Skip to main content

Will Gadhafi defeat bring new freedom for Berbers in Libya?

By Peter Fragiskatos, Special to CNN
Teachers in a classroom in the Berber village of Yefren on the western front of the Libyan rebellion in July.
Teachers in a classroom in the Berber village of Yefren on the western front of the Libyan rebellion in July.
  • Peter Fragiskatos: Berber community has played role in Libyan uprising
  • He says the Berbers had been denied the right to use their language
  • In a new Libya, the rights of Berber minority could be a key issue

Editor's note: Peter Fragiskatos, who teaches at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Cambridge University.

(CNN) -- While the rebels in eastern Libya appeared divided and have struggled to make gains, their counterparts in the western Nafusa Mountains have enjoyed much greater success.

Over the past few months, they have secured control over a wide area near the Tunisian border, a strategic position that helped open the way toward Tripoli, where the Gadhafi regime appears to have met its end. All this from a group of inexperienced fighters whose ranks include doctors, professors, students and even taxi drivers.

But there is something else that makes the Nafusa rebels different from those who fought in the east: Many of them are Berbers.

Taking advantage of the uprising against Gadhafi, Libya's Berber minority, around 10% of the population, is engaged in a cultural revival. The teaching of Berber language courses and the airing of radio broadcasts, acts punishable by torture or even death only a few months ago, are now openly practiced and Berber activists are adamant about preserving their newfound freedom.

How this will play out is anybody's guess. What is clear is that language rights will be a key issue going forward not only in a post-Gadhafi Libya, but also in Morocco and Algeria, where much larger Berber communities live.

Peter Fragiskatos
Peter Fragiskatos

Numbering between 15 and 20 million, the Berbers are one of North Africa's largest ethnic groups. Most are Muslims (a legacy of the Arab-Islamic conquest of the seventh century) but differ from Arabs in that they speak a variety of dialects related to the language of Tamazight. They live predominantly in Morocco, Algeria and Libya, with much smaller populations found in Tunisia, Egypt, Mali and Niger.

The term "Berber" itself is derived from "barbaroi" (barbarian) and was originally used by the Ancient Greeks to describe populations -- in North Africa and elsewhere -- whose language was difficult to understand and whose way of life was considered backward and inferior. It then became popularized by Roman, Arab and European writers. For this reason, "Amazigh" or "Free Man" is often preferred, especially by politically active Tamazight speakers. Still, because "Berber" has also evolved a neutral connotation, its use remains accepted by most observers.

As with other minorities in the region, particularly the Kurds, the fate of the Berbers has been tied to the state-building experience. In Algeria, Morocco and Libya, this began during the 1950s and 1960s after the end of French and Italian rule.

Can the rebels rule Libya?

Anxious to forge a new identity that would help overcome the legacy of colonization and make their citizens feel part of a larger whole, state leaders pushed for the eradication of the colonial languages (French in Algeria and Morocco, Italian in Libya).

In their place, Arabic, with its long literary history and symbolic value (it is, after all, the language of the Quran), was chosen to provide the unity needed to build a secure state and modern society. In this context, expressions of Tamazight came to be viewed as a separatist threat, a fear underpinned by the fact that France had forged strong relations with Berber landowning elites and promoted Berber culture as part of an effort to maintain control over its territories.

The outcomes have been mixed: Although Arabic is the official language in Algeria and Morocco, French is still used widely in government, higher education and the private sector. Introducing a language throughout a society requires resources (teachers, textbooks, etc.) and this partly explains why Arabization has been so incomplete. Another factor is that French still retains its symbolism as the language of progress and modernity. In Libya, the policy found greater success under Gadhafi, who pushed it vehemently.

What impact did this have on the Berbers? Social mobility and representation, though difficult, could be attained through public institutions such as schools, the state administration and the courts. However, these have functioned in languages other than Tamazight.

True, some Berbers speak French (especially in the northern Algerian region of Kabylia) and Arabic and many of them have done very well in both the public and private spheres. For example, of the 12 prime ministers Algeria has had since 1979, five have been Berbers.

On the other hand, Arabization has meant that opportunities for Tamazight speakers to succeed and be heard have been much more limited. It therefore comes as no surprise that making Tamazight an official language has been a central goal of Berber movements in all three states.

In Morocco, where Berbers represent at least 40% of the population, the newly announced reforms of King Mohammed VI make Tamazight an official language. If this will only amount to the teaching of Tamazight in schools, as has been suggested, then the gesture will not satisfy Berber activists. Those who find themselves marginalized because they do not speak Arabic are also unlikely to embrace a limited language reform.

In Algeria, where Berbers make up around 25% of the population, the Bouteflika regime recognized Tamazight as a "national language" in 2002. It has also allowed Tamazight to be taught in schools as an option. Nevertheless, it has strongly resisted calls for it to be given official status, an outcome that would help give Berbers meaningful access to the institutions of the state. Recent unrest in Berber areas threatens to develop into something larger if the status quo remains.

Why single out minorities for special attention? As one commentator put it, "In most of the Middle East ... with only a very limited measure of democracy, minorities and majorities are largely irrelevant: Prejudice, discrimination, intolerance and bigotry are rife, full stop." The same could easily be said for North Africa.

What has changed now, however, is that the uprisings of the past few months are bound to generate expectations among non-Arab groups like the Berbers, whose interest in language goes far beyond a simple need for cultural expression. In fact, ignoring this and repeating the mistakes of the past might bring about the sorts of conflicts that tear states apart.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Fragiskatos.

Part of complete coverage on
Hope and weapons lessons
CNN's Ben Wedeman offers a rare view of fighters, proud to be Libyan, new to warfare yet willing to fight
Gadhafi heard loud and clear
Moammar Gadhafi no longer has his Tripoli compound or his power apparatus. He is a fallen leader and a fugitive
A glimpse into the Gadhafi family
The Gadhafi family -- a large, at times quarrelsome clan that helped the embattled strongman hold onto power
CIA, Gadhafi spy ties revealed
Seized documents revealed a close relationship between the CIA and counterparts in the Gadhafi regime
Gadhafi nurse on life with 'Daddy'
Oksana Balinskaya served as one of Gadhafi's five Ukrainian nurses for nearly two years
Libya's other wealth
Archaeological treasures can be found all over the country, and UNESCO is worried
Ex-jihadist at heart of revolution
Abdul Hakeem Belhaj, who once fought with al Qaeda, is now commander of anti-Gadhafi forces in Tripoli
Real challenge may lie ahead
Former CIA director Michael Hayden says building a stable new regime could be as difficult as ousting Gadhafi