Chaos lends boost to Amazigh reawakening in Libya

What cannot be doubted is the force of the Amazigh reawakening.
Sunday 25/02/2018
A monument with Arabic and Amazigh inscriptions in the middle of a roundabout in the centre of Zuwara.  (Michel Cousins)
Reawakening. A monument with Arabic and Amazigh inscriptions in the middle of a roundabout in the centre of Zuwara. (Michel Cousins)

ZUWARA, Libya - In the middle of a roundabout in the centre of Zuwara, the last town in western Libya before the Tunisian border, stands a monument to those who died in the 2011 revolution. There is a verse from the Quran in Arabic but the rest is unintelligible to most Libyans driving through to Tunisia. It is in Tamazight, the language of Libya’s Amazigh ethnic minority, and it is written in Tifinagh, the Amazigh script.

The Amazigh, also known as Berbers, are the indigenous people of North Africa, from Morocco to western Egypt. After the region was conquered by the Arabs, the Amazigh were increasingly Arabised, although never completely.

In Libya, as in Morocco and Algeria, significant numbers continued to use various versions of Tamazight. But in all three countries, until very recently, the language was repressed.

The year 2011 was a turning point: The language was legalised in Morocco and Algeria, and in Libya, where leader Muammar Qaddafi had described the Amazigh’s language and culture as poisonous, its suppression ended with the revolution.

With no definitive statistics on the Amazigh’s population in Libya, estimates vary from fewer than 200,000 to claims by Amazigh campaigners that up to 25% of Libyans (approximately 1.5 million) identify as Amazigh. A more realistic figure is thought to be 500,000-750,000.

What cannot be doubted is the force of the Amazigh reawakening that has swept through areas where Tamazight is spoken — Zuwara, towns in the Nafusa Mountains and in the far south-west and areas around Ghadames, where the Tamazight-speaking Tuareg are largely based.

Crossing the Tunisian-Libyan border at Ras Jedir, the Amazigh influence becomes immediately apparent. The blue, green, red and yellow Amazigh flag is everywhere, unlike the Libyan one.

In Zuwara, almost everyone speaks the local Tamazight dialect or a mix of Tamazight and Arabic. In the town’s streets, signs in the Tamazight script are common although Arabic predominates. This is because, while most people in Zuwara speak Tamazight, few adults can read or write it.

Tamazight classes started in schools in 2013 and children have three lessons a week up until the fifth grade. There are plans to extend it to higher grades as more teachers are trained.

That is being done at the college in the town’s centre. The Amazigh department was set up in 2014, and about 50 Libyans are on a 3-year Amazigh studies course taught by three academics from Algeria.

The awakening has been more than a local cultural renaissance, having serious implications for crisis-torn Libya. There are demands that Libya itself change to take Amazigh interests into account, with many pushing the government to grant the language official status, so it is taught in schools and universities and, along with Arabic, used on passports, the currency and official documents.

Leading this drive is the Amazigh Supreme Council (ASC), which was set up after the 2011 revolution and includes elected representatives from each Amazigh municipality.

It was the ASC that ordered a very effective boycott of the 2014 elections, first for the country’s 60-member Constitution Drafting Assembly and then for the House of Representatives. The ASC ordered the boycott after the then parliament decided two seats should be reserved for each of the Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg minorities. The ASC rejected this, claiming Amazigh numbers warranted more seats. The boycott is still in effect.

The political chaos in Libya has strengthened the Amazighs’ hand. The breakdown in central government control has seen much practical day-to-day authority pass to the municipalities. As a result, they have become their own masters — Zuwara and other Amazigh towns included.

With the strengthening of their power, the demands have also grown.

“We were asking for simple rights such as giving your son an Amazigh name,” said Ayyub Sufiyan of the Zuwara think-tank the Apuleius Foundation. He added that the movement is no longer just about legal status for the language. They are now demanding that the Amazigh be accorded the same constitutional rights as all other Libyans, meaning their language and culture would have the same status as Arabic.

For the ASC’s Khairi Hanisi, the fight is even bigger. He wants Amazigh autonomy within Libya. Others, such as Fathi Ben Khalifa, former president of the World Amazigh Congress, want Libya to no longer be seen as purely an Arab country but a multicultural one.

For most Libyans, however, these demands go too far. As a result, many Amazigh believe it is going to be an uphill struggle.

“Things improved for the Amazigh after the revolution,” said Zuwara Mayor Hafed Ben Sassi. “We were working with Libya’s Arab people but they don’t want to work with us anymore.”

To change views, his municipality plans a major conference in March attended by some 300 delegates from all over Libya who will declare that, because most Libyans are of Amazigh origin, the country is an Amazigh-majority nation.

The Amazighs’ sense of their identity and their rights put down firm roots during the political chaos of the past seven years. They have tasted autonomy and they like it. They can and will wreck any settlement that does not take their demands into account.

Amazigh autonomy or even something less, however, is for the moment unacceptable to other Libyans who have a real fear of the country splitting apart. For Libya, there is another crisis waiting to happen.

Sufiyan, though, while accepting that there are those opposed to Amazigh rights, said he is confident they will win. “We will not stop until we get our rights,” he said.