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The Berbers, or Imazighen (‘free people’) as they refer to themselves, are an indigenous people of North Africa, with a presence that goes back millennia. They are geographically distributed in the areas extending from the west of the Nile Valley to the Atlantic Ocean, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River, covering a vast sweep of discontinuous land that includes Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso.
The majority of the Berbers live in Morocco, mostly in the mountain and desert areas. They do not constitute a homogeneous ethnic group. Three main regions can be identified: the north, the centre and the south. Each region claims descent from a particular overarching tribe. Hence, the Berbers of the north descend from the Zenata tribe, those of the centre from the Sanhaja tribe and those of the south from the Masmouda tribe. However, the Berbers of Morocco are unified by a language – Amazigh – and a homeland, a collective identification with a common heritage and history.
The origin of the Berbers has been subject to controversy, with Western and Arab historians, each with their own ideological agenda, interested in the topic. For the former – for example Henri Fournel, Georges Marçais and Maurice Peygasse – the origin of the Berbers could be found in the three Punic Wars that opposed Rome to Carthage and ended with the fall of Carthage in 146 BCE. In other words, Western historians linked Berbers with a glorious period of the Romans, implicitly attributing them a Western origin. Meanwhile, the Arab historians of the Middle Ages (for example Ibn Abdel Adhim Ezzemmouri and Muhammad al-Idrissi) traced the Berbers’ origins to Yemen and, hence, to the Arabs.
Following Morocco’s independence in 1956, archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic tools were used to continue this line of enquiry. The evidence challenged the previous findings, suggesting instead that the present-day inhabitants of North Africa, the broad regional sweep covering the coastal region from Egypt to Mauritania, are descended from the peoples who have lived on this land since prehistory (a period estimated at about nine thousand years) and that migration has always been from east to west. The Berbers’ territory can, thus, only be the land Berbers have always lived on, hence, ideas about the origin of Berbers are changing.
The Arab conquest of North Africa in the 8th century brought a combination of Islamization and Arabization of the Berber populations. This ended the writing of Amazigh languages in both the old Libyan and the new Arabic script, reducing them to folk languages. At the same time, an influx from the east of warrior Arab nomads from the 11th century drove the Berbers off the plains and into the mountains.
Together, these factors turned the population from Berber speakers into Arabic speakers, with a consequent loss of original identities. From the 16th century, the process continued in the absence of Berber dynasties, which were replaced in Morocco by Arabs claiming descent from Prophet Muhammad and by Turks in Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.
Today, the Berbers are understood to be any of the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. At the turn of the 21st century, there were around 14 million Berbers in Morocco, 9 million in Algeria, 6 million in Libya and much smaller numbers in Tunisia, Egypt and Mauretania.
In the Sahara of southern Algeria and Libya, Mali and Niger, the Berber Tuareg number about 1 million. A century earlier, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of Morocco’s population and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim population. Their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate.
Although the Berber populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural and linguistic attributes that render North Africa distinct, they have been marginalized historically, politically and socio-economically. They actively participated in the fight for independence across North Africa, especially in Morocco and Algeria, but have been sidelined in the national narratives on nationalism, which foreground the Arab and Islamic components of the region’s identities.
During the decades that followed independence, the marginalization of the Berber language and culture became systematic. The Arabization of the education system and public life in general relegated Amazigh to the realm of folklore.
Politically, the French colonizers of Algeria and Morocco divided the local populations along ethnic lines, for example by introducing the 1930 Berber Decree in Morocco, by virtue of which Berbers did not need to follow sharia law in rural areas. In Algeria, the French tried to ‘Frenchify’ the Kabyle Berbers by claiming that Berber culture was closer to Western than Arab culture. Ironically, the Berbers allied with the rest of the population because they identified as Muslim. This union constituted the beginning of the nationalist movement in Morocco.
After independence, the Berbers were regarded as ‘elements of discord’ and were marginalized politically and socially because the urban Arabized elites wanted to take power. In Morocco, Berber zones were considered ‘not fit for modernity’ (non-useful Morocco) and as a result, being Berber came to be associated with being backward.
As the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, Berber identity movements emerged in Algeria and Morocco. In Algeria, the movement demanded linguistic and cultural rights and sometimes used violence to achieve its goals, as in the Berber Spring of 1980, in which dozens were killed.
In Morocco, the Berber identity movement made similar demands, in addition to land-usage rights, but has been largely peaceful. This may be because Morocco has the largest Berber population in North Africa and a broader political system that is relatively Berber friendly. In Libya, Berbers were brutally repressed by the al-Qaddafi regime for 40 years. Today, a Libyan Berber movement is emerging as a major component of the post-Arab Spring era. In addition to political recognition, Libya’s Berbers demand equality and civil rights.
The Berbers strategize and react to their marginalization in different ways, according to the realities of their local and national environment. In general, however, they seek a re-examination of what constitutes their countries’ collective identities and how the historical and socio-political roles of Berbers in the construction of North Africa can be highlighted.
They also demand social justice and the improvement of their social status, especially in rural areas, which are characterized by high rates of poverty. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Berber question has become increasingly salient in the contestations over a share in socio-economic opportunities.
Although Berber demands do not constitute a real threat either to the territorial integration of the North African countries or to the stability of the elites of these countries, the Berber question is increasingly part and parcel of the wider political and social spectrums across the region.
The emerging ethnic identity combined with new ways of imagining collective belonging, namely tribal, national and religious, appeals to many disenfranchised Berber youths and is rapidly being consolidated as a major ingredient in the future relations between the state and society in North Africa.