Imazighen – Minority Rights Group

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The Imazighen (singular: Amazigh), also called Berbers, are the largest non-Arab minority in Libya. They are the descendants of the indigenous populations of North Africa who inhabited the region before the arrival of the Arabs. Estimates of their number vary between 236,000 and 590,000 (4–10%). The Imazighen live mainly in western Libya, near the borders with Tunisia and Algeria. The largest Amazigh community in Libya is in the Jebel Nafusa region, while the towns of Zuwara, Ghadames, Sokna, Awgila, Al-Foqaha and Jalu also have significant populations.

The Imazighen maintain the Tamazight language and customs and are made up of different ethnic groups. Most Imazighen adhere to a form of Sunni Islam mixed with pre-Islamic North African beliefs in witchcraft. However, some Imazighen of Jebel Nafusa belong to the Ibadi sect of Islam, unlike the majority of Libyans who are Sunni Muslims adhering to the Maliki school of jurisprudence. Marriages are monogamous and women have a high status in Amazigh society.

Historical context

Formerly traders on the north-south route of the Sahara caravans, the end of this route and the “pacification” of the desert have deprived them of their traditional way of life. Under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Amazigh cultural identity was harshly suppressed. Gaddafi portrayed Libya as a homogeneous Arab nation with Arabic as the only official language. He denied the existence of the Imazighen as a separate ethnic group, describing their separate identity as a colonial invention. Beginning in 1973, Gaddafi launched a “cultural revolution”, destroying any material that conflicted with the contents of his Green Book. The Imazighen were prohibited from speaking Tamazight in public, publishing literature in Tamazight, forming cultural associations or celebrating cultural festivals. They were also prohibited from registering their children with Amazigh names and many were forced to adopt Arabic names. Some Ibadi religious rituals were also suppressed. Amazigh activists have been imprisoned and sometimes tortured for their political activism or for traveling to attend Amazigh cultural events abroad.

Given this history of discrimination and cultural repression, the Imazighen of Jebel Nafusa were among the first to oppose Gaddafi when popular protests began in February 2011. Protesters from the main towns of Nafusa, Naluf and Yefren, called for the fall of Gaddafi and an end to the marginalization of the Amazigh people, demanding the improvement of infrastructure and political representation. Fighting in the Nafusa Mountains between rebel forces and Gaddafi forces has blocked access to food, medical supplies and fuel. As fighting intensified in May, thousands of people crossed the nearby border into Tunisia – nearly 55,000 according to the United Nations OCHA.

Following the expulsion of Gaddafi’s forces from the Amazigh regions, there has been what observers have called a cultural and linguistic renaissance. Schools have started teaching Tamazight and a weekly Tamazight newspaper has been launched. A law passed in 2013 recognized the Tamazight, Tuareg and Tebu languages ​​and confirmed the right of minorities to receive education in their mother tongue as a voluntary option. In August 2015, the first democratic elections for the Amazigh Supreme Council were held and a body made up of equal numbers of men and women was created.

Current affairs

The challenge for Amazigh leaders remains achieving full political participation in post-Gaddafi Libya and recognizing their rights, including ensuring that the future constitution includes Tamazight as an official language. The interim constitutional declaration issued by the National Transitional Council in August 2011 only vaguely alluded to Amazigh culture and rights, and Tamazight was not recognized as an official language. Additionally, Prime Minister Abdurrahim al Keib’s cabinet appointed in November 2011 did not include Amazigh ministers, which angered Amazighs who fought against Gaddafi’s forces. Many took to the streets to protest their exclusion from the new political arrangement.

In 2013, the Imazighen announced their intention to boycott the elections of the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC), the body responsible for creating a new constitution for Libya. The CDC reserved only two seats for Amazigh representatives, two seats for Tebous and two seats for Tuaregs out of a total of 60 seats, which Amazigh leaders considered insufficiently representative. Moreover, the majority voting rule would effectively prevent them from asserting their claims within the CDC. The first and second draft constitutions published in 2015 and 2016 respectively recognized the Tamazight, Tuareg and Tebu languages ​​as part of Libya’s cultural and linguistic heritage, but maintained Arabic as the sole official language. In January 2016, the Amazigh Supreme Council declared: “We will not recognize any constitution that is not approved by all the sons of Libya – the Tebu, the Tuareg, the Amazigh and the Arabs”.

Reviving education in the Tamazight language after decades of repression, especially its written form, is another important goal of Amazighs in post-Gaddafi Libya. Amazigh leaders have created textbooks and other materials to teach Tamazight in schools, but finding enough qualified teachers and resources to ensure that all Amazigh children have access to quality education in their native language is a challenge. challenge.

Updated July 2018

About Wesley V. Finley

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