Across the Maghreb, the Imazighen are pressing for rights and cultural recognition

Across the Maghreb, the Imazighen are pressing for rights and cultural recognition

A poster with slogans and information in Tamazight and Arabic on the streets of Algiers, Algeria’s capital, encouraging participation in last December’s presidential elections.

(Ricard González)

The wave of protests that has gripped north Africa since 2010 has presented an opportunity for social, cultural and political movements that were languishing in a region stifled by fossilised dictatorships. One of these is the movement advocating for the rights of the Amazigh people, an ethno-linguistic minority distributed throughout several of the region’s countries. “The international media made a mistake by calling the 2011 uprisings the ‘Arab Spring,’ which erases other groups like the Amazighs who were at the forefront of these struggles,” says Younis Nanis, an activist in the Libyan city of Zuwarah. Since the uprisings, their demands for cultural recognition have multiplied and while progress has been made in several countries, Amazigh activists have yet to see their aspirations fulfilled.

The Amazighs, also known as Berbers, have defined themselves as the indigenous inhabitants of the Maghreb since time immemorial. But they have shared this territory for centuries with other groups including Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans and Arabs. The hallmark of Amazigh identity is their language, Tamazight, which has its own alphabet, Tifinagh. While there is controversy surrounding official statistics, some estimates put the Imazighen at around 30 million, spread across eight Maghrebi and Sahelian countries. For political and religious reasons, their language has been progressively marginalised since the Arab conquests of the seventh century, a process that has accelerated starting in the second half of the 20th century due to the Arabisation policies undertaken by the countries that emerged from the end of the colonial period.

Of all of the north African countries, the one that has made the most progress in recognising Amazigh identity over the last decade is Morocco. Although it is believed that as many as half of its 35 million inhabitants speak or understand Tamazight, the language was completely absent from official documents and public events until the wave of protests in 2011.

Among the many measures adopted by King Mohammed VI to calm the situation was a constitutional reform defining Amazigh as a “national language,” thus putting it on equal footing with Arabic. The language is now taught in schools, while public Amazigh-language media and a powerful research centre, the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM), has been created.

However, Arabic continues to enjoy a privileged status in most arenas and many activists fear that the King’s initiative was merely cosmetic. “There are not enough teachers of our language so it’s not taught in all schools. The government is not investing enough in training teachers. And in the schools where the language is taught, it’s seen as a useless subject. And that’s leaving aside other areas such as the courts,” says Marzouk Chahmi, vice president of the Amazigh World Congress, while sipping tea in a café in the Moroccan city of Nador, a few kilometres from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. “In a trial, if you don’t know Arabic, you can forget your rights,” says his old friend Mohamed, an elderly man with a long greying beard.

Nador is located in the northern Rif region, a stronghold in the fight for the recognition of Amazigh identity which has a long history of rebellion against the central government. In 2017, a peaceful revolt known as the hirak broke out in the Riffian city of Al Hoceima. After allowing demonstrations for several months, the regime launched a harsh campaign of repression that included long prison sentences for the movement’s leaders. “Our demands are above all social in nature but they also touch on questions of identity. We know that our petitions for autonomy will go nowhere with the current regime and many young people are beginning to embrace the cause of independence,” says Samir (not his real name), a member of the clandestine hirak organisation who points out that the only flags seen at the demonstrations were those of the Amazigh and the Republic of the Rif, proclaimed by Amazigh leader Abd el-Krim in the 1920s.

The disparate realities of Libya, Algeria and Tunisia

The other country where the Amazigh cause has made tangible progress is Libya. The pan-Arab regime of Muammar Gaddafi, which collapsed in 2011 following a civil war, did not allow any type of Amazigh cultural or political expression. “We Amazighs rose up against the dictatorship hoping that the new regime would guarantee our rights. But these last few years have been difficult. Gaddafi’s opponents share his pan-Arabism and hostility to diversity,” says Nanis, a young researcher. An estimated 600,000 Libyans are Amazigh speakers, or about 10 per cent of the country’s total population. Most of them are concentrated in the country’s south and along the country’s border with Tunisia in the west.

The transition process in Libya quickly became paralysed and the country now finds itself in a state of chaos, without a central government and with its territory divided up amongst countless militias. This has allowed a significant amount of de facto autonomy for Amazigh cities and towns without the need to obtain recognition in the constitution.

“Civil society, with the support of local authorities, launched a programme to train teachers in the Amazigh language with the help of Moroccan experts,” explains Nanis in a telephone conversation. “Little by little, the percentage of pupils receiving classes in Amazigh increased and this year the first generation that has learned Amazigh since primary school will graduate,” he adds. This progress, also seen in other areas such as media and universities, remains precarious, as there is always a threat that a strong central government will once again be formed in Tripoli and resume policies of homogenisation.

For many years, Amazigh movements and parties throughout north Africa were inspired by the activism of their Algerian counterparts, particularly those from the militant region of Kabylie. It was there in 1980 that a powerful Amazigh identity movement known as the ‘Berber Spring’ was born, which challenged the regime’s policy of Arabisation. After a new uprising in 2000 dubbed the ‘Black Spring,’ which resulted in 126 deaths and more than 5,000 injured, the government created a High Commission for Amazighity charged with implementing Amazigh language instruction. It is estimated that almost a third of Algeria’s 42 million inhabitants are Amazigh speakers. Kabylie is the country’s most populous Amazigh region, with a population of over seven million.

In 2016, in response to the tenacity of the movement for Amazigh cultural recognition, the 20-year regime of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika modified the constitution to define Amazigh as an ‘official language’ of the state, placing it on the same level as Arabic. “Although Tamazight should be taught throughout the country, it’s only guaranteed in Kabylie. In other regions, including Tamazight speaking ones, parents have to make a request with authorities. The government is not investing the resources necessary to make the language truly official,” says Mohamed Mouloudj, journalist for the Algerian daily Liberté who specialises in the subject. At the same time, Amazigh has gained greater visibility now that in the capital the posters of all the public institutions are bilingual.

Interestingly, in Tunisia, the only country in the region to successfully undergo a transition to democracy, there have been fewer changes. After Egypt, Tunisia has the region’s smallest Tamazight -speaking population. The most generous estimates put the number of speakers at close to 500,000 people, roughly 4.5 per cent of the population of Tunisia, while other sources place the number at only 200,000, all of whom are concentrated in a few villages in the country’s south and in the capital.

“After the Revolution, a number of NGOs were created devoted to spreading the culture and teaching the language. The state no longer represses us as it once did, but it doesn’t give us any financial support. They seem bothered by us,” says Ghaki Jelloul, president of the Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture (ATCA). Last spring, the Akal (‘Earth’), the country’s first Amazigh party, was created in order to push authorities to act. The party failed to win seats in the parliament in last autumn’s elections but its secretary general, Samir Nefzi, said even before the contest that his goal was only to make himself known in the run-up to the next elections in 2024.

This article has been translated from Spanish.