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
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
Data as of December 1993