Celebrating Amazigh culture in the Maghreb

Authorities in the Maghreb countries are aware that guaranteeing citizenship rights to all citizens is the best defence against insubordination.
January 07, 2018
A Moroccan protester waves a flag of the Amazigh, Morocco's Berber community

With the beginning of every new calendar year, we hear Amazigh (Berber) voices demanding to add the Amazigh calendar to the list alongside the Gregorian and Hijri calendars in North African countries.

Such requests are usually looked at by authorities as part of the usual package of Amazigh demands for cultural recognition raised by activists around January 13 every year. They express the Amazigh efforts to be part of the public sphere in their respective countries as well as their perseverance in trying to revive and preserve the Amazigh heritage.

The decision by the Algerian authorities to declare the Amazigh New Year an official holiday in Algeria has, paradoxically, resulted in increased demands by the Amazigh populations in the Maghreb countries. In general, given regional and international contexts, authorities prefer to contain minority demands for a bigger share by increased rights before resorting to partitioning solutions or to restoring unity by force.

We would not be far from the truth when we say that the third millennium ushered in a new era of Amazigh revivalism in the Maghreb countries. Morocco was the first to initiate the process of guaranteeing citizenship rights for its Amazigh population.

In his 2001 Agadir speech, King Mohammed VI touched on those rights. Morocco’s 2012 constitution recognised Amazigh culture as a component of Morocco’s national identity and Berber as an official language alongside Arabic. In 2001, a royal decree created the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture in Rabat as a public institution responsible for preserving and reviving all aspects of Amazigh culture and language.

Algiers followed suit and implemented actions and decisions to reinforce Amazigh rights in Algeria. The Algerian constitution recognised Amazigh culture and Algerian authorities created a television channel dedicated to programmes in Berber and estab­lished the High Commission for Amazigh Identity.

Despite the raging civil strife in Libya, the reconciliatory approach to the situation in Libya carries with it the necessity for the country’s new constitution to recognise the Amazigh language and culture as part of the official aspects of the new Libya.

In Tunisia, however, it is difficult to speak of the existence of an Amazigh or a Berber problem. One cannot even speak of the existence of an Amazigh minority by the usual standards defining minority. Nevertheless, active Amazigh civil society associations exist and are pushing for the official recognition of the Amazigh language in Tunisia.

The above facts indicate that authorities in the Maghreb coun­tries are aware that guaranteeing citizenship rights to all citizens is the best defence against insubordi­nation. It is true that each country in the Maghreb has chosen its own path in dealing with ethnic minori­ties and their identity angst.

In the end, however, they all opted for a soft approach to contain their Amazigh problem by granting special rights and recognising Amazigh culture and language. Algeria and Morocco have gone beyond the phase of identity debate and guaranteed minorities’ rights in their constitutions. By doing so, they have widened the concepts of citizenship, culture and social fabric in the Maghreb.

Algiers was the first to declare the Amazigh New Year as an official holiday. Rabat will certainly follow suit soon and even Tunis and Tripoli might join in the trend. Amazigh associations in Tunisia and Morocco have made official requests to copy the Algerian initiative. Tunisian Minister for Human Rights Mehdi Ben Gharbia used a speech to the Human Rights Council in Geneva to wish Tunisia’s Amazigh minority a happy new Amazigh year.

On closer examination, the Algerian decision might have been hastened by specific regional and international events. In Iraq, Spain and even Nigeria and Cameroon relations between the central authorities and far-away provinces have been seriously tested. Algerian authorities might have decided to pre-empt any secession demands driven by identity and economic issues.

Authorities in the Maghreb countries understand that marginalised cultures and weak regional economies are breeding ground for secessionist move­ments. They have seen it happen in Sudan and in Iraq. Even if secession did not succeed in Catalonia, there are no signs yet that unity will be restored there.

Rabat quickly understood that message as it dealt with social unrest in Morocco’s Rif region and so did Algeria as it dealt with similar situations in Tizi Ouzou, Oran and Tlemcen. Nobody questioned those regions’ right to a fair share in economic develop­ment. Still, the threat of disunity in the Maghreb countries lurks about from within and from outside.

Recognising minority rights in the Maghreb carries potential risks. For one thing, it might lead to creating a strong local identity that might start competing and even challenging the dominant Arab-Islamic identity. It is crucial, therefore, that the Amazigh minorities realise that success in their battle for recognition is contingent on their acceptance of the other components of the national identity in their coun­tries.

Second, accepting to officially celebrate the Amazigh New Year might give some Amazigh extrem­ists an appetite for more cultural concessions based on their Berber historical heritage.

For the anecdote, the people of the Great Maghreb do not seem to realise that the Amazigh calendar is no other than the agrarian almanac regulating a farmer’s relations with earth, weather and crops. In the end, however, a shared culture deepens citizenship feelings and citizenship rights guard against disloyalty to the nation.