Berber-Arab Clashes in Algeria’s Mzab Valley

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2014

The ongoing Berber cultural revival in North Africa has gone hand-in-hand with a new political assertiveness. In nations such as Libya, Algeria and Mali, this has resulted at times in armed clashes and protests demanding linguistic rights and political recognition of Berber (Amazigh) communities. The latest of these confrontations is ongoing in the south Algerian oasis of Ghardaïa, where Chaamba Arabs have clashed repeatedly with the indigenous Mozabite Berbers, forcing Algiers to send security forces to restore law and order in the region.

Communal violence broke out in May, 2013 following an alleged attempt by Chaamba Arabs to use forged property records to take over a Mozabite cemetery (Algérie Presse Service, May 8, 2013). The dispute degenerated into sword-wielding youth gangs throwing petrol bombs at each other in the streets of Ghardaïa, the largest city in the M’Zab Valley. Shops were also burned in Berriane as the violence spread to the other cities of the M’Zab (El-Watan [Algiers], January 26).

For years, Berbers have accused the Algerian Gendarmerie Nationale of pro-Arab bias and of even encouraging Arab rioters, charges that seemed to have been confirmed when three officers were suspended after a video emerged showing their participation in violence that resulted in the death of a young Berber (AP, January 29). According to a local Mozabite activist, “We are Algerian citizens first. We want justice and the truth to be told about what happened in Ghardaïa and that crimes be punished. Those officers whose bias has been proven need to be punished. We say no to violence, no to impunity, yes to tolerance” (El-Watan [Algiers], January 26).

Violent clashes between the Arab and Berber communities in Berriane began in March 2008 and continued at lesser levels throughout that year until mass violence broke out again in April 2009 (El-Khabar [Algiers], May 20, 2008; Tout sur l’Algerie, April 17, 2009). Heated protests against endemic unemployment in the midst of an oil-producing region were common in the first half of 2013, reflecting growing tensions in the area. Much of the violence has been carried out by youth gangs from the Berber and Arab communities.


The fighting pits the Chaamba Arabs, who follow the Maliki madhab (one of the four orthodox schools of Islamic jurisprudence) and the Mozabite Berbers, who follow the non-orthodox Ibadite form of Islam. Ibadite Islam is a more moderate offshoot of the early Islamic Kharijite movement, whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world. The Ibadite movement retained a socially conservative attitude with an emphasis on the Quran and a more tolerant attitude towards other forms of Islam. Most remaining Ibadites are found in Oman, but smaller communities can be found in isolated oases and islands in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Zanzibar. Mozabite conservatism is now under stress from both young Mozabites who have been educated elsewhere and from new non-Mozabite arrivals in the M’zab Valley. Despite the insularity of the Mozabite community, the Mozabites have nonetheless built a commercial network linking the M’zab with the cities of the Mediterranean coast.

The Berbers of the M’Zab can trace their lineage back to the regional Berber capital of Tiaret in northern Algeria. When Tiaret was taken by the Fatimid Shiites in 933, Ibadi Berbers began to move south, first to Ourgla Oasis, and finally on to M’Zab in the early 11th century.  They were followed by other Ibadi Berbers escaping pressure from new waves of Arab tribesmen arriving from the Arabian Peninsula (particularly the Banu Hillal). Ghardaïa, the largest city in the M’zab with over 90,000 residents, was first settled in 1097. The valley is now home to over 400,000 people. The traditionally nomadic Chaamba began settling in the M’Zab oases one hundred years ago, a process that has been accelerated in recent decades by the growth of the petroleum industry, loss of pastures and government discouragement of nomadic lifestyles. The two communities have never integrated in M’Zab. Whenever communal violence breaks out, both communities typically blame the other. However, despite the sectarian and ethnic differences between the Berbers and Arabs, many residents claim the fighting is actually being fuelled by rivalries between drug smuggling networks working in the area (AFP, January 30).

The M’zab consists of seven cities about 600 kilometers south of Algiers,, including a cluster of five in the south (the “pentapolis”); Ghardaïa, al-Atteuf, Melika, Bani Isguen and Bounoura, with two other more isolated communities, Berriane and Guerrara, lying further north. The strategic location of the M’zab Valley at the upper edge of the Sahara desert made it an important crossroads for various trans-Saharan trade routes. After the arrival of the French in Algeria in the mid-19th century the Mozabites paid a tribute in exchange for autonomy but the entire region was eventually annexed by France in 1882.

Aside from the death of three Mozabites in the latest sectarian violence, the most shocking development was the Chaamba destruction of the tomb of Amir Moussa, a UNESCO designated world heritage site (Agence Kabyle d’Information, January 14). The Amir was a Mozabite leader of the 16th century who is ironically remembered for leading efforts to integrate the Arab nomads into the M’zab community in 1586 (AFP, January 30). The ancient Mozabite cemetery in Ghardaïa was also destroyed by marauding Arab youths.

On January 27, Mozabite activist Dr. Kameleddine Fekhar issued a statement purportedly speaking on behalf of the Mozabite community that demanded the departure of the Abd al-Malik Sellal government and urged a boycott of April’s upcoming presidential election. The statement complains of the “racist aggression” of police-supported militias armed with swords and knives that pillage and burn at will. Arrests followed by torture are determined solely on a racial basis, according to the statement (Siwel – Agence Kabyle d’Information, January 29). Prime Minister Sellal visited M’Zab in January when tensions seemed to be easing, but fighting erupted with new intensity only days after his departure.

This article first appeared in the February 6, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Berbers Seize Libyan Oil Terminal to Press Demand for Recognition

Andrew McGregor

November 14, 2013

The ongoing and economically crippling occupation of Libya’s Mellitah gas and oil terminal (63 miles west of Tripoli) by armed Berber protesters actually became worse on November 12, when workers at the terminal launched a 72-hour strike to protest the occupation, leaving open the possibility of major power cuts to Libyan coastal and mountain communities (Libya Herald, November 12).

The Mellitah oil terminal, which has a capacity of handling 160,000 barrels per day (bpd), is one of several major terminals in Libya suffering blockades by armed gunmen; others include the 340,000 bpd al-Sidr and the 220,000 bpd Ras Lanuf terminals (for the broader implications of the various blockades, see Terrorism Monitor, October 31). The Berber protests at the terminal began on October 26, when armed men gave the ruling General National Congress (GNC) energy committee a one-week ultimatum regarding language rights and increased representation on Libya’s constitutional committee before they would shut the terminal down.

Libya’s constitutional committee has allotted six seats of 60 to Libya’s minorities; two for the Berbers (the self-called Imazighen), two for the Tuareg and two for the Tubu of southern Libya. The method of assembling the committee has been a source of intense disagreement over whether members should be selected or elected directly, with the latter choice eventually prevailing, even though it has meant further delays in beginning the committee’s work. In the meantime, much of the country is at a standstill until the new Libyan state is defined and organized.  Berber representatives to the GNC resigned in July after failing to persuade the Congress to make Amazigh, the language of the Berbers, an official language of Libya.

Berber anger at the constitutional process has been building for several months. In mid-August, Berber protesters demanding recognition of minority rights forced their way into the Libyan parliament in Tripoli, smashing furniture and breaking windows (Reuters, August 14). In late September, Berber youth from the western Jabal Nafusa region cut off a gas pipeline to protest the absence of the Amazigh language from the proposed constitution (Middle East Online, September 30; AFP, October 1).

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has warned of serious consequences if the oil blockades are not removed soon, including impediments to Libya’s ability to cover its budget expenditures, beginning in December. The GNC’s inability to pay nearly $100 million owed for earlier imports of wheat now threatens the ability of Libyan wheat importers to make further purchases for the heavily subsidized bread industry (Reuters, November 6). Zeidan specifically mentioned the blockage of the Mellitah terminal as having the potential of forcing Italy to seek its oil and gas elsewhere (Reuters, November 10). The Mellitah terminal is owned jointly by Italy’s Eni Petroleum and the Libyan state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC). According to Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni, the Berber occupiers are pressuring the company to cut gas supplies to Italy (Reuters, November 6). Eni is the largest foreign oil company operating in Libya and was responsible for producing some 270,000 bpd before the fall of Qaddafi.

The Berber gunmen are led by Adel al-Falu, a former Libyan army officer once tasked with protecting the Mellitah terminal. With oil exports from the terminal halted, al-Falu is now seeking to halt gas exports through trans-Mediterranean pipelines to Italy, with the objective of pressuring Italy and the European Union to force Libya’s GNC to recognize the Amazigh language (Reuters, November 8). Most of the 50 to 75 gunmen occupying Mellitah arrived from the nearby town of Zuwara in coast-guard boats the Berbers seized during the 2011 revolution. Many of the occupiers are veterans of the revolution. Zuwara has been in the midst of a revival of Berber culture and language since the launch of the revolution (Agence de Presse Kabyle, September 19, 2011). The Amazigh name for Zuwara incorporates the name of the Berber group that lives in the area, Tamurt n Wat Willul (Town of the Ait Willul) (for Berber communities in Libya, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, Pt. 1, May 5 2011; Pt. 2, May 12, 2011). Zuwara is the hometown of Nuri Abu Sahmain, the chairman of Libya’s ruling body, the Tripoli-based GNC. The largest concentration of Libya’s approximate 600,000 Berbers (roughly 10% of the population) reside around the western town of Jadu in the Jabal Nafusa region, the home of a Berber militia that played a vital role in the overthrow of the late Mu’ammar Qaddafi.

The International Berber Flag Flies outside the Mellitah Terminal (AFP)

The Libyan protests are part of a larger movement to revive the Berber language and its dialects in North Africa after centuries of official and unofficial repression designed to replace Amazigh with Arabic. The problem now, however, is finding qualified instructors of Amazigh. Few such exist in Libya, meaning that only one school in southern Libya will begin teaching Amazigh next year (The National [Abu Dhabi], November 5). In Zuwara, some primary schools have succeeded in hiring Amazigh language teachers from Algeria and Morocco (Reuters, November 8).

There is little consensus on the exact extent of the blockade at the Mellitah terminal, in terms of both oil and gas exports. Even as the Prime Minister warns of the long-term impact of the blockade, NOC spokesmen have maintained that the occupiers are limited to a small part of the terminal and that “the complex is working as normal,” with ships loading oil and gas continuing to flow through the Greenstream pipeline to Sicily. On the same day, however, Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni said the Mellitah terminal was “under attack” (Libya Herald, November 6). The Mellitah occupation does not appear to have affected gas flows to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline from the offshore al-Bouri field. The Berber occupiers announced on November 6 that they would cut off the Greenstream gas pipeline (AFP, November 6). On November 8, however, the militants said they would restore gas glows on November 10 as a “good-will gesture,” but with the warning that the pipeline would be cut if the number of seats allotted to the Berber community on the constitutional committee was not increased (Libya Herald, November 8).

Unable to enforce the writ of the central government anywhere in Libya without the cooperation of local armed militias, the Libyan Prime Minister has also warned recently of the possibility of foreign military intervention unless the nation rallies to eliminate the armed groups: “The international community cannot tolerate a state in the middle of the Mediterranean that is a source of violence, terrorism and murder” (al-Jazeera, November 10).

This article first appeared in the November 14, 2013 issue of Terrorism Monitor.

Libya’s First Berber Leader Describes Security Situation in Libya

Andrew McGregor

July 11, 2013

Nuri Abu Sahmain, the new chairman of Libya’s ruling body, the General National Congress (GNC), is the first member of Libya’s minority Amazigh (or Berber) community to lead the nation. A surprise choice for the post, Abu Sahmain replaces Muhammad Yusuf al-Magarief, who fell victim to Libya’s controversial new “political isolation law,” which prohibits former members of the Qaddafi regime (including ex-diplomats like al-Magarief) from holding political office. Formally unaffiliated to any political party, Abu Sahmain sits as an independent in the GNC but is considered a member of a religiously conservative bloc within the GNC formed earlier this year under the banner of Loyalty to Martyrs’ Blood (North Africa Journal, February 21).