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Libya's Berbers: The New Factor in Post-Gaddafi Politics

Libya’s six-month-long rebellion against Muammar al-Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship may have overthrown the old regime. But what factors will determine the new one? A surprising force in the revolt’s success, and thus one which bears watching in the post-Gaddafi order, is the country’s Berber (Amazigh, literally, “free men”) minority.

Their determined battles against the regime’s forces in the country’s western highlands of Jebel Nafusa created a second front, cutting an important strategic road to Tunisia, and ultimately helped produce the conquest of the crucial Zawiyah oil refinery 50 km from Tripoli, heralding the beginning of the end for Gaddafi.

Berbers are North Africa’s original indigenous population, there since the beginning of recorded history. Organized along traditional tribal and familial lines, and speaking various dialects of a single language, they interacted with conquerors and traders since the time of the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians. The Arab-Muslim conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries and subsequent influx of Arab tribes from the east resulted in the Berbers’ Islamization, and partial Arabization. The mostly unwritten Berber dialects were preserved mainly in North Africa’s Atlas mountain zones and oases.

The Arabizing and anti-Berber policies often followed by post-independence governments steadily brought down the percentage of Berber speakers in the last half-century. Generally accepted figures place the proportion of Moroccans who speak Berber at 40 to 45%; Algerians, 20 to 25%; Libyans, 8 to 9%; and Tunisians, 1 to 5%.

Spurred by the decline in language proficiency and, more generally, by the independent states’ failures to recognize their culture and help them develop, an Amazigh movement has arisen in recent decades viewing this people as a modern ethno-national group. This movement has not challenged the existing national boundaries or sought a pan-Berber state. Instead, it has promoted with some success Amazigh rights in the four countries where Berbers live.

For example, Morocco’s newly ratified constitution recognizes Tamazight as an official language of the state, alongside Arabic, and supports its teaching. This was a real achievement for Berber activists there, despite the fact that many still doubt that the authorities are truly committed to real equality for their language.

Libya’s Berbers, being smaller in numbers and living in geographically remote locations, were initially less affected by this rethinking about identity. In addition, the Libyan regime’s militant pan-Arab ideology viewed all manifestations of Berber language and culture as threatening and to be harshly repressed. In regions where Berbers lived, the privileges went to Arab supporters of the government.

Still, Libyan Amazigh, at least those living outside of Libya, were influenced by expanding Amazigh activism in Algeria and Morocco. In 2000, they established the London-based Libyan Tmazight Congress, demanding constitutional recognition of Tmazight as an official language alongside of Arabic.  In 2005 and 2006, at a time Gaddafi was seeking international legitimacy, he and his son Saif al-Islam began a dialogue with Amazigh activists, acknowledging for a while that blanket denial of Amazigh existence in Libya was no longer an option.

But the thaw did not last. The regime returned to its view that Berbers were actually Arabs, only divided from them by colonialism. Militant Amazigh activists retorted that the pan-Arab rulers were colonizers of North Africa. Among some, particularly in Morocco, this view even helped produce attitudes sympathetic to Jews and Israel. (For centuries, Jewish communities lived more or less harmoniously with their Berber Muslim neighbors throughout North Africa, including Libya.)

Emboldened by the sudden breakdown of Gaddafi’s iron-fisted rule, Libyan Berber communities not only joined the battle but also asserted their “Berberness” in public for the first time. Libyan opposition broadcasts from Qatar, a major supporter of the Libyan uprising, included news in Tmazight. The Benghazi-based Libyan Transitional Council, which is now recognized in the West as the country’s legitimate government, includes Berber representatives.

Its draft constitutional charter for post-Gaddafi Libya provides explicit acknowledgement of the country’s diversity, including its Amazigh component. However, Arabic remains the only official language of the state and the Shari`a is the main source of legislation, points which have already aroused the ire of Amazigh militants outside of Libya.

The transition to a post-Gaddafi order in a country awash with weapons, oil, and tribal interests but lacking in institutions and a deep-rooted national identity promises to be difficult. Will the newly empowered Berbers find their place within the new order in exchange for some concessions, or will Libya’s next leaders revert to marginalizing policies, and thus push the Berbers to seek greater autonomy or even to challenge the government? This is going to be one of the important new questions that will determine whether post-Gaddafi Libya can be a more stable, pluralist, and even unified entity.