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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

The Rise of North Africa's Berbers

Nizar Al-Aly, Inter Press Service (international news agency), Rome, Italy, May 4, 2001

Delegates of Berber towns during a banned protest in Algiers, held July 5, 2001 (Photo: AFP)
Recent 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 Algiers.—WPR]

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 desert—the Tuaregs—who 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 country’s 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 minority’s 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 designs—or 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 Exchange.

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 South.

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 Algeria’s population and 30 percent of Morocco’s. “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, Morocco’s 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 alphabet—Tifinagh. 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, women’s 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.

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