The Arabization Movement

Algeria Table of Contents

The arabization of society was largely a reaction to elite culture and colonial domination and dates back to the revolutionary period when it served as a unifying factor against French colonial forces. The Arabic and Islamic tradition of the Algerian nation has been preserved through constitutional provisions recognizing its fundamental role in developing Algerian political character and national legislation encoding its existence in Algerian daily life--in courts and in schools, on street signs, and in workplaces. Arabization is seen as a means of national unity and has been used by the national government as a tool for ensuring national sovereignty.

Under Boumediene, arabization took the form of a national language requirement on street signs and shop signs, despite the fact that 60 percent of the population could not read Arabic. Calls have been made to substitute English for French as the second national language, eliminate coeducational schooling, and effect the arabization of medical and technological schools. Algeria remains caught between strident demands to eliminate any legacy from its colonial past and the more pragmatic concerns of the costs of rapid arabization.

Emotional loyalties and practical realities have made arabization a controversial issue that has consistently posed a challenge to the government. In December 1990, a law was passed that would effect complete arabization of secondary school and higher education by 1997. In early July 1993, the most recent legislation proposing a national timetable for imposing Arabic as the only legal language in government and politics was again delayed as a result of official concerns about the existence of the necessary preconditions for sensible arabization. The law was to require that Arabic be the language of official communication--including with foreign nations, on television, and in any other official capacities--and would impose substantial fines for violations.

Meanwhile the pressure for arabization has brought resistance from Berber elements in the population. Different Berber groups, such as the Kabyles, the Chaouia, the Tuareg, and the Mzab, each speak a different dialect. The Kabyles, who are the most numerous, have succeeded, for example, in instituting the study of Kabyle, or Zouaouah, their Berber language, at the University of Tizi Ouzou, in the center of the Kabylie region. Arabization of education and the government bureaucracy has been an emotional and dominant issue in Berber political participation. Young Kabyle students were particularly vocal in the 1980s about the advantages of French over Arabic.

The Arabization of Algerian society would expedite the inevitable break with France. The French government has consistently maintained a tolerant position, arguing that arabization is an Algerian "internal affair"; yet it seems certain that such sweeping changes could endanger cultural, financial, and political cooperation between the two countries. Despite both Algerian and French statements concerning the wish to break free of the legacy of the colonial past, both nations have benefited from the preferential relationship they have shared and both have hesitated to sever those ties. The language question will undoubtedly remain a persistent and emotional issue far into the future.

More about the Government and Politics of Algeria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress