French colonial policy of dismantling the existing education system and replacing it with a French system.

As a result, education was oriented toward French, and advanced education in literary Arabic declined drastically. Dialectical Arabic remained the language of everyday discourse among the vast majority of the population, but it was cut off from contemporary intellectual and technological developments and consequently failed to develop the flexibility and vocabulary needed for modern bureaucratic, financial, and intellectual affairs.

The better schools and the University of Algiers aimed at comparability with French institutions and prepared students for French examinations. Gradually, a small but influential Frenchspeaking indigenous elite was formed, who competed with European colonists for jobs in the modern sector. Berbers, or more specifically, Kabyles, were represented in disproportionately large numbers in this elite because the French, as part of their "divide and rule" policy, deliberately favored Kabyles in education and employment in the colonial system. As a result, in the years after independence Kabyles moved into all levels of state administration across Algeria, where they remained a large and influential group.

In reaction to French cultural and linguistic imperialism, the leaders of the War of Independence (1954-62) and successive governments committed themselves to reviving indigenous Arabic and Islamic cultural values and to establishing Arabic as the national language. The aim was to recover the precolonial past and to use it, together with Arabic, to restore--if not create--a national identity and personality for the new state and population. Translated into an official policy called arabization, it was consistently supported by arabists, who were ascendant in the Algerian government following independence. Their goal was a country where the language (Arabic), religion (Islam), and national identity (Algerian) were free, as far as practical, of French language and influence.

Culturally, the emphasis was on developing the various forms of public communication and on cultivating Algerian themes that could then be popularized through these media. The major effort, however, centered on language, and it was the quest for a "national" language that became the hallmark of arabization and that has aroused the most controversy and outright opposition.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the government of President Houari Boumediene decided upon complete arabization as a national goal and began the first steps to promote Arabic in the bureaucracy and in the schools. Arabization was introduced slowly in schools, starting with the primary schools and in social science and humanities subjects; only in the 1980s did Arabic begin to be introduced as the language of instruction in some grades and some subjects at the secondary level (see Education , this ch.).

The problems inherent in the process of language promotion immediately came to the fore. One of the most obvious involved literary Arabic, a language in which many Algerians were not conversant. Qualified Arabic teachers were almost totally lacking. Other obstacles included the widespread use of French in the state-run media and the continued preference for French as the working language of government and of urban society. It soon became obvious to students who obtained an education in Arabic that their prospects for gainful employment were bleak without facility in French, a fact that contributed to general public skepticism about the program.

Important as these problems were, the real opposition came from two main quarters: the "modernizers" among bureaucrats and technocrats and the Berbers, or, more specifically, the Kabyles. For the urban elite, French constituted the medium of modernization and technology. French facilitated their access to Western commerce and to economic development theory and culture, and their command of the language guaranteed their continued social and political prominence.

The Kabyles identified with these arguments. Young Kabyle students were particularly vocal in expressing their opposition to arabization. In the early 1980s, their movement and demands formed the basis of the "Berber question" or the Kabyle "cultural movement."

Militant Kabyles complained about "cultural imperialism" and "domination" by the Arabic-speaking majority. They vigorously opposed arabization of the education system and the government bureaucracy. They also demanded recognition of the Kabyle dialect as a primary national language, respect for Berber culture, and greater attention to the economic development of Kabylie and other Berber homelands.

The Kabyle "cultural movement" was more than a reaction against arabization. Rather, it challenged the centralizing policies the national government had pursued since 1962 and sought wider scope for regional development free of bureaucratic controls. Essentially, the issue was the integration of Kabylie into the Algerian body politic. To the extent that the Kabyle position reflected parochial Kabyle interests and regionalism, it did not find favor with other Berber groups or with Algerians at large.

Long-simmering passions about arabization boiled over in late 1979 and early 1980. In response to demands of Arabic-language university students for increased arabization, Kabyle students in Algiers and Tizi Ouzou, the provincial capital of Kabylie, went on strike in the spring of 1980. At Tizi Ouzou, the students were forcibly cleared from the university, an action that precipitated tension and a general strike throughout Kabylie. A year later, there were renewed Kabyle demonstrations.

The government's response to the Kabyle outburst was firm yet cautious. Arabization was reaffirmed as official state policy, but it proceeded at a moderate pace. The government quickly reestablished a chair of Berber studies at the University of Algiers that had been abolished in 1973 and promised a similar chair for the University of Tizi Ouzou, as well as language departments for Berber and dialectical Arabic at four other universities. At the same time, levels of development funding for Kabylie were increased significantly.

By the mid-1980s, arabization had begun to produce some measurable results. In the primary schools, instruction was in literary Arabic; French was taught as a second language, beginning in the third year. On the secondary level, arabization was proceeding on a grade-by-grade basis. French remained the main language of instruction in the universities, despite the demands of arabists.

A 1968 law requiring officials in government ministries to acquire at least minimal facility in literary Arabic has produced spotty results. The Ministry of Justice came closest to the goal by arabizing internal functions and all court proceedings during the 1970s. Other ministries, however, were slower to follow suit, and French remained in general use. An effort was also made to use radio and television to popularize literary Arabic. By the mid-1980s, programming in dialectical Arabic and Berber had increased, whereas broadcasts in French had declined sharply.

The arabization issue developed political aspects as well. For example, in 1991 when political parties were allowed to form and run in national elections, the Front of Socialist Forces, headed by Hocine Ait Ahmed, representing the Kabyle people, ran on a secular and culturally pluralist platform. Another party, also representing the Kabyle, was the Rally for Culture and Democracy, which ran on a platform defending Kabyle culture and opposing the exclusive use of Arabic at the official level and all programs of arabization.

Data as of December 1993

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