Berbers: marginalized indigenous peoples of North Africa


Algiers – The Berbers – descendants of pre-Arab populations across North Africa – are currently celebrating their New Year’s festivities.

Friday – for the first time – Yennayer’s New Year is celebrated as a national holiday in Algeria.

The Berbers, who refer to themselves as the Amazighs, have long fought for greater recognition of their ancient ethnicity, culture and language.

In Algeria, they make up about a quarter of the country’s total population of 40 million and live mainly in the mountainous region of northern Kabylia.

Here is some information on other Berber communities that spread across North Africa long before the Arab conquests:


At the northwestern tip of Africa, Morocco is the country with the largest Berber community in the region.

Their language – of which there are three main dialects – only received official status alongside Arabic in a new constitution in 2011.

One of the major consequences of this recognition was the appearance of their Tifinagh alphabet on public buildings alongside Arabic and French.

Since 2010, the Tamazight television channel has dedicated itself to the promotion of Berber culture.

Legislation currently under consideration by the government would diversify education in schools to help strengthen their language.

Several years ago, lawmakers caused a stir when they spoke in Berber during parliamentary sessions.

Despite the advances, the Moroccan authorities still sporadically refuse to register Berber names in the official register.

The Amazigh flag was a major symbol of the protests that hit the depressed Rif region in the north of the country last year, where the group is in the majority.

The Berbers of Morocco have long demanded that their New Year be marked as national holidays as its equivalents in the Muslim Lunar and Gregorian calendar.


Persecuted under dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who denied their existence, the Berbers of Libya demanded official status for their language and greater political representation.

They represent around 10% of the 6.4 million and live mainly in the mountains west of Tripoli or in the vast desert regions.

Their demands have become more vocal in this country in turmoil since the ouster and death of Gaddafi in 2011. The Berber flag is now visible on administrative buildings.

Textbooks in their language have also been produced, but they have not been officially approved by the government supported by the international community.

Under a draft constitution approved by parliament, but still awaiting ratification by referendum, the languages ​​spoken by the various communities, including Tamazigh, are recognized as part of Libyan cultural heritage but do not benefit from a official status.


In Tunisia, estimating the number of Berbers is difficult because official statistics based on ethnicity are prohibited.

Apart from their traditional southern heart, the Berbers find themselves mainly in the capital Tunis following a rural exodus.

They complain about marginalization and exclusion in a state that only recognizes Arabic in its constitution.

Jallol Ghaki, the head of the Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture, estimates that while half of Tunisians may be of Berber origin, the vast majority have been fully Arabized and only one percent speak the local dialect of Chelha.

While activists complain that the state makes no effort to preserve or educate children about Berber culture, there have been some improvements since the Tunisian revolution of 2011.

The media and civil society were open and in 2017, the country’s Minister of Human Rights marked the Yennayer festivities by wishing the Berber community a Happy New Year.


About Wesley V. Finley

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