Amazigh awakening: Libya’s largest minority wants to be recognized

The Amazighs, or Berbers, Libya’s largest minority group, suffered harsh treatment under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Gaddafi’s so-called Cultural Revolution in 1973 criminalized Amazigh traditions, banned the use of their native language, Tamazight, and declared Amazighs to be Arabs despite being indigenous to the country.

For Gaddafi, the Amazighs represented a separatist threat to his efforts to consolidate power and proclaim Libya an Arab nation. Today, it is estimated that the Amazighs represent 10 to 15% of the Libyan population of 6 million. While the Amazighs are scattered around Libya, they are concentrated in the northwest, with the city of Zuwara seen as their unofficial capital.

Abdullah Kabousa, a municipal councilor from Zuwara, explained during an Al-Monitor visit to Libya: “Our conflict with Gaddafi was about our culture. … We are part of this country. Anti-Gaddafi protesters and fighters took control of Zuwara on February 23, 2011, weeks after rebellion against the longtime leader erupted in Benghazi.

Today on the Place des Martyrs de Zuwara, the Amazigh flag flies in the wind. Store signs advertise products in large Tamazight print, with the Arabic below in smaller print. In the Zuwaran branch of the University of Zawia, a faculty focused on Amazigh studies has been inaugurated.

“Under Gaddafi, we could neither study nor speak our own language, but now we can,” Zuwara mayor Hafez Ben Sassi told Al-Monitor. “It’s important to me. I feel like I support my people. Things were going well after 2011.… We were working with our fellow Libyans.

Yet amid the Amazigh’s initial joy, storm clouds appeared and their optimism deteriorated. In 2011, the National Transitional Council – the post-Gaddafi temporary administration – adopted a provisional constitution, and in late 2013, the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) was established to draft a permanent constitution. Only two of the 60 seats in the assembly were allocated to the Amazighs, who felt insulted given their history and because they represent 10 to 15% of the population.

The Amazighs, contesting the composition of the assembly, refused to participate. They also boycotted the legislative elections of June 25, 2014. Despite the boycott of the CDA by the Amazighs, some of their leaders were able to review the various draft constitution. Among them was Khairi Hamisi, member of the Supreme Amazigh Council (ASC). Hamisi told Al-Monitor: “It’s still not good enough. The constitution is wrong.

The ASC’s 18-member senior body liaises on behalf of the Amazigh community in Libya with the United Nations, CDA and government. It is made up of six mayors, including Ben Sassi, and 12 other elected members.

The key question of the Amazighs concerns equality. Hamisi said the Amazighs – as the original inhabitants of what is now Libya – want their culture and Tamazight to be accorded the same status as Arab culture and the Arabic language. They want it to be in the constitution. Tamazight would thus be included in passports, for identity cards and on currency and so on.

For now, the provisional constitution remains in place, along with the unmet demands of the Amazighs. Amazigh officials are currently threatening to boycott parliamentary elections and a referendum on the new constitution later this year if their rights and culture are not recognized.

“A certain degree of autonomy for the Amazighs is also desired in terms of education and local security,” Hamisi said.

Two events earlier this year significantly raised security concerns among Amazighs. On January 2, a militia from eastern Libya kidnapped Rabie Al-Jiyash, an Amazigh activist, allegedly for speaking Tamazight. He was then released. Days later, on January 5, pro-government forces attacked territory controlled by predominantly Amazigh forces near the Tunisian border, prompting the ASC to warn of a potential “ethnic war”. The reason for the attack remains uncertain, but a ceasefire has been declared and the attacking forces have withdrawn.

The ASC led the boycott of the elections in 2014, but has yet to decide which course to take regarding this year’s poll and constitutional referendum. “If the constitution does not suit us, we will either ignore it or vote against it,” Hamisi said. “If it is nevertheless approved by the rest of Libya, despite our discontent, and the elections go ahead, we have not yet decided whether or not to boycott the polls.

“The constitution is the most important issue. [Our] recognition is crucial, ”said Ben Sassi. “We want to be seen as equal, and people need to realize that Amazighs are an ethnic majority and not a minority. In the eyes of Amazighs, much of the argument for equality rests on the premise that Libya is not an Arab nation, but a multicultural state.

“Libya is not a one-dimensional country of Arabs that belongs to some kind of Islamic republic,” said Fathi Ben Khalifa, former head of the Amazigh World Congress, an international organization that protects and promotes cultural awareness. Berber.

“We are not part of the Middle East or the Gulf. We are Libyans, we come from North Africa, ”he told Al-Monitor at his base in Zuwara. “Democracy is imperative, and that includes the recognition of minorities. “

Ayoub Sufiyan, the head of the Apuleius Foundation, a think tank, believes the Amazigh movement has gained fervor due to the rise of human rights.

“The Amazigh community wants their rights in light of an increased awareness of these rights,” Sufiyan said. “He won’t stop until he gets what he wants. I think one day it will happen. Libya will eventually recognize its identity. Libya is not an Arab state, it is multi-ethnic.

Locals like Kabousa continue to insist that they just want to be equal. Comparing the Amazighs to the Native Americans, he remarked: “Everyone came to live with us. That’s fine, but please respect us.

About Wesley V. Finley

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