“Autonomy” of Benghazi resonates among the Berbers | Characteristics

Jadu, Libya – In the rocky and mountainous region of western Libya, the Amazigh people – a large and substantial minority – organize demonstrations for autonomy. Their calls for autonomy follow the declaration of autonomy made by the ethnic groups in eastern Libya.

The symbolic gesture is likely to anger the central government in Tripoli, which is trying to reopen the ports blocked by rebel groups and tribes in the east, angered at not receiving what they see as a fair share of the profits from oil extracted from the resource-rich east.

Western rebels say they will continue to blockade Mellitah gas and crude oil complex [Karlos Zurutaza/Al Jazeera]

“Benghazi’s declaration of autonomy will surely speed up our process, everyone here is talking about it,” said Shokri Agmar, an Amazigh lawyer.

The Amazighs, also known as Berbers, are among the indigenous groups of North Africa. Their population stretches from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the west bank of the Nile – they share a common language with the Tuareg tribes deep in the Sahara Desert. Estimates put their number in Libya at around 600,000, or ten percent of the country’s population.

Most Amazighs live around Jadu, a village in the Nafusa mountain range.

According to a man who wished to remain anonymous, calls for autonomy are increasing. “Over the past few months, every time I visited Benghazi, people kept asking me the same thing: how come you don’t have your own autonomous region yet? As he spoke, he drew on a Libyan map the approximate boundaries of the region he considered his own.

“Our most immediate priority is to obtain constitutional recognition – but we are still far from it,” lamented the Libyan mountain dweller.

The country’s minorities only won six seats – two for the Amazighs, two for the Tuaregs and two for the Tubu – in the committee of 60 which will be responsible for drafting the post-Gaddafi Libyan constitution.

“We have to decide on key issues, such as our language being co-official education, but a majority-based system systematically marginalizes us,” Agmar said. One solution, he said, would be a consensus-based system with veto power.

But not all Libyan Amazighs overlook the desert from the heights. Walloul Mensori is from Zuwara, a coastal town in the plains between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, which is also home to one of the country’s main gas and crude factories. Amazigh rebels have been blockading the Mellitah compound since October 26 – similar protests across the country have caused crude production to drop by 90%.

“Nafusa was already an autonomous region during the Italian occupation [1911-1943] and Zuwara enjoyed “autonomous city” status, ”Mensori told Al Jazeera outside the blocked Mellitah factory. He gave the demonstrators a photocopied document for their reading: 25 autonomous experiences, from Nunavut in Greenland to Norfolk Island in Australia.

“I don’t know if people understand the real meaning of federalism here. Personally, I would be happy with an autonomous region as long as we have our own assembly and our own control over the education system, ”Mensori added. The activist was also among thousands who stormed the Libyan parliament on August 13.

“We all fought against Gaddafi for our rights – only to realize that post-war Libya still sticks to the same Arab-Islamist patterns,” Mensori lamented.

Prior dissent

Madghis and Mazigh Buzakhar were among the most visible faces of the Amazigh resistance during Gaddafi’s time. The Amazigh library they had assembled “volume by volume” was confiscated in 2010 by the government, before the twins were jailed for life. They were charged with “sedition” and “espionage for Israel”.

They were freed in the fire of the Libyan uprising and ran to the mountains of Nafusa, where they set up a press center in their home village of Jefren.

Today, Madghis devotes his time and energy to the release of the first books in the Amazigh language ever used in Libyan schools.

“Printing a book is easy, but qualifying the teachers who will use it in the classroom is another matter,” the language advocate told Al Jazeera in his office in downtown Tripoli. “For the moment, teachers and students are at the same level. ”

His brother, Mazigh, said he saw Benghazi’s call for regional rule as “a good way to run a country that still lacks an effective central government.”

Mazigh produced a draft document which he wrote in 2006: Autonomy, the concept and the establishment of the Movement for an Autonomous Region in Nafusa. This is further proof that the desire for autonomy is far from being a simple post-Gaddafi trend.

“It was an amateur attempt to import ideas from MAK [Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie]. I could only share [it] with very close people, ”recalls the 32-year-old activist.

Founded in 2001, the MAK seeks to govern autonomy in Kabylia, a region in northern Algeria populated by the Kabyles, a Berber ethnic group.

Yet there are other key movements that attract Amazighs. The World Amazigh Congress is an international organization created to defend the rights and identity of Amazighs in the world and in the regions of North Africa and the Sahel in particular.

Its president is Fathi Ben Khalifa, an Amazigh dissident from Libya who lived in Morocco for 16 years – until he left for the Netherlands to escape Gaddafi’s attempts to have Rabat hand him over.

People want immediate benefits from the revolution, but Libya still does not have a solid ground for federalism. We have lost decades and the Libyans lack the experience to conduct such an experiment.

Fathi Ben Khalifa, World Amazigh Congress

Ben Khalifa resumed his dissident activities from Tunisia when the revolution began in Libya and became a member of the National Transitional Council – the ruling body of the rebellion – until his resignation in August 2011 due to “insurmountable differences” .

The lack of recognition of the Amazigh people was one of those differences and, he told Al Jazeera, “nothing has changed”. However, Ben Khalifa believes the time is not right for federalism in Libya.

“People want immediate benefits from the revolution, but Libya still does not have a solid ground for federalism. We have lost decades and the Libyans lack the experience to conduct such an experiment, ”Ben Khalifa told Al Jazeera by telephone. He said the leaders of Benghazi “were fighting for their own benefit, not for the community”.

“The eastern part of the country is invaded by Islamists and we have all known that since the days of Gaddafi. They have their own agenda and they will support any initiative they can take advantage of, ”he added.

The Amazigh leader is also concerned that “Islamist extremists” are deeply rooted in all ranks of government. “Even the prime minister is afraid to speak in front of many members of his cabinet,” he said.

He concluded that the country had bigger problems than autonomy for the Amazighs. “Radical Islam, not federalism, is Libya’s most pressing problem,” he said.

“So far, Libya, nor the international community, have dared to tackle it.”

Follow Karlos Zurutuza on Twitter: @ Keraban3

About Wesley V. Finley

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