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.