Libya in 2019 is a quagmire similar to other conflicts in the Middle East, arising from the Arab uprising of 2011. A notable outcome of the Libyan struggle, however, has been for the Amazigh people in the country. Persecuted under late leader Muammar Gaddafi, this minority group has since the start of the conflict been more able to openly appreciate their own cultural traits. However, as the civil war enters a new phase, the ethnic group is vulnerable to further attacks – and the international community is turning a blind eye.
The Amazighs, who are also referred to as Berber, are an indigenous group of North Africa. In Libya, although statistics are rare, estimates of their numbers range between less than 200,000 and up to 1.5 million, which would represent around a quarter of Libya’s 6.75 million population. Some estimate a more realistic figure between 500,000 and 750,000.
With a distinct culture from the country’s Arab majority, the culture and identity of the Amazighs has undergone a history of repression, particularly under the rule of Gaddafi, who saw them as a separatist threat to his crafting of the narrative of Arab unification in the region.
The distinct language of the Amazighs, known as Tamazight, was banned, as was the practice of giving children non-Arab names. As a result, Amazigh activists tread a precarious path, with many being imprisoned and even killed, and some accused of being spies.
This repression ended in 2011 with the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Asma Khalifa, an Amazigh researcher and co-founder of the Tamazight Women’s Movement (TWM), explained to Fanack Chronicle that it was part of the decolonial response to “all be Arabs united against imperialism and colonialism”. “But that’s a failed narrative,” she told Fanack Chronicle. “[It] has not united or unified the Middle East and North Africa, because it’s so diverse.”
Zorgh Madi, also a co-founder of TFW in Libya, was given an Amazigh name by her father, Salem Madi, a prominent Amazigh leader who was arrested in the 1980s for speaking out about the fact that Amazighs had a distinct cultural identity to Arabs. This cost him a decade in prison before his daughter was born.
His activism didn’t end once released from prison: he inspired others, including his sons, to continue protesting and to work with overarching, pan-North African entities such as the Amazigh Congress that aimed to protect and promote awareness about the Amazigh across North Africa. The Madi family’s persecution didn’t stop, either. “I remember one event where Gaddafi’s forces came to our house and demonstrated, saying we were traitors and cheaters, telling us: ‘You should be killed’,” Zorgh Madi recalls. “Then the revolution came,” she continues. “We’re stronger now.”
Salem Madi now works with the High State Council and the Amazigh movement has developed greatly. But for many, the Libyan constitution doesn’t go far enough in affording Amazigh equal status to the Arabs. “We are not recognised seriously in government legislation, we do not exist in Libya,” says Madi.
The National Transitional Council that was established post-Gaddafi, after the dictator’s demise, adopted an interim constitution, but the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) was created in 2013 to write a permanent one. However, only two of the 60 Assembly seats were given to Amazigh (six in total were allocated to the country’s three main minority groups, the other two being Tebu and Tuareg). This was received with much acrimony among the Amazigh, who saw themselves as playing a large part in the Libyan revolution and armed rebellion, liberating towns from Gaddafi forces.
Emhemed Bentalab of the Amazigh Supreme Council – an 18-member elected body that mediates on behalf of Libya’s Amazigh community – says that post-war governments are still maintaining the same, pre-war narrative that views Amazighs as separatists.
As a result, Amazighs boycotted the CDA as well as the parliamentary elections that were held on 25 June 2014. What they want from the constitution is for the Amazigh culture and language of Tamazight to be held in an equal status to that of the Arabic language and the Arab culture. Thus, they require the Tifinagh script, an Amazight script, to be used in passports and other official documents.
The taste of freedom that came after the fall of Gaddafi spurred a greater desire for autonomy around education and security.
An increased awareness of rights has further fuelled this movement, and a cultural awakening has ensued, particularly in prominent Amazigh areas in the West, such as Zuwara, on the border to Tunisia, the Nafusa Mountains and around Ghadames in the North West.
More of the Amazigh population are waving their community’s flag and speaking the Tamazight dialect. Street signs are now often written in Tifinagh and the schools are teaching Tamazight, as are local colleges. Teachers have been brought in from Algeria and Morocco to kickstart such programmes because few Amazigh adults in Libya could read or write in the script. The Amazigh new year is also being celebrated in parts of the country, which is marked on the 12 January each year, although it is not recognized as a national holiday.
However, for many Libyans, equal status for the Amazigh with Libya’s Arab population is seen as a step too far. The old elites consider themselves as distinct from the rest of the African population, whereas Amazigh see themselves as Africans.
Despite boycotts, the international community have not acknowledged the demands from Libya’s minorities, as there was eagerness for a constitution to be adopted and elections to take place after the war.
“Honestly, we feel left behind,” says Madi. “Even during the revolution, we took a big role fighting against Gaddafi, but we never received any kind of support.”
Madi says that countries like France in effect work against the Amazigh because of the French support for the Libyan National Army (LNA), which has now become a political faction under the leadership of former General Khalifa Haftar of the unofficial government in the east of the country. The LNA literally translates from Arabic to English as the ‘National Arab Army’ – and Amazigh activists, including Madi and Khalifa, point out that it excludes the Amazigh people.
Despite more openness in Libyan society, Amazigh activists still face threats. One Amazigh activist, called Rabie al-Jayash, was abducted last year by forces loyal to Haftar and was accused of espionage after he was heard speaking in Tamazight.
The same year, Libya was ranked 11th among countries counting “peoples under threat” by the NGO Minority Rights Group International.
“I would like to say that the situation changed so much. In a way, it hasn’t,” says Khalifa. “I mean, it has changed for the Amazigh, they can be more open, but only because there are very little state controls.”
In August, the eastern government’s religious arm, the Supreme Fatwa Committee, issued a fatwa against Ibadis – Ibadism is a sect of Islam that the Amazigh, among others, follow. This fatwa effectively labelled them “a misguided and aberrant group,” although there was reportedly unexpected support for the Berbers as a result, including from Sunni elements in the country.
The offensive launched by Haftar earlier this year has also created a new dynamic to Libya’s stability and insecurity. Those groups close to the rebel leader continue to pose a threat to Amazighs, particularly in strategic and relatively unprotected Zuwara, a flat, sandy coastal town that is a sought after area for its oil and gas plant, airport, port and position on the border to Tunisia. An attack in Zuwara, on 4 April of this year, resulted in 254 deaths and more than 1,228 injuries while displacing 32,000 people.
Madkhalsit salafists and LNA-aligned militias in the south are particularly hostile to the Amazighs’ Ibadism. This has stoked fear of a potential genocide and the ASC last year issued a statement that stated: “The international community must intervene and protect Amazigh people in Libya as per the conventions and treaties signed by Libya.”
Khalifa says there are a lot of claims about the Amazigh, including plans for a North African Kingdom, or desires to get rid of the Arabs, that are “not founded on anything but conspiracy theories.”
It is however safe to say that Amazigh ambitions still yearn for equality in the law, and are fighting to avoid a mass catastrophe.