ZUWARA, Libya – In the middle of a roundabout in central Zuwara, the last town in western Libya before the Tunisian border, stands a monument to those who died in the 2011 revolution. There is one verse from the Quran in Arabic but the rest is unintelligible to most Libyans who travel to Tunisia. It is in Tamazight, the language of Libya’s Amazigh ethnic minority, and it is written in Tifinagh, the Amazigh script.
The Amazighs, also known as Berbers, are the indigenous people of North Africa, from Morocco to western Egypt. After the conquest of the region by the Arabs, the Amazighs became more and more Arabized, but never completely.
In Libya, as in Morocco and Algeria, a significant number continued to use various versions of Tamazight. But in all three countries, until very recently, the language was repressed.
The year 2011 was a turning point: the language was legalized in Morocco and Algeria, and in Libya, where leader Muammar Gaddafi had called the Amazigh language and culture poisonous, its suppression ended with the revolution.
In the absence of definitive statistics on the Amazigh population in Libya, estimates range from less than 200,000 to claims by Amazigh activists that up to 25% of Libyans (around 1.5 million) identify as Amazigh. A more realistic figure would be 500,000 to 750,000.
What is beyond doubt is the strength of the Amazigh awakening that swept through the regions where Tamazight is spoken – Zuwara, the towns in the mountains of Nafusa and the far southwest and the regions around Ghadames, where the Tamazight-speaking Tuaregs are largely based.
Crossing the Tunisian-Libyan border at Ras Jedir, the Amazigh influence is immediately felt. The blue, green, red and yellow Amazigh flag is everywhere, unlike that of Libya.
In Zuwara, almost everyone speaks the local Tamazight dialect or a mixture of Tamazight and Arabic. In the streets of the city, signs in Tamazight script are common although Arabic predominates. Indeed, while most of the inhabitants of Zuwara speak Tamazight, few adults can read or write it.
Tamazight lessons started in schools in 2013 and children have three lessons per week until the fifth grade. There are plans to expand it to higher grades as more teachers are trained.
This is done at the downtown college. The Amazigh department was created in 2014, and about fifty Libyans follow a 3-year Amazigh studies course taught by three Algerian academics.
The revival was more than a local cultural renaissance, with serious implications for crisis-torn Libya. There are demands that Libya itself change to accommodate Amazigh interests, with many pushing the government to grant the language official status, so it is taught in schools and universities and, along with Arabic, is used on passports, currency and official documents.
At the head of this dynamic is the Supreme Amazigh Council (ASC), which was set up after the 2011 revolution and includes elected representatives from each Amazigh municipality.
It was the ASC that ordered a very effective boycott of the 2014 elections, first for the country’s 60-member Constitution Drafting Assembly, and then for the House of Representatives. The ASC ordered the boycott after the then parliament ruled that two seats should be reserved for each of the Amazigh, Tebu and Tuareg minorities. The ASC rejected this, saying the Amazigh numbers warranted more seats. The boycott is still in effect.
The political chaos in Libya has strengthened the hand of the Amazighs. The breakdown of central government control saw much of the day-to-day practical authority shifting to municipalities. As a result, they became their own masters – Zuwara and other Amazigh towns included.
With the strengthening of their power, the demands have also increased.
âWe were asking for simple rights such as giving your son an Amazigh name,â said Ayyub Sufiyan of the Zuwara think tank of the Apuleius Foundation. He added that the movement is no longer just about the legal status of the language. They are now demanding that Amazighs be granted the same constitutional rights as all other Libyans, meaning that their language and culture would have the same status as Arabic.
For ASC’s Khairi Hanisi, the fight is even bigger. He wants the autonomy of the Amazighs within Libya. Others, like Fathi Ben Khalifa, former president of the Amazigh World Congress, want Libya to no longer be considered as a purely Arab country but as a multicultural country.
For most Libyans, however, these demands go too far. As a result, many Amazighs believe it will be a difficult struggle.
âThings got better for the Amazighs after the revolution,â Zuwara mayor Hafed Ben Sassi said. âWe were working with the Arab people of Libya but they no longer want to work with us.
To change his mind, his municipality is planning a major conference in March attended by some 300 delegates from across Libya who will declare that because most Libyans are of Amazigh descent, the country is a majority Amazigh nation.
The Amazigh’s sense of their identity and their rights has become firmly rooted in the political chaos of the past seven years. They tasted autonomy and they love it. They can and will destroy any regulation that ignores their demands.
Amazigh autonomy or even something less is, however, for the moment unacceptable to other Libyans who have a real fear of the break-up of the country. For Libya, there is another crisis waiting to occur.
Sufiyan, however, while accepting that there are opponents of Amazigh rights, said he was confident they would win. “We won’t stop until we get our rights,” he said.