Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Imazighen (singular: Amazigh), also referred to as Berbers, are the largest non-Arab minority in Libya. They are descendants of the indigenous populations of North Africa who inhabited the region prior to the arrival of the Arabs. Estimates of their numbers vary between 236,000 and 590,000 (4-10 per cent). Imazighen live primarily in western Libya, near the borders with Tunisia and Algeria. The largest Amazigh community in Libya is found in the Djebel Nafusa region, while the towns of Zuwara, Ghadames, Sokna, Awgila, Al-Foqaha and Jalu also have significant populations
Imazighen retain the Tamazight language and customs and are made up of different ethnic groups. Most Imazighen adhere to a form of Sunni Islam intermeshed with North African pre-Islamic beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. However, some Imazighen in Djebel Nafusa belong to the Ibadi sect of Islam, in contrast to 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.
Once traders on the north–south Sahara caravan route, the ending of this and the ‘pacification’ of the desert deprived them of their traditional way of life. Under Colonel Muammar Al-Gaddafi, the Amazigh cultural identity was harshly repressed. Gaddafi portrayed Libya as a homogenous Arab nation with Arabic as the only official language. He denied the existence of the Imazighen as a distinct ethnic group, portraying their separate identity as a colonial invention. Beginning in 1973, Gaddafi launched a ‘cultural revolution’, destroying any materials that conflicted with the contents of his Green Book. Imazighen were prohibited from speaking Tamazight publically, publishing literature in Tamazight, forming cultural associations, or celebrating cultural festivals. They were also banned from registering their children with Amazigh names and many were forced to adopt Arab names. Some Ibadi religious rituals were also repressed. Amazigh activists were imprisoned and sometimes tortured for political activism or for travelling to attend Amazigh cultural events abroad.
Given this history of discrimination and cultural repression, Imazighen in Djebel Nafusa were among the first to come out in opposition to Gaddafi when popular protests began in February 2011. Protesters in the main Nafusa towns of Naluf and Yefren called for Gaddafi’s downfall and an end to the marginalization of the Amazigh people, demanding improved infrastructure and political representation. Fighting in the Nafusa Mountains between rebel forces and Gaddafi’s forces blocked access to food, medical supplies and fuel. As fighting intensified by May, thousands of people fled across the nearby border into Tunisia – nearly 55,000 according to the UN OCHA.
Following the expulsion of Gaddafi forces from Amazigh regions, there has been what observers have called a cultural and linguistic renaissance. Schools have begun to teach Tamazight, and a weekly Tamazight newspaper was launched. A law passed in 2013 recognized the Tamazight, Tuareg and Tebu languages and upheld 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 formed equally of men and women was created.
The challenge of Amazigh leaders remains achieving full political participation in post-Gaddafi Libya and securing recognition for their rights, including by 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. Moreover, the cabinet of Prime Minister Abdurrahim al Keib appointed in November 2011 did not include Amazigh ministers, angering Amazigh who fought against Gaddafi forces. Many took to the streets to protest their exclusion from the new political arrangement.
In 2013, Imazighen announced their intention to boycott elections for the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC), the body tasked with creating a new Constitution for Libya. The CDC reserved only two seats for Amazigh representatives, two seats for Tebu, and two seats for Tuareg out of a total of 60 seats, which Amazigh leaders saw as insufficiently representative. Moreover, the majority voting rule would effectively prevent them from securing their demands within the CDC. The first and second draft Constitutions released in 2015 and 2016 respectively recognized the Tamazight, Tuareg and Tebu languages as being part of Libya’s cultural and linguistic heritage, but maintained Arabic as the only official language. In January 2016, the Supreme Amazigh Council declared, ‘We will not recognize any Constitution that is not agreed upon by all of Libya’s sons – the Tebu, Tuareg, Amazigh and Arabs’.
Reviving education in the Tamazight language after decades of repression, especially its written form, is another important Amazigh aim 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 mother-tongue education is a challenge.
Updated July 2018