Cradle of Resistance: Algeria’s Kabylia Region

Locator map of Kabylie in Nothern Africa

Image via Wikipedia

Algerian History

Going back to ancient times, the section of the Maghreb now called Algeria has been subjected to stagnating rule by a series of foreign empires. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, Turks and French have all spent significant time as overlords there. [1] History teaches us that wherever there are rulers, especially foreign ones, there are also those who oppose them. In the case of Algeria, the people of the Kabylia region, mostly Muslim Berbers, have historically resisted assimilation efforts from both foreign and domestic foes. In fact, their inability to coalesce politically and religiously with the country’s Arab Muslims has left the population at the mercy of foreign armies and domestic warfare for centuries.

Pre-Colonial Kabylia Berbers:

Algeria has been inhabited by Berbers since at least 10,000 BC. They have had a warlike reputation throughout history; they are chronicled as fighting the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Carthaginians; they provided two Roman Emperors; one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity, St. Augustine, was of Berber descent; they were in the vanguard of the Muslim conquest of Spain; and of course the name “Barbary Coast” is derived from the Berber people.[2]

Kabylia is a formidable mountainous region just east of Algiers. Its isolated mountains have provided safe haven for the local Berbers for centuries making it a difficult place for foreign occupiers and their religious and political practices to fully penetrate. Its cave rich landscape provides ideal cover from which to launch a guerrilla insurgency or to hold off an advancing army. [3] The Kabyle Berbers historically fell back to these mountains under pressure from invading armies, for centuries they proved tremendously resilient in the face of the integration efforts of many a conquering empire.

Considered clannish, these hill people have always behaved in a rebellious fashion when challenged. For example, though forcibly converted to Islam, they incorporated in their new religion many of the animist features of their pre- Islamic faith, to the dismay of orthodox Islamic religious leaders; in constant rebellion against centralized rule, they fought the tax man and the religious reformer with equal zeal. They were often on the brink of rebellion, yet their inter-clan rivalries made them vulnerable to central manipulation.[4]

Reaction to French After 1830

The arrival of the French army in 1830 proved to be a defining moment in Algeria’s history, testing the ability of the Algerian Muslims to unify around a common goal. In 1830 a French force consisting of 35,000 men and some 600 ships moved against the Ottoman Dey in Algiers, largely to settle a dispute over debts incurred by the French in the wheat trade. It took fewer than three weeks for Algiers to fall. As one might expect, the tribes of the Algerian interior were no more willing to accept French rule than Ottoman rule. It wasn’t long before Muslim religious scholars began preaching the jihad against the infidel invaders.[5] Soon previously adversarial tribal leaders converged in purpose and found a leader to galvanize their struggle against the French: in 1832 they united behind Abd-el-Kader, an Arab from rural Mascara. The resistance was a long, deadly struggle and was not popular in France; it went on for seventeen years until finally Abd-el-Kader, no longer able to withstand French firepower, surrendered in 1847. [6]

The insurgency to repel the advancing Europeans was lost but Kabylia kept up resistance for years. Worth mentioning during this period is the legendary Kabylie named Lalla Fatma N’Soumeur. In 1849 she met the resistance leader Boubaghla, a soldier in Abd-el-Kader’s vanquished army who had fled to Kabylia rather than surrender to the French.[7] N’Soumeur was present alongside Boubaghla at the victorious battle of Tachekirt in 1854, the high water mark of the resistance. She was also one of the last rebels to surrender to the French when they finally crushed the rebellion in 1857. Lalla Fatma N’Soumeur has become known in Algeria’s national memory as the “Jeanne d’Arc du Djurdjura” for her role in the Kabylia uprising.[8]

The French reaction to the rebellion was terribly harsh; thousands were rounded up and sentenced to death, usually by courts packed with colonists who had themselves suffered violence at the hands of the rebels, huge fines were imposed and large portions of Kabylia’s best land was confiscated. [9]

The confrontation between Algerians and the French colonists continued to heat up; as French settlers seized more power and land native Algerians found themselves increasingly powerless to shape thier own political and economic destiny. A fateful moment arrived with the end of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe in 1871. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the Germans, one of the spoils of their victory over the French, created hundreds of thousands of French refugees many of whom emigrated to the new French colony in northern Africa. This mass infusion of foreign settlers set the country on a dangerous path that ultimately led to revolution. But it took awhile because the Algerians themselves suffered from devastating in-fighting between rural and town, between Arab and Berber and between orthodox Muslims and more secular leaning Muslims.

The Divide Between Arabs and Berbers

The tension between Arabs and Berbers is an on-going issue for Algeria. For example, even though most of Kabylia’s indigenous population had been converted to Islam in the Muslim conquests beginning in 700 AD, many, including many of the converted, also remained committed to their customary microcosmic, polytheistic rituals and beliefs. Content to remain in this state of religious mixing for centuries the Berbers of Kabylia resisted many Islamic purification efforts, putting them squarely at odds with their Arab counterparts—The French, well-versed in balance of power politics, knew this and it was often their policy to set one off against the other. [10]

The strained relations flared up from time to time. In the 1930s an Islamic reformist movement sprang up in Algeria. The reformists, called Wahhabis by the French, sought an Algeria that was to be unified as one single Muslim nation guided by those properly equipped to know its truth; in their view the ulema (Islamic clergy) alone were fit to act as true leaders of the community. The reformists targeted sufi brotherhoods in their attacks, accusing them of standing in the way of religious unification. As part of their efforts, the Algerian salafiyya focused on making inroads in the difficult to penetrate rural, berberophone, Kabylia. They were fixated on religious violations they believed were being committed by religious scholars and leaders in the Kabylia and Aures zones; most controversial was the neglect of the Shari’a (Islamic law based on the Quran) and the Sunnah (Islamic custom and practice based on the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad). [11]

Setif (May 8, 1945)

Despite the hard feelings Arabs and Berbers slowly built a détente and began to work together. At the close of the second world war an important incident occured that jump-started the solidarity movement, it took place in the rural, mostly Muslim, town of Setif in the interior. On May 8, 1945, V.E. Day, the victory celebration there quickly turned to protest over long-simmering grievances; Muslims rightly expected equal citizenship and voting rights after fighting and dying on the battlefield in support of the French cause twice in thirty years. For decades the French governors had steadfastly refused their demands. The colonial authorities feared the potential of a radicalized Algerian majority and so moved quickly to gain control over the threatening situation to keep it from escalating. The result was the tragic massacre of hundreds of marchers, many from nearby Kabylia, by the colonial police. The explosive reaction was brutal; for several days the Europeans of the Kabylia and Setif areas lived in fear of angry marauding Muslims who terrorized the countryside. The French repression in return was ferocious, hundreds died before the French brought the situation under control. The action served the immediate goal of the French authorities as it temporarily crushed and demoralized any potential opposition. In the long run though, the memory, seared into the minds of the people, Arab and Berber alike, became a rallying cry as the momentum built toward the war for independence in 1954.[12] In addition, the episode provided grounds for the future rebels to justify jihad in defensive terms, like the Prophet had, by using the memory of Setif as proof of French motives.

The Algerian War (1954-62)

By October 1954 most residents of the Kabylia region had little contact with the French colonial settlers or administrators. True, there were European settlers in Kabylia but they tended to stay together. In fact, most Kabylies rarely ever saw pieds noirs in their remote villages. Most likely, the only time they ever had contact was with the dreaded tax collector from Algiers.[13] Hating the tax man was nothing new in world history and the residents of Kabylia were no different. They had serious issues with the colonial practice of taxation without representation. Sound familiar? They also experienced the pain of serious economic disadvantages they viewed as unfair and as originating in Algiers, where the Europeans lived; in fact the tension between urban and rural populations was an important factor in the lead-up to the war and remains potent to this day. In towns, universal education was within sight, whereas in the country it remained a dream. Rural dwellers had a direct knowledge of certain advantages—education, political rights, social mobility—which they had no real hope of sharing.[14] The situation proved to be fertile ground for producing combatants in the rebellion prone region.

The F.L.N, or Front de Liberation Nationale, had grown from several competing organizations in the years following the Setif massacre. Its evolution into the leading Algerian political force had been a dangerous, bloody internal struggle. But by 1954 events had unified many, Arab and Berber alike, within the party apparatus. Some of the most influential members during the revolutionary life of the F.L.N were from the Kabyle. Even so, the F.L.N did have rivalries, not surprisingly the first important power struggle in the party was between the Arab Ahmed Ben Bella and Ramdane Abbane from Kabylia; in fact the mystery surrounding Abbane’s violent death has led many to believe he was liquidated by Ben Bella’s faction within the F.L.N..[15]

Revolutionaries from the Kabyle were once again in the vanguard of a violent insurrection against the French authorities. Their influence on the F.L.N was tremendous; Belkacem Krim, a founding member of the F.L.N, was commander of the Number 1 (Kabylia) Wilaya (province). A former French army corporal, Krim had organized his own guerrilla force in Kabylia after World War Two. Foremost among the second wave of F.L.N leaders who rose to influence in 1956 was Krim’s protégé Ramdane Abbane also from Kabylia.[16] The F.L.N’s first congress was held in Kabylia in 1956 and was organized and dominated by Abbane. His policies created a coherent organization but they also spurred a series of bitter internal conflicts that eventually led to his aforementioned downfall.[17] It was the model of the tribal village called jema’a (the assembly of heads of families) that influenced the F.L.N internal political organization; the most developed and influential version of the jema’a was that of the hillsmen of Kabylia. Even the formal organization of the F.L.N military forces was based on the system of ranks and command structure already in use by Krim’s forces in Kabylia. [18]

On October 10, 1954, the F.L.N set the plan in motion for the beginning of the war for independence from France. On November 1, 1954 “All Saints Day” the revolt was launched in the interior, namely the Kabyle and Aures zones. Alistaire Horne points out that the F.L.N voiced their disenchantment with fighting for equality within the French colonial administrative and judicial structures. All Saints Day represented a new strategy, a violent one to be sure, that aimed to take the struggle first to the countryside to build and recruit an army from the poor, largely ignored, populations.[19] We should not be surprised that the Algerian war for independence began in the Kabyle first. No insurrection against the French could ever succeed without the participation of the tenacious hill people. The formation of the F.L.N represents the emergence of a true Algerian nationalist effort, the first since al-Kader.

The Algerian War proved to be a long, tragic struggle– thousands lost their lives. Finally Charles de Gualle offered the famous “paix des braves” (peace of the brave) signaling the hand-writing on the wall. The F.L.N had won. The actual capitulation and retreat by France in 1962 caused the mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of pieds noirs back to France. The collaboration between the Arabs and Berbers, admittedly messy in its execution, had proved to be the difference as the Algerians finally repelled the foreign occupier and grabbed hold of their own national destiny. A destiny that we shall see has been increasingly murky as the two groups have again diverged.

Post-Colonial Tensions

In the late 1980s another reformist movement developed; known as the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) their platform caused renewed tensions between Arab Islamists and rural Berbers. The FIS stood for an Islamic constitution based on the shura (the method by which pre-Islamic Arabian tribes selected leaders and made major decisions) and the Shari’a (Quranic law). On the other hand, the Berberist RCD party and Kabylia’s FFS party led by Ait Ahmed stood for a secularist constitution based on democratic principles. The differences escalated as time progressed, sometimes turning bloody.[20]

The results of the national elections in 1991 brought the tensions once more to a boiling point. The FIS was heading for a massive victory, winning close to 75 percent of the seats. It was feared that the installment of a fundamentalist Islamic government in Algiers would have provoked a massive popular movement demanding autonomy for Kabylia, which would fracture national unity. In addition there would have been a split in the army and possible war between Algiers and Kabylia. As a result, the Algerian officer corps suspended the elections and took power. Unfortunately a tragic civil war followed that left thousands dead and heaped massive destruction on Algeria for most of the decade. [21]

The noted Kabyle author Si Amar Said Boulifa described his people’s role in Algerian history: “the principle historical fact relative to Kabyle independence has always been animated and sustained by a democratic ideal.” Boulifa describes an unending Berber defence of liberty in the mountains of Kabylia, which throughout history no invader has conquered, until the arrival of the French and their subjection of the region in 1857. He goes on to predict a bright future for Kabylia precisely due to this “innate love of freedom, its perpetual yearning for independence and it aptitude for work and order.”[22]

To conclude, throughout Algerian history Berber struggles for autonomy, religious and regional, served to forestall pan-Muslim and nationalist movements. As we have seen the bar for unification between Muslims was set quite high; it took the introduction to Algeria of close to one million foreign French colonists (the pieds noirs), decades of 2nd class citizenship in their own land and dashed expectations after fighting and dying in two world wars to push the two Muslim populations into an uneasy alliance against their antagonists. The success of Islamization in Kabylia had been mixed, but they were Muslims and so open to the call for jihad, especially after Setif. In fact the leaders of the F.L.N used the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad to unify their forces in opposition; the F.L.N leaders no doubt knew the symbolism of framing the insurrection in the language of the hijra (the emigration of Muhammad and his followers to the city of Medina in 622) and jihad performed by the Prophet Muhammad’s original community. By retreating to the interior, to the caves of the Kabyle, to launch the rebellion the F.L.N seemed to be following in ancient footsteps. Finally, the trend was reversed after the French retreat removed the reason for cooperation. The effect was a breakdown of alliances between the rural, mostly Berber, occupants of Kabylia and the urban fundamentalist Islamists, the Armed Islamic Group for example, that once again threatened to tear the fabric of the country.


Behr, Edward. The Algerian Problem. New York, W.W. Norton. 1962, c1961

Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962. New York : Viking Press. 1978, c1977

McDougall, James. History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press. 2006

Oussedik, Tahar. Lla Fat’ma n’Soumeur. Alger : Entreprise nationale du livre. 1986

Roberts, Hugh. The Battlefield Algeria, 1988-2002: Studies in a Broken Polity. London ; New York : Verso. 2003

Tillion, Germaine. Algeria: the Realities. New York. Knopf, 1958


[1] Edward Behr. The Algerian Problem. New York, W.W. Norton. 1962, c1961, p.13.


[2] Alistair Horne. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962. New York : Viking Press. 1978, c1977, P. 48-49

[3] Ibid, p.48

[4] Behr, op. cit., p.14

[5] Behr, op. cit., p.17

[6] Behr, op. cit., p.23

[7] Tahar Oussedik. Lla Fat’ma n’Soumeur. Alger : Entreprise nationale du livre. 1986, p.32

[8] Ibid, p.62-66

[9] Behr, op. cit., p 24

[10] Horne, op. cit., p. 50

[11] James McDougall. History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press. 2006, p. 116

[12] Horne, op. cit., p.23-8

[13] Behr, op. cit., p.40

[14] Germaine Tillion. Algeria: the Realities. New York, Knopf. 1958, p. 59

[15] Behr, op. cit., p.113

[16] Behr, op. cit., p.111.

[17] Hugh Roberts. The Battlefield Algeria, 1988-2002: Studies in a Broken Polity. London ; New York : Verso. 2003, p. 47

[18] Ibid, p..42-43

[19] Horne, op. cit., p. 83-94

[20] Roberts, op. cit., p. 119

[21] Roberts, op. cit., p.120-122

[22] Mcdougall, op. cit., p.79


One response to “Cradle of Resistance: Algeria’s Kabylia Region

  1. Pingback: Cradle of Resistance: Algeria’s Kabylia Region | The Offbeat Archive

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