The Kabyle: Algeria’s worst kept secret


The threat of Russia moving into North Africa keeps the West from speaking up against Algeria’s ethnic genocide of the Kabyle. While the Kabyle people – who are indigenous to the mountains of Kabylia – mirror the region’s beauty, resilience, and ferocity, they face the Algerian government’s eradication plan: “Operation Zero Kabyle”. Alongside the leader of the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabyle (MAK) and former Maghreb singing sensation Ferhat Mehenni, lawyer and activist Elisabeth Myers lobbies to raise awareness and support for the Kabyle’s independence within US governments. The optimum outcome for both parties would be a two-state solution. The Kabyle have successfully set the table for their own self-determination, but will Algeria take a seat?


Maghrebi: Can you tell me about the significance of Mehenni’s attendance at the UN general assembly/indigenous peoples conference?

Myers: So, the annual indigenous people’s conference at the UN which is a gathering of people from around the world…the significance of attending those things, at least for the Kabyle Movement, which is an independent movement that started with a vision of autonomy and then moved later to independence is essentially a diplomatic function. So, when they attend these conferences, they are meeting other kinds of people who are seeking vindication of their rights and even their existence…. the Kabyles have faced a situation in Algeria where the Kabyle have been forbidden to speak ‘Kabyle’ which is the overarching dialect of Tamazight, the Amazigh language. So, the idea of going to these conferences is to raise the idea that they are a people. Within the meaning of the UN charter, of people with a unique existence and also there’s solidarity where peoples can unify. The world is getting an ear full – it’s getting an education. Because there’s an increasingly lawless global society…as I see it right now there’s a lot of lip service paid to the law and order but very little actually happens. Those are kind of the considerations and by extension, the Kabyle Movement is engaging in a much larger effort at international diplomacy. So that’s just one conference where indigenous peoples are attending, but not all of those indigenous peoples have any kind of official representation…The Kabyle are engaging in diplomacy in the United States and that’s actually what my role has been over the past year – to open the door through meetings with congressmen and senators and again serve an education function. Usually, the first contact I have with a congressperson, or a senator is that they have no idea – “Where is Kabylia?” – they have no idea that it’s an indigenous region of North Africa in the mountainous part of what has been designated as a result of French Algeria.

Ferhat Mehenni, president of the MAK, recently at the United Nations General Assembly, NYC.

Maghrebi: And do you find that these senators and congressmen are willing to listen?

Myers: Yes, indeed. There have been a few who have not been receptive to having a meeting but I would say that around 95-97% of the congress members and senators that I have approached have said “Oh yes, I would definitely be willing to have a meeting. We would like to learn more about this.”… Recently, at this indigenous people’s conference, there was representation from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, so there was a huge kind of media blitz about the leadership of Kabyle, President Mehenni meeting with representatives of those countries and that has created some ripple affect really throughout the world.


Maghrebi: What should we expect from the US – congress and state department – about the situation with the Kabyle and what its objectives are?

Myers: I’m going to break those questions down because they’re both very different.

So the objectives – to talk specifically about the movement’s objectives…the movement was founded after many years of a decolonisation effort that was first from decolonisation from France, then after that, decolonisation from Algeria. Post-French Algeria. So this history goes back to the 1960’s and earlier…Not to jump around too much, but after the indigenous people’s conference, there was a proclamation…that was done on April 20th, in front of the UN headquarters…the proclamation was about the rebirth of the Kabyle state. There’s been quite a lot of misunderstanding about it being a Declaration of Independence – they’re not at that yet. It’s the rebirth of the Kabyle state. The timing of that, April 20th and the timing of 18:57 Kabylia time reflects the battle in which the Kabyles lost their sovereignty to the French…so the history of the decolonisation effort goes all the way back to 1857, as far as Kabylia is concerned.


But political change takes time, especially when the US is trying to maintain its relationship with Algeria to make it turn less to Russia – which is not happening. We’re not seeing that.


Sorry, there’s a lot of rabbit holes here because in order for me to tell you one thing, you kind of need to know something else…So the objectives have been all along to render to Kabylia, what is its own…With the proclamation of the rebirth of the Kabyle state, what they’re doing is putting the world on notice and calling on nations around the world who believe in the UN Charter of the Rights of Peoples, the human rights of peoples..civil rights…the right of free expression…the right to speak your own language…to follow or not follow your religion, all of these basic fundamentals that are currently being disallowed in Algeria for the entire Kabyle region of the northern mountainous area to the east of Algiers all the way to the Mediterranean. So, you have about 12 million people in that region who view themselves as Kabyles, as people from Kabylia, and those are the rights that are being repressed consistently, especially in 2021 when Algeria took advantage of the Covid situation to crack down even more on the freedom of expression…There were some huge fires that just burnt down hectares of forests, and people’s homes, and people’s lively hoods, their animals, crops, their everything. Algeria blamed that on the Movement. The Movement has evidence – they believe shows that it was the Algerian military that dropped these incendiary bombs of phosphorous to make the fires spread. So, in the wake of that, the Algerian authorities arrested thousands and thousands of people on various claims…infringing upon national unity, terrorism – they designated the Movement of Self-Determination of Kabylia (MAK) a terrorist group under this new law that they passed. They sentenced the President, in absentia, to the death penalty. So, Algeria took advantage of all of these situations, they also blocked aid that was being sent from Kabyles in France. There were convoys that were being sent full of medical aid, ventilators…all these things that people needed in Kabylia to fight against Covid; Algeria blocked them and diverted them.

So, the objectives are to free the Kabyle people from this current repression, to allow them to become a stabilising factor in a region that really is not stable. Now, Algeria may claim that it’s stable…but military dictatorship replaced by another military dictatorship…feeding Muslim brotherhood fundamentalism, destabilising the region, and now with Algeria turning expressly to Russia, buying lots of armaments, courting Russia…this is like the bridge between the two questions as the objectives of the Kabyle Movement are to provide a stable platform for their people but also to provide a stable, peaceful region of Africa that doesn’t lend itself to warfare…If Kabylia is allowed to flourish, as a politically, religiously free society, that will lend itself to more stability in Africa.

What can we expect to see from the US?…In the short term, I think we can expect to see more senators and congresspeople willing to meet with us. Especially given the coverage that the proclamation got from the Wall Street Journal – that was probably a first…the English-speaking media are now picking up more of their story…we’re seeing a lot more English media covering the Kabyle’s and that’s what we’re looking to do. But political change takes time, especially when the US is trying to maintain its relationship with Algeria to make it turn less to Russia – which is not happening. We’re not seeing that. And one thing that I’m very concerned about is that the US ambassador to Russia is changing shortly – she’s only been there for 2 years and all we’ve seen is the PR campaign that Algeria’s engaged in. They spend millions of dollars on anti-Kabyle PR, while at the same time, they have an anti-Kabyle programme called ‘Operation Zero Kabyle’ which was also put into place in 2021. It is as much an ethnic genocide as what we’re seeing in Gaza right now.

“I think we can expect to see more senators and congresspeople willing to meet with us. Especially given the coverage that the proclamation got from the Wall Street Journal”

Maghrebi: In the US country report of Algeria 2021, Algeria claimed to have defeated terrorism but labelled the MAK as a terrorist group.

Myers: You should also note that in the 2022 country report, the US State Department said that terrorism designation is more semantic than real, but I mean it is very difficult to get the word out. I’ll give you an example of what happened last week. I wanted to set the record straight on Wikipedia…so I got on there and I didn’t delete anything that was on there in terms of terrorist designation, but I added that statement from the State Department – about designation being more semantic than real. Within hours, it had been deleted…This is Algeria’s stance.

I mentioned earlier that thousands of people had been arrested in 2020, about 500 of them are still in prison, including the leader of the world Amazigh Congress – who’s a woman, who according to her lawyer…she’s now been in prison for two years for undermining national unity…she’s being forced to wear a hijab in prison, and she doesn’t normally wear one. I met this woman back in 2017 at a big Amazigh conference here in the south in Tijindad, and a bunch of people came…people in exile from France, Kabyles came, including Kamira. And yes, she is very militant in a sense of demanding for people’s rights, but I can’t see her standing out there with a gun. The charges that Algeria’s levying against people for protesting are really outrageous.


Maghrebi: Earlier you mentioned that the Kabyle were forbidden from speaking their own dialect, how else has the government’s oppression affected the Kabyle people?

Myers: So, they’re also not allowed to practice their religion, to the extent that they’re not Muslim…I think there were 43 churches that were operating prior to 2021 – I’m talking Christian churches and various denominations that were operating in Kabylia. All but one has been closed by Algerian authorities and they have recently in the last month or so arrested a pastor… for basically disobeying their dicta that they can no longer practice Christianity. So, there’s religious oppression and linguistic oppression. Outside of Kabylia, if you wear a traditionally embroidered dress, that’s a no go as well.

Maghrebi: And what would the repercussions be?

Myers: What they do is they arrest you, they ‘disappear’ you, maybe a week later or two weeks later, they let your family know that you’re in prison, maybe. In Kamira’s case, they held her for nine days before they admitted that they had her in custody. That was two years ago now. And then they either give you a sham trial or they just hold you. For Kamira, it was more than a year which violates Algerian law, because within four months you’re meant to have some kind of hearing, so again, it’s lip service paid to due process. They might put you in a sham trial or as in the case of President Mehenni, they convict you in absentia, without any representation, nobody to represent you in court because what happens if he comes back, he will be immediately put in prison and tortured. There is documented evidence of torture that happened in Algerian prisons, I think the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reports on that too. So, the ramifications when you do something that the Algerian authorities find in the slightest bit ‘dangerous’ to national unity, then immediately you’re picked up off the street.

And I have to tell you that when I’ve spoken to the lawyers over there, the lawyers in Algeria, that they are very tight-lipped. They cannot risk speaking out and telling you something unless you can guarantee them that you won’t identify them.


Maghrebi: You mentioned the HRW and Amnesty International reports, but what are human rights groups doing to aid the MAK? What could/should they do?

Myers: The problem is that it’s difficult to get into Algeria, it’s difficult to get approval to go into these places. I did read something recently where I think it was several organisations that were allowed to go in but…and I hesitate to make this example, but it’s like how the Nazis invited the Red Cross to go in and see their camps. They show you what they want you to see…I know it’s an extreme comparison but only to make the point that to the extent that human rights organisations are allowed in, they get to see what they’re allowed to see by Algeria, which is not actually what’s necessarily happening. Or the extent of the prisoners who were actually tortured.

I would like to see them work more with the Movement…which the State Department does not believe is a terrorist movement, and all of their actions over the last 20-odd years. For the first 10 years, it was a Movement for autonomy that completely failed…Algeria won’t come to the table at all. That became independence, that became self-determination. I would like to see human rights organisations reach out more to the Movement and find out from the people who have been just snatched up, the people who are protesting or the people who were accused falsely of killing that young guy who came from another place in Algeria to help quell the fires, but the Movement actually says that he was killed in a police station and that his body was dumped outside, and that’s when they started taking pictures and picking up people. And the first question [the police] ask these people is not “Where were you at the time of this murder?”, but “Are you a member of the independence movement?”. That’s the first question they ask, and God help you if you say yes because you’re gone. Even if you say no, if they want to, they’ll arrest you.


Maghrebi: Do you think the EU could be doing more?

Myers: That’s a good question. I don’t really think that I’m qualified to…I don’t really follow the EU that much or the commission anymore. I used to when I was in law school because I studied what was called the ‘common market’ back then. But yes, I don’t really feel qualified to talk about that.


Maghrebi: Why do you think the Kabyle are used as a national scapegoat for Algeria?

Myers: Because there are the principal political opposing force right now. There is another but they’re not nearly as organised. To show you the strength and the fear that the MAK instills in Algeria, there is a government in exile that was established in 2010, after 10 years of seeking autonomy didn’t work – they said ‘fine, we’re going to establish a government in exile.’, based in Paris. They established a parliament…an economic advisory council, and then in the past couple of years, they established their own constitution. They’re extremely well organised, and with roughly 12 million people in Kabylia, and then maybe five or six million perhaps outside of the country in various places such as France, and a large number based in Canada, a fair number based in the US…there’s a lot of support for the Movement. They’re extremely educated people. And they have learned over the years that doing everything you can in a peaceful and lawful manner where you can take advantage of all kinds of diplomacy – whether it’s international diplomacy, or seeking support from the US, or seeking support from Gulf countries, other indigenous people, or whether it’s filing complaints before the International Criminal Court, which they did almost two years ago now, as well as the Court of Justice in Paris…They’re using all of the means: lawful, legal, diplomatic, jurisdictional, plus economic means to vindicate their rights as a people. Given the incredible level of oppression, it’s just not surprising.

Let me also go back to history a bit because the Kabyles were the people who won the war. Won independence from France in the 60s, in the war of independence and Algeria will frequently say “We call upon the Kabyle’s” to do this, and do that, because they have been the strongest, the most perhaps stubborn but in a positive sense that they will persist – they’re not going to give up just because Algeria keeps putting the pressure on them or turning the screws, they’re not going to give up. Putting another 1,500 people in prison is not going to make them give up. I think that the diplomatic success that they’ve had in the past year has really raised a flag for Algeria now. So, the proclamation that was issued essentially gives Algeria a year to decide how they want to deal with this. Are they going to come to the table and consider a two-state solution? Or are they going to continue the repression and continue to see the diplomatic efforts blossom even more?

I think that in 2025 we’re going to see something further, whether it’s a Declaration of Independence or some other means, but I suspect that Algeria’s not going to come to the table, despite the fact that it would be good for the country. It would be good to allow the country to focus on economic development and for making a better life for all its people. And foster stability in the country, I mean this is the great success of Morocco, just as a comparison. In the last 20-odd years, we’ve seen a huge amount of investment go into many areas, especially infrastructure and economic trade, the infrastructure for transportation, all of the things like that are the basis for a strong economy. And now what we’re seeing is an investment in the people in terms of education. Algeria hasn’t done that. If they were to do that…they’re the ones who are undermining nation stability and unity by failing to take care of all of its people.


Maghrebi: Do you believe that Algeria’s people do sympathise with or support the MAK and Kabyle?

Myers: There are probably a number of Arab Algerians who accept the propositions that the Kabyles have been repressed and that there’s a reason as to why they’re asking for independence. But I think that there’s a large number of Arab Algerians who don’t accept that, who reject that. I don’t know what the break down is at all so I can’t even speculate.

Relations between the MAK and Rabat could be described as love-hate. In 2016 the leader of the movement was even denied a visa to attend a cultural event in Morocco.

Maghrebi: Aside from their organisation, do the Kabyle have any advantage over the oppressors?

Myers: Yes. I’ll put it all into one word: competence. They’re competent. They could govern the country in a much more competent way than these military generals, where there’s all kinds of internal warfare going on. Generals against subordinates, generals against other generals, secret service against the leadership. It’s like a spiderweb… The Kabyles don’t have that. There are some who have urged for the Movement to be a lot more militant and to not be as peaceful, but they’ve resisted that so far. Because they’re so well educated and funded, I think that they’d do a much better job governing the country. But they’re only asking for their own portion, their own state in the indigenous mountain region that is separate from Algeria. They’re only asking for their portion to form a two-state solution.

But I would also say that the Kabyle…they’re very open-minded people. They have their own system of democracy with the agora’s, a tribal democracy. Although I hate to use that term because in Western media, it’s usually looked down on but it has worked for them for thousands of years. It’s been recorded in history books as an example of how society can function. And if you’re a Kabyle, you can be a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew – and they still have some Jews there but they have to practice in secret – and you can be an atheist. There’s none of this “you have to be this” or “you have to wear a hijab”. So, from a societal standpoint, their outlook on freedom is much broader and more liberal. They understand what freedom means. Your freedom is your freedom from me telling you what to do, not to tell you what to practice, what to wear, what language to speak.


Maghrebi: So, if 2025 comes around and the MAK declares independence, is that the end of the fight? Is that the end goal?

Myers:  Well, when you have a government outside of the territory declaring independence, there’s still work to be done. What it will take though is the support of nations around the world, nations who believe in the idea of liberty who believe in being able to speak freely…Embracing the notion that Kabylia is a state. It’s going to take an effort of the UN, and that could take decades more. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, it probably won’t happen in the president’s lifetime, but it may happen in your lifetime. But we know from the example of other states who have sought independence, such as Palestine, even when the UN says, “this is what should happen,” for a two-state solution, we still don’t see that…But I can tell you that the Kabyle spirit is never going to falter. They have decades. They’ve already been at this for several decades; they can do it for several more. They’re very very independent people. Resilient, resourceful, educated, fabulous musicians.


Maghrebi: Does Morocco play a role in the Kabyle’s story at all?

Myers: So yes and no. Morocco has its own Amazigh people. One of the things that recent ruffled Morocco’s feathers was the recognition in Algeria of the Moroccan Rif people who are not claiming independence from Morocco. The Amazigh in Morocco have asked for their ethnic, linguistic, cultural, artisan heritage to be recognised and Morocco has done that, so this is a huge task over the last 20 years. So, it’s not all only investment in infrastructure, it’s a revamp of the constitution of Morocco to recognise the Amazigh people who were here before the Arabs ever conquered.


Maghrebi: Does Rabat use the case of the Kabyle against Algiers?

Myers: Yes, because there’s a certain hypocrisy in respect to the Western Sahara issue. Algeria funds the Polisario. Algeria supports the Polisario. Algeria is keeping people in those camps under lock and key essentially. Supporting an independence militia that says Western Sahara should not be Moroccan, and yet within its own borders, the authorities are denying their own people independence. There’s a big hypocrisy in that and of course, that undermines Morocco’s position that…I think since 2007, that Morocco has proposed an autonomy plan for the region – it’s still part of Morocco, prior to Spain’s leaving and French colonialism.  Yet the people there can have their own autonomy to run their own governments, their own systems. The US government have supported that plan, many other nations have supported the plan, and it’s realistic and credible. But Algeria continues to undermine the stability of that region by basically funding a militia group that is destabilising the region. So yeah, Morocco has a stake.


Maghrebi: What would you like people to know about the Kabyle?

Myers: For the Kabyle’s to have their own state in the region, they are probably the most Western and democratic oriented, freedom-oriented country in the entire region. They would be a significant ally for the west in stabilising and countering terrorism, countering insurgency…supporting and promoting democracy in the region. So, from that standpoint, Western regions need to look at what they’re doing and how long they’ve been doing it for and support the effort to have Algeria come to the table.




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