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the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No.
The Rise of North Africa's Berbers
Nizar Al-Aly, Inter Press
Service (international news agency), Rome, Italy, May 4, 2001
clashes between Algerian security forces and the Berbers of Kabylia
have once again spotlighted the plight of minorities in North Africa,
whose rights are often trampled by Arab-controlled regimes. [Since
April, at least 90 people have died and some 800 have been injured
in confrontations between Berber demonstrators and police in the
Kabylia region, east of Algiers. On June 15, four people were killed
and hundreds injured in a massive antigovernment demonstration in
of Berber towns during a banned protest in Algiers, held July
5, 2001 (Photo: AFP)
The start of the unrest coincided with the anniversary of the Berber
Spring, a state crackdown in 1980 during which hundreds of Berbers
were said to have been killed by Algerian security forces. Although
the riots erupted to demand better social conditions, underlying
that was the struggle for freedom of expression and recognition
of Berber identity, says Ahmed Benmadi, an Algerian observer
based in Rabat, Morocco.
The Berbers claim an ancient presence in the Maghreb dating back
5,000 years. Geographically, their homeland stretches from the Atlantic
Ocean to the Egyptian-Libyan borders and from the Mediterranean
coast to Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. They are better known to
the outside world as the daring camel-riding nomadic traders of
the Sahara desertthe Tuaregswho have been both romanticized
and vilified by dozens of Western books, films, and magazine reports.
In Morocco and Algeria, as in all other North African countries,
Berbers have been officially relegated to the countrys folklore,
rather than being recognized as a living segment of a multicultural
society, and there has been harsh repression against those who have
not accepted this condition.
The Berbers relationship with the rulers of North Africa
has not always been an easy one, says John Williams, a British
linguist in Morocco and author of a study on the life of Berbers
in the mountains near Marrakech. They have repeatedly risen
against the central authority, who resorted to this minoritys
help to drive back foreign conquest, while never accepting to fully
integrate them in their Arab-dominated society, he says. When
the French and the Spanish occupied much of North Africa, it was
the Berbers of the mountainous regions who offered the fiercest
resistance, says Williams, adding, in more recent times
the Berbers, especially those of Kabylia, were of great help in
driving the French from Algeria.
Despite being a separate group in North Africa, Berbers have no
separatist designsor at least would not dare to express them
in public. Rather, they ask for recognition of their language and
identity and for an end to discrimination. Berber activists in Morocco
and Algeria mainly demand recognition of their Amazigh tongue as
an official language. The Amazigh language should be taught
in schools on equal footing with Arabic, says Abdelaziz Bourass,
vice president of the Moroccan Association of Research and Cultural
The Berber language has numerous dialects. In Morocco there are
three main variations: Tarifit, spoken in the Rif mountains in the
North, Tamazight in the Central-East areas, and Tachelhit in the
Rachid Lakha, president of the World Amazigh Congress, goes beyond
that to demand constitutional recognition of Berbers as an entity.
Berbers now account for 25 percent of Algerias population
and 30 percent of Moroccos. The mere teaching of Amazigh
is not the issue. North Africans should recognize the Berber culture
in their constitutions, Lakha says. On May Day, groups of
Berbers marched in the streets of downtown Rabat, Moroccos
capital, chanting: We are not Arabs, and We want
constitutional recognition of our civilization.
The Tuaregs of Niger and Mali are the sole Berber community that
has managed to preserve their alphabetTifinagh. Tifinagh is
thought to have sprung from the Punic script, around 600 B.C., according
to inscriptions found by archaeologists. Although modern linguists
have been unable to link it directly to any of the dozen modern
Berber languages spoken in North Africa, it is widely accepted by
scholars that the alphabet represents a Berber language, given the
ethnic continuity in the region. The script has been adapted to
the modern Berber vocabulary, although it is used only for spiritual
works, such as poems.
Unlike Algeria, where the Berbers freedom of expression was
systematically constrained by the former single party, the National
Liberation Front, and later by successive army-controlled governments,
Morocco opted for a more tactful policy. These overtures helped
paved the way for the flourishing of independent associations. The
Amazigh Cultural Association (ACA) was officially recognized in
1992 after dozens of years of clandestine struggle. ACA is fighting
for official recognition of the Tamazight dialect, including in
the schools. The group also addresses other issues such as unemployment
among youth, drug and alcohol addiction, womens equality,
and the environment.
Ahmed Benmadi stresses that even this limited overture has
proved ineffective, as Berbers aspirations are growing in
intensity and their demands are now touching certain limits that
the undemocratic North African regimes are not yet ready to tolerate.
The Berbers of Morocco, who live mainly in poor rural areas, believe
that the authorities deliberately marginalize their home regions.
The rural areas of the plains where Arabs live are better
off, says Bourass, lamenting that the Berbers
mountain regions are deprived of water, power, schools, and everything
that constitutes a modern life in the 21st century.
While the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria now enjoy a limited freedom,
their counterparts in Libya are worse off. The government of Col.
Muammar Qaddafi exercises tight control over all ethnic minorities,
especially Berbers. There are frequent allegations of discrimination.
Williams explains that the fear of extinction will continue
to fuel the Berbers mounting struggle for recognition.
Nobody knows how this clamor will play out on the main
stage of North African politics, he says.