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

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.