The Berber Rising: The “Other Arab Spring”

Since 2011, the Arab Spring revolts have become the source code for “people power movements” across the planet. Little, however, has been said about the indigenous Berber minority risings coursing through the Maghreb; but no more. Oppressed by Arab regimes for decades, Berber (Amazigh) militias have surged to the center of the post-Ghaddfi governance battle in Libya. In Tunisia and even in Egypt, Berber organizations have mounted spirited campaigns to secure recognition of their culture and Tamizight language. Nor have the Amazigh in Morocco and Algeria been pacified by long overdue reforms and concessions hastily granted by their governments in 2011.

The Berbers now have political momentum, punching far beyond their boxing weight as minority communities. If the Amazigh are to advance in the din of the Arab Spring awakenings, they must punch much harder in 2012; this time against Islamists and secular democrats (Islamocrats) who deny their unique ethnic status, their long history as builders of Islam, and seek to marginalize them politically.

The tip of the Berber’s spear is pointed toward Libya, where the growing prospects of sectarian violence threaten the survival of the Transitional National Council (TNC) and Berber advances. Berbers were among the first to join the Benghazi-based uprising against Col. Moammar Gadhafi, and their militias played a critical role in liberating Tripoli. From their bases in the Nafusa Mountains of western Libya, Berber militias overran pro-Gadhafi forces in Yefren, Jadu and Zintan. When Tripoli fell, Berber units lead the battle to capture the international airport. In October, Zintani rebels captured Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, near the town of Sabha. They refused to hand him over to the Transitional National Council (TNC); preferring to spirit him away to the Berber’s stronghold in the Nafusa Mountains until a new government is formed. Despite the TNC’s criticism of the Zintani Berbers for holding Saif al-Islam in captivity and refusing to disarm their brigades in Tripoli, the Berbers made the right decision.

When the TNC gathered in November, to name the first ministerial-level posts for its interim government; no Berbers were included. Not one! Despite being ten percent of Libya’s population and the Berber’s vital role in the insurrection, the TNC chose to shut them out of Libya’s new leadership structure. But these are not the old days. Hundreds of Berber’s immediately protested at the Prime Minister’s office demanding representation, and seeking recognition of their language and culture. Holding aloft the yellow, blue and green Amazigh flag and chanting “There is no difference between Amazigh and Arab,” Berber activists have pressed forward. Jadu, Libya has emerged as the center of an Amazigh cultural renaissance. A local radio station broadcast in Tamazight, and a Berber publishing company printed its first publications in Tamazight since Gaddafi took power in 1979.

As June’s “Elections for a Public National Conference,” approach, the West is exerting tremendous pressure on the TNC to disarm the rebel factions that overthrew Col. Gaddafi. But, Ali Cuba, Zintani Deputy Commander said “We want to go under the umbrella of the national army, but it is too early to execute this order.” Indeed, Berber power and political leverage now rests on maintaining its armed militia, controlling Tripoli’s airport and holding on to Saif al-Islam. Increasingly, the TNC is rent with internal divisions between Benghazi, the western tribes, the Misrata militia, and other insurgents weary of working with former Gaddafi loyalists. Thus, the Amazigh will need all the firepower and political influence they can muster, especially international support.

Tunisia, poses a different dilemma for the Amizigh community. With barely 100,000 Berbers, making up one percent of the nation’s population, they have a difficult path to negotiate. But, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster has opened up a new space for the Berbers. Abdel Razak Choui, a Tunisian Amazigh leader warned that “The Tunisian state must recognise the Amazigh culture and language and work to develop them like Algeria and Morocco.” Khadija Ben Saidane called on the Constituent Assembly to include the teaching of Amazigh language in schools as an optional language in the curricula. Tunisia’s government does not permit Tamazight to be spoken or taught in schools. Children with Amazigh and non-Arabic names are routinely denied having their names placed on the official state registry.

In pursuit of their demands Tunisia’s Berbers have formed a new cultural organization called Tinas. But with none of Tunisia’s new political parties openly supporting their call for a constitutional guarantee recognizing the Tamazigh language, Berbers must walk a fine line. On the one hand, pressing their righteous demands, while on the other not alienating Islamists, secular democrats and other Arabists groups.

In response to Arab Spring demonstrations in the western Maghreb, the governments of Morocco and Algeria have taken pre-emptive actions to disconnect Berber aspirations from the broader discontent percolating in their countries. On June 17, 2011 Morocco’s King Mohommed VI announced a constitutional reform that made Tamizight an official language alongside Arabic.  But some Berber activist like Ahmed Adghirni, a founder of the Parti Democratique Amazigh in 2005 said the law will do little to integrate Berbers, who make up 40 percent of Morocco’s population, into the nation’s economic and political mainstream. The party was dissolved by Morocco’s judiciary in 2008, because the constitution prohibits race-based parties.

Similarly, after nine people were injured last year in April’s riots over high food prices and unemployment in the capital city of Algiers, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika called for reforms and new parliamentary elections on May 10, 2012. He appointed General Mohammad Touati and former cabinet Mohammed Ali Boughazi to organize a national dialogue on reforms, because of their ties to Islamists and Berber political parties. That is likely to be too little too late. The Berber-based Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) has said it will boycott the elections, and as late as February 17, the Berber inspired Socialist Forces Front (FFS) is debating their participation in an election many believe will be rigged to re-elect Boutiflika to a third term.  As the home of the 1980 Berber Spring in Kabylia, that rocked the Maghreb’s Arab establishment, Algeria remains a tinderbox of Berber passions.

In the Maghreb, 2012 could be the year of the Berber. At the top of their agenda, must be the empowerment of Libya’s Berber forces in the emerging transitional governing structure. Having been a major participant in the revolutionary overthrow of Ghadaffi’s brutal regime, the Berbers must be prepared to use any means necessary to prevent their exclusion from power. In the fall of 2011, Amazigh activists from across the Maghreb and the Canary Islands gathered in Tangiers to forge a common strategy.

That strategy must incorporate three critical components. First, the Berbers have very few friends.  Democratic secularists have been reluctant to promote Berber cultural rights, fearing political blowback from the Islamist forces that have electoral majorities in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. Islamists refuse to fight for recognize Berber political and cultural aspirations, under the guise that Berbers are anti-Arab, Anti-Islamists separatist. The ruling elites seek to diminish or crush Berber demands in an effort to prevent them from uniting with democratic seculars and Islamists; mortified at the prospect of a majority opposition movement emerging against their authoritarian rule.

Second, Berbers must become leaders in the mainstream of the fight for economic improvement and anti-corruption measures that fuelled the Arab Spring risings. These two issues will allow the Berbers to find common ground with secular democrats and Islamists, while minimizing the risks of being isolated. Breaking the isolation of the Amizigh also has a profound international dimension. Outside of the French speaking world, knowledge of the plight, even the existence of the Berbers is unknown across the planet. Now is the seedtime of the Berber Diaspora, particularly in the United States to escalate public opinion about the historical struggle of the Magheb Berbers for freedom and cultural recognition.

Finally, Berbers from the Maghreb must have the courage and broadness of mind to debate their relationship to the Tuareg Berbers of Sub-Saharan Africa. Maghreb Berbers cannot criticize Arabs for denying their culture and role advancing the cause of Islam, while ignoring predominantly Black African Tuareg Berbers in Libya, Mali, Burkina-Faso and Mauritania. The Tuareg issue raises a question of Berber self-identification; is it primarily racial or linguistic? Politically speaking, on what basis would Berbers support movements like the Tuareg-led MNLA rebels who are fighting for a separate state in Northern Mali? Indeed, these are heady times for the Berber movement.  They must be equal to the moment.

There is an old Berber proverb that says; “every vibration awakens all others of a particular pitch.” With the outbreak of the Arab Spring awakening, the Maghreb is now vibrating to a new cosmos of freedom and participatory democracy. To win, Berbers must keep their ears close to ground and play to the pitch.

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