Alternative names: Kabylian (Algeria)
Location: North African coastal plains and adjoining mountain ranges
Population: Morocco 6 million; Algeria 3.6-5 million
% of population: Morocco 40%, Algeria 15-20%
Religion: Islam
Language: Berber, Arabic

The Berbers are the indigenous inhabitants of the North African littoral, isolated from the rest of Africa by the Sahara desert. They are the descendants of the Capsian culture of prehistoric North Africa but have been subject to much racial admixture over centuries of invasion. From the mid seventh century waves of Arab migration into the region brought cultural changes and introduced Islam, which the Berbers willingly accepted, although the character of North Africa remained Berber.

Although rural Berber life remained largely unchanged by Arab influence those living in the cities found their language, tribal law and oral literary traditions being replaced by Arabic traditions. Forced back into the mountain regions by the city-based sultanates, the Berbers refused to recognize central authority or to pay taxes.

The French, who occupied North Africa from 1839 when they took Algeria, recognized the differences between the Arabs and the largely mountain-dwelling Berbers and subjected the two sectors to different regimes of administration, encouraging the expression of Berber culture and using Berber recruits in the French army. In the major Berber areas Berber-speakers constituted between 60% and 100% of the population. The Berbers reacted to the distinction made by the French by rapidly adopting Arabic language and customs, although they also took advantage of their new economic and commercial opportunities, and many migrated annually to work for French farmers or moved into the cities and formed urban enclaves.


Because of its mountainous terrain, its distance from the centre of the Arabic speaking world and its traditionally-based monarchy and structure as a “Sovereign Moslem State”, Morocco is the State with the highest proportion of Berber speakers; possibly 40% of its 20 million population. The major area of Berber concentrations are the Rif, Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti-Atlas. During the colonial period the French tried to foster Berber language and culture and used the Berber areas as a recruiting ground for the French army. The Berbers played an important part in the fighting during the independence struggle — the Moroccan Army of Liberation was formed in the Rif in 1953/4.

After independence the Berbers were well represented in the army and police force but much less so in government. They very often felt isolated from central government as their patrons under the French lost their influence and Berber tribal groups suffered accordingly. In the first three years of independence there were two major tribal uprisings and constant rural agitation against Istiqlal, the urban nationalist group which had led the independence struggle. The uprisings were crushed by the army but those involved were not necessarily severely punished and the monarchy used the uprisings as an excuse to curb the political power of Istiqlal and increase the power of the monarchy. Berber resentment was formalized — with encouragement from the monarchy — in the formation of an explicitly Berber-based political party in 1958. In 1973 there was a Berber tribal revolt near Gwilmima in the Atlas which was severely crushed.

The main causes of Berber resentment appear to be local grievances, such as economic deprivation and the feeling that the central government is ignoring their problems, rather than a Berber consciousness as such. There have been similar resentments among Arabic speakers in rural areas and cities. The Berber language, already divided into several different forms which are not always mutually intelligible, is reduced in importance by constant migration to cities where Arabic is an essential means of communication and where Berber social structures are eroded.


The Berber-speaking population of Algeria may comprise up to one quarter of the population of 24 million and is concentrated in the mainly mountainous areas of Kabyle, Chaouia, the Mzab and the Sahara. About half of the Berber-speaking population comes from the area of Kabyle and it is this area, and its language, which has played the most important Berber role in modern Algeria. During the colonial period the French administration attempted to shield the Berbers from “contamination” from Arabic language and culture, and recruited Kabyles into the French army and into posts in the colonial administration. Nevertheless Kabyle and Chaouia played a vital role in the War of Independence against the French.

At independence in 1962 Arabic became the sole national language of Algeria, both as a rejection of colonialism and a means of unifying the nation by the ruling Front National de Libération (FLN). Linguistic and cultural expressions of Berber were not allowed and this created resentment among Berber speakers, as did attempts to increase the numbers of Arabic speakers in the administration. In September 1963, Dr Ait Ahmad, a Kabyle leader of the resistance to the French, led a revolt against the government. The revolt was crushed and Ait was arrested and sentenced to death, although he later fled into exile in France where he formed the Front des Forces Socialistes (FLS). The 1976 National Charter emphasized the theme of national unity. Despite attempts to promote Arabic, French continued to be used in some areas of official work and further attempts were made to enforce literary Arabic as the language of government.

Berber resistance to the imposition of literary Arabic has taken several forms. Although the government has feared Berber separatism there appears to be little support for separatism as such and more for a greater recognition of Berber identity and rights for Berber speakers within a more democratic and pluralist Algerian state. There have been a number of Berber opposition

1 Estimates of numbers and proportions vary widely but most seem to lie in the region of 15%-20% of the population.

movements both in France and Algeria, often with socialist sympathies. However the most enduring form of Berber opposition has come from broader based cultural movements. Through the 1970s Berber musicians and poets used a modernized form of traditional Berber music to implicitly criticize the Algerian regime. Although popular demand eventually forced the government to allow such music in the media, singers and groups were not allowed to perform in the Kabyle.

In March 1980 the government banned a lecture on ancient Kabyle poetry by a lecturer at Tizi Ouzou university in Kabyle. Demonstrations and strikes throughout the Kabyle and other Berber areas, and by Berber students at Algiers, Tizi Ouzou and other universities followed, and were met by violence by government troops. In the repression over 30 people died, several hundred were injured and many Berber activists, including intellectuals and musicians, were arrested. The government later announced that a Chair of Kabyle Studies would be restored at Algiers University (it had previously been abolished) and another created at Tizi Ouzou. However the Arabization programme would continue.

The Berber Cultural Movement and other Berber organizations have generally supported the ideal of Algeria as a bilingual state, with recognition given to both Berber languages and colloquial Arabic, which is in fact the language of the majority of the population, rather than literary Arabic. They also stress the fusion of Berber and Arabic cultures which has taken place in Algeria. As a result they have often allied themselves with non-Berbers who wish to achieve a more democratic and pluralist government. In 1985 there were further arrests and imprisonment of Berber activists.

The spontaneous nationwide protests of October 1988, in which Berbers participated in Algiers and in the Kabyle, forced the Algerian leadership into support for constitutional change, including ending the one-party system. In July 1989 a new political parties law was passed by the National Assembly which allowed for groups independent of the FLN to apply for registration and to compete in national elections. Among those which applied were the FLS and the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a Berber organization. The new law however prohibits groups “based exclusively on a particular religion, language, region, sex or race” and states that parties must use only the Arabic language in their official communiqués.


The Berber speaking minority in Tunisia is very much smaller in both numbers and as a proportion of the population than in either Morocco or Algeria and lives mainly in isolated pockets. The government claims that they have been integrated into Arab-Muslim culture and do not constitute an autonomous localized minority of specific character. Because of this it is difficult to evaluate the Berber situation, but they do not appear to have faced the same problems or developed the same opposition to government as in the other countries.