North Africa has long been the neglected stepchild of Anglo-American Middle East academe and policy institutes. This region, commonly known as the Maghreb, was traditionally the near-exclusive preserve of European (mainly French) policymakers and scholars, owing to proximity, colonial experiences, linguistic familiarity and economic interests.
This neglect is now coming to end. North African studies have flourished recently in the scholarly realm, in English as well as French. On the policy side, the wake-up call came for some with the radical Islamist challenge and bloodletting in Algeria during the 1990s. For others, it came with the discovery of young men of Moroccan and Algerian origins in the ranks of al-Qaeda. For democracy and civil society promoters, Morocco under King Mohamed VI offered a model to emulate. But if any of these didn’t happen to grab your attention, there was Tunisia 2011, which provided the spark for the explosions of popular protest rumbling across the entire Arab world and parts of the Muslim world beyond.
Understanding, however, has been slow to roust itself after these wake-up calls. In the Libya case, for example, it took some time for Western observers to realize that many of the roots of disaffection in Libya found nourishment in tribal differences between those in Benghazi—what used to be called Cyrenaica before Libya emerged after World War II as a unified territorial state—and those farther west in Tripoli. Thus far, the coverage of Algeria and Morocco has tended to focus on protesters demanding freedom from their autocratic and corrupt leaders, dignity or democracy. But there hasn’t been as much of the telegenic violence and confrontation that we’ve seen in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, so there hasn’t been much coverage overall. (In the news business, after all, if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead.) Algeria is still reeling from its civil war, so there isn’t much appetite for mayhem there. And in Morocco there is no serious challenge to monarchical rule—only some vague talk about a reduction of the King’s powers.
By focusing on these narrow categories, however, the media may be missing a newsworthy story in its own right: participation in the protests by Amazigh (Berber) associations and political parties demanding official recognition of their linguistic and cultural rights within more genuinely democratic societies.
Amazigh who? Berber what? Aren’t all these countries just “Arab”? Well, yes and no, depending on one’s definition, perspective and political predilection.
Constitutionally, Algeria and Morocco are certainly Arab-Islamic states, with Arabic being the sole official language. Organizationally, they are both members of the 22-nation League of Arab States, as well as the largely moribund five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (along with Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania). Beginning in the 1930s, the ideologues of Algeria’s national movement proclaimed the Arabic language, along with Islam and territorial nationalism, as the central pillars of their challenge to a century of French settler-colonialism and incorporation into metropolitan France. Morocco’s urban nationalist elite had a similar Arab-Islamic orientation.
Upon achieving independence, both countries directed their educational and cultural nation-building efforts toward the east, toward the Mashriq, linking their societies’ roots to the rise of Islam and the spread of its Arabic-language civilization across North Africa beginning in the late 7th century. Both Algeria and Morocco had to work hard at “becoming Arab”, importing thousands of teachers from the Mashriq to instill a standardized version of written Arabic to replace French as the language of administration. This Arabic differed sharply from the North African dialectical Arabic (darija) spoken in daily life—let alone from the widely spoken Berber dialects. There are three primary dialects in Morocco, and two primary ones in Algeria, along with two additional ones spoken by smaller groups.
So who are the Berbers, and why are they worthy of attention? Simply put, the Berbers are North Africa’s “natives”, the population encountered by the region’s various conquerors and “civilizers”: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arab-Muslims and Europeans. Berber social organization was classically tribal, and they spoke varieties of a single, mainly unwritten language classified today as Afro-Asian. Their encounters with foreign forces, which generally were more powerful, produced a variety of responses ranging from resistance and retreat to acceptance and assimilation. Overall, Berbers straddled multiple worlds, assimilating the “other” with whom they were engaged in one form of accommodation or another, but retaining distinct attributes of their own.
Inevitably, given their relative weakness, this collection of tribal groupings was branded by a derogatory term: “Berbers”, from the Greek and Roman appellations for “barbarians.” Subsequent Arab-Muslim conquerors quickly adopted the term, and it has stuck ever since. Not surprisingly, modern-day Berber militants reject such stigmatization imposed from the outside, and prefer to call themselves Amazigh, which translates into “free men.”
The Amazigh are worthy of our attention for several reasons, one of which is their underappreciated demographic significance. Speakers of one of the Berber/Tamazight dialects constitute approximately 40–45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20–25 percent in Algeria, 8–9 percent in Libya and about 1–5 percent in Tunisia. They total some 15–20 million persons, a number that exceeds the total population, for the sake of comparison, of Greece or Portugal. These numbers, while considerable, are significantly lower as a percentage than they were a century ago, thanks to complex processes of economic and political integration that have occurred throughout the region.
Indeed, it is this very decline that has helped spur the modern Amazigh identity movement, one which explicitly foregrounds a collective Amazigh “self”, complete with a flag, anthems, collective memory sites (lieux de memoire), a “national” narrative and ancient and modern icons. Thus the movement seeks to renegotiate the terms of Berber accommodation with various “others”: the nation-state, Islam and modernity. The movement’s central demands are recognition by state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. The most immediate and concrete manifestations of that recognition would be to make Tamazight an official language equal to Arabic and to begin redressing the multitude of injustices which they say have been inflicted on the Berbers in both the colonial and independence eras through corrective educational, social and economic policies. More generally, the movement challenges the fundamental national narratives of these countries, which until recently consigned Berber cultural expressions to state-sponsored folklore festivals, complemented by National Geographic-type television programs on remote and exotic mountain villages, on par with the nomadic Touareg “blue men” of the desert.
In their efforts to fashion a “modern” ethno-cultural collective identity out of the older building blocks of their societies, the Amazigh activists are part of a more general trend that challenges hegemonic Arab-centered nationalism. Ironically, the ever-accelerating processes of globalization, which some thinkers have heralded as the harbinger of a long-awaited post-national age, are also generating an intensified “politics of identity.” The new politics of identity in the Muslim world is marked by the ethno-cultural assertion of formerly marginalized minority groups, combined with a demand for the democratization of political life. For some, like the Kurds, this has reached a critical mass, morphing into full-fledged nationalism. For others, like the Muslim residents of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, this kind of nationalism is forming fast.1 Berbers have not yet reached that stage, and they may never reach it. But they, too, have achieved a measure of recognition and self-definition that was inconceivable a generation ago.
How did this come about? After all, Berber-Arab differences throughout history have been socially enduring but otherwise muted: Not since the initial Islamic conquests have there been significant episodes of interethnic violence in North Africa. French colonial policies had contrary effects—some intended, others not. While acting with some success to reify Berber-Arab differences, they also initiated complex processes of territorial unification and national integration—processes further strengthened by the national movements that arose in opposition to colonial rule and the independent states which they established. However, the state-building and nation-building formulas of both Algeria and Morocco, which are now being put on public display by the rumblings of popular protests, proved to be inadequate in addressing the specific Berber components of their societies in ways that would promote overall comity. This is true notwithstanding the fact that one finds Berbers among the elites of both countries, as well as in Islamist opposition movements—the bête noire of the Amazigh identity movement.
In Algeria, the Berber movement’s demands are more overtly political than they are in Morocco, the result of decades of tension punctuated by bouts of civil revolt and confrontation between the regime and the territorial and cultural core of resurgent Berberism, Kabylie. Two of these eruptions, the 1980 Le printemps berbère (“Berber Spring”) and the 2001 Le printemps noir (“Black Spring”), are central events on the Amazigh commemorative calendar, and not just among Kabyles. Kabyle Berberists have played a leading role in fashioning and propagating the grand, pan-Berber narrative in the Berber diaspora and in the international arena, while also privileging their “Kabyle-ness.”
On the level of relations between Berbers and the state, the Kabyle-centered Berber Culture Movement played a vanguard role in challenging the hegemony of Algerian pouvoir in the 1980s, breaking taboos and helping to set the stage for the sudden opening up of the system in 1989. That opening in turn enabled the flourishing of associational and political life that provided an alternative to both the regime and its Islamist current. During the brutal strife of the 1990s, Kabyle Berberists reached a new level of activism, successfully implementing a lengthy school strike to force a degree of recognition by the state. The peak of Kabyle-state confrontation occurred in 2001, as blood flowed (there were more than 125 fatalities) and Kabyle Berbers, organized under previously unknown extra-political frameworks, marched on Algiers with demands that were both national and particularist: the democratization of Algerian political life and the recognition of Tamazight, along with the withdrawal of the hated Gendarmerie from the region.
The Algerian authorities, for their part, pursued a variety of strategies and tactics during this turbulent decade: arming Berber village militias against Islamist bands, reluctantly and gradually conceding to a portion of the movement’s demands, and playing on the Amazigh movement’s internal divisions to neutralize its thrust. Although Kabyle activism in 2001 suggested a potential for leading a broader civil movement for a more democratic and federal Algeria, the result was that Algeria’s ruling elites remained firmly in control while leaving underlying matters unresolved, both in Kabylie and the country as a whole. To that end, they were aided by billions of petrodollars, the populace’s exhaustion after the ordeals of the 1990s, Western governments’ support in the “war against terror”, and divisions and rivalries within Kabyle political parties and associations.
Those who speak of actual autonomy for Kabyle remain marginalized. Still, from the perspective of the past three decades, the Kabyle-Amazigh identity project has made giant strides. And the almost continuous protests in Algeria during the past few months appear to have reinvigorated Kabyle activism after a period of quietude and regrouping (although the two main parties, rivals as always, disagreed on participating in the modest-sized Algerian protests in February). One can expect that these groups will do their best, separately if not together, to ensure a massive turnout on April 20, the day of the annual commemoration of the Berber Spring.
In Morocco, Berber-Arab differences have been less politicized, and the historical background quite different. But culturally speaking, the Amazigh identity movement has now emerged onto the national stage. Unlike in Algeria, where the Kabyles constitute roughly two-thirds of all of Algeria’s Berbers, Morocco’s Berbers originate in three distinctive areas: the High Atlas mountains and southern Souss and southeast valleys and pre-desert oases; the Middle Atlas mountains; and the northern Rif region. This gives them more demographic weight, but it also impedes efforts to promote a common modern Amazigh identity.
There is also a different history in Morocco of Berber association with the state. Morocco’s officer corps in the first decades after independence was largely Berber. Together with rural Berber notables, they became partners in the palace’s efforts to achieve hegemony over the Istiqlal Party and more radical left-wing groups (which also included a considerable number of young educated Berbers). Berbers were then heavily stigmatized by the failed military coups of the early 1970s, which shook the regime to its core and resulted in more than a decade of brutal repression of all suspected opponents. Overall, the intellectual and political proponents of Arabization, as well as academic experts, had little cause at the time to doubt that Berber identity in Morocco was being reduced to the realm of the merely exotic.
Those doubts proved premature. Educated Berber militants’ disappointment with leftist, Arab-oriented parties and the regime’s crackdown on all autonomous political activity led some to reorient themselves beginning in the late 1970s toward rescuing the increasingly endangered Berber language. By the early 1990s, Moroccan political life began a tentative revival, and the authorities made some gestures toward an increasingly assertive Amazigh movement. But the big push forward came following King Mohamed VI’s ascent to power in 1999. As part of a concerted strategy to counter-balance a resurgent Islamist movement and maintain palace hegemony over an increasingly liberalized political system, the King embraced the Amazigh movement as an integral part of Moroccan nationhood. He even mandated the teaching of Tamazight in Moroccan schools (though implementation has been partial and haphazard).
From the perspective of the Moroccan Amazigh current, the proverbial glass has appeared at times to be half-full, at other times half-empty. The two-pronged strategy of activism from below and linking itself to the palace had produced unprecedented state legitimization and the proliferation of movement associations, including in the rural, mountainous areas of the south and north. The internal debates within the Amazigh camp over strategy and tactics may have unintentionally created a useful division of labor, allowing it to essentially pocket the gains offered by the state while preventing the flame of the Amazigh cause from being extinguished by the authorities’ strategy of cooption. At the same time, the way forward is not at all clear, and the excitement and even euphoria generated by the state’s acknowledgement and partial embrace of the Amazigh movement had waned considerably by the end of 2010. Not surprisingly, then, Amazigh activists have jumped at the chance to advance their agenda within the framework of the latest popular protests. And they received swift acknowledgement of their demands from King Mohamed. His March 9 speech promising wide-ranging reforms included a pledge to enshrine in the Moroccan constitution “the Amazigh component as a core element and common asset belonging to all Moroccans.”
Given the geographical spread of the Amazigh population throughout the Maghreb, it was only natural that the Amazigh identity movement would have transnational aspects. Ideologically, one can speak of a pan-Berber worldview that demands recognition of North Africa’s underlying Amazigh identity. Apart from a few utopians, the movement does not aspire to dissolve the region’s existing state framework but to re-fashion it by foregrounding the place of the Berbers within it.
More radical Berberists, however, do explicitly refer to territorial issues in their demands, variously employing the terminology of autonomy, federalism and regional de-centralization, with a focus on Kabyle in Algeria and, more recently, among Amazigh associations in the Moroccan Rif. This, of course, is anathema to the state authorities, but for now, they have gained little traction among the Berber communities in any practical sense. The movement has also followed the path of other beleaguered minority groups by seeking inclusion in the growing global discourse on human rights, a discourse that governments ignore at their peril. Interestingly, there is also a measure of solidarity and contact with like-minded groups. The Catalans serve as the ultimate exemplar for the Amazigh movement, and the Catalunya government provides funding for Amazigh activites.
Beyond this Catalan model, the Berber diaspora in France and more recent diasporas in other West European countries and North America have provided crucial intellectual and organization support. There is even a body called the World Amazigh Congress, established in 1997 and headquartered in Paris, that brings together constituent associations in periodic gatherings. And even as they decry the perfidious, leveling impact of globalization processes on indigenous cultures, Amazigh activists have enjoyed the benefits thereof, maintaining an active presence in the cyber-world and giving new meaning to Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined community.” There they come into partial alliance with other “civil society” forces such as the women’s and human rights groups and the liberal political voices and bloggers of North Africa’s overwhelmingly youthful population.
A further indication of this outward-looking, modern perspective is the fact that the movement’s overarching discourse is profoundly sympathetic to Western liberal-humanist values and strongly condemns the predominant North African political and cultural order, which prioritizes Islam and Arab identity in an uneasy and erratic coexistence with French linguistic and cultural influences. As such, the Amazigh movement leaves little or no room for other, more Islamic-centered aspects of Berber societal norms. This may well prove to be a serious shortcoming in Amazigh mobilization efforts, but to the extent that those efforts succeed, Amazighité represents a bulwark against the spread of Islamist influence.
Will Amazighité succeed? On the one hand, the movement’s practices are not universally accepted among North African Berbers. The task of ethno-cultural movements in mobilizing their communities, however, has hardly ever been a simple one. Like other ethno-national movements throughout modern history, Berbers face the daunting task of igniting a conceptual revolution among North Africans, to “reawaken” them to their Berber heritage and identity, to make it matter on a grand scale. The movement’s greatest ally in this may turn out to be the long-term weakness of North Africa’s state structures and globalization’s ability to empower de facto subsidiarity.
One thing is certain. The process of reshaping and redefining the meaning of Moroccan and Algerian collective identities has already begun. With both states apparently on the verge of a more contentious and contested era, the Amazigh factor will clearly be a part of the picture. Veteran Amazigh movement activists with whom I have spoken in recent years recognize both how far they have come and how far they have to go. Their ideal picture consists of: the emergence of polities that are at once more inclusive and more tolerant of diversity; allowance for Amazigh cultural and linguistic flourishing within a framework of genuine democracy; and adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights, thus enabling North African states to better address their enormous socioeconomic shortcomings and political difficulties.
Given the centrality of religious-based collective identities in the Middle East and North Africa and the lack of experience with genuine Western-style democracy, the Amazigh movement’s vision may well be overly rosy. One can hardly speak of the Amazigh current as a mass movement. Still, it has gained a measure of linguistic and cultural recognition in recent years from the state as part of their recognition of the need for what I. William Zartman termed “re-contracting” with their societies. This hard-won legitimation has in turn given Amazigh groups new confidence to press their demands. Almost a century of efforts by North African nationalist movements and newly independent states to subsume Berber identity under state and Arab ethnic identity rubrics have failed. While Al Jazeera appears to have created a virtual pan-Arab identity, this does not and cannot replace the particular contexts and contours of individual states and societies. With their countries now facing even greater needs, and given the political and social discontent bubbling up from below, the opportunities to pursue Amazigh identity politics are likely to increase. This may well give rise to more tension, but it also carries the potential for contributing to meaningful political liberalization, as well as ensuring a measure of dignity for the Amazigh.