Sunday, November 1, 2015

Amazigh population attempts to rise from oppression in Libya

By: Jaelynn Grisso
Edited by: Danielle Keeton-Olsen

A protestor holds a sign during an Amazigh demonstration in
2013. (via Mazigh Buzakhar)
In the western corner of Libya near the Tunisia border, sand-colored hills cover the landscape. Vibrant flags break up the dusty terrain alongside the main road leading into the Nefusa Mountains. Between waving Libyan flags are brightly colored flags with three bold horizontal stripes: blue to represent the sea, green to represent the land and yellow to represent the desert. Connecting them is a single, red stick figure, representing the Amazigh people living throughout the area, from sea to land to desert.

Under the late President Muammar Gadhafi, the Amazigh language and culture was suppressed in order to create a unified Arab identity for Libya. After he was overthrown in 2011, the country split into two opposing governments. Although an agreement between the two governments to form one unity government was recently reached, the future of the Amazigh – the indigenous people of North Africa – remains uncertain.

“[The new government is] not going to play a role to bring the whole country under stability,” Mazigh Buzakhar, an Amazigh activist, said. “They have been limited, and they’re going to be limited.”

Lacking representation in divided government
Since the revolution in 2011, Libya has been divided between two governments: a government in the capital of Tripoli and the internationally recognized government in the east. This divide culminated in a civil war beginning in 2014.

The two governments were formed from a transitional government created after the revolution. The transitional government was tasked with developing a new constitution for Libya. When it failed to do so before the set deadline, an election was held to create the House of Representative, the now internationally recognized government. However, a minority group from the transitional government held a separate election and formed the General National Congress. Some reports claim the General National Congress is backed by the Libya Dawn militia, which is believed to be an Islamist organization.

Many involved with the Amazigh movement do not recognize the General National Congress as a legitimate government, and they said they thought they had unfair representation in the House of Representatives, Mazigh said. In 2013, a committee to create a new constitution was intended to be formed through elections, with only two of the 60 seats allocated to the Amazigh. Unofficial estimates place the Amazigh population in Libya around 600,000, about 10 percent of the population.

As a result, the Amazigh people looked toward creating their own autonomous region, including drafting a constitution for the Amazigh-dominant Nefusa region, said Madghis Buzakhar, an Amazigh activist and brother of Mazigh. It is a possibility still being considered.

“It is our dream to have an Amazigh country,” Shokri Agmar, an Amazigh activist and lawyer, said. “It will be the most democratic country in the region. Diversity, democracy, respecting rights and openness to others is part of our culture.”

Fighting for our rights
Last August, Libyan Amazighs elected the Amazigh Supreme Council for the first time. They have also created a group called TIRA nnegh – “our book” in the Amazigh language – to raise constitutional awareness throughout Amazigh communities, Madghis said.

Although, succeeding from Libya is not without its challenges, said Asma Khalifa, an Amazigh activist and member of the Tamazight Woman Movement. While there are predominantly Amazigh regions, in many cases there are Arab-dominated cities in between.

Even with the new unity government, many Amazigh are not optimistic that the situation will improve.
Map of ethnic groups in Libya, including the Amazigh
(Berber) in bright orange. (via Wikimedia)
“Our problems are with the Arabism and Islamic dictatorship mentality,” Agmar said. “The new government if it exists, will be made by those two sides. And we will keep fighting for our rights.”

Khalifa expressed similar sentiments.

“I think the Amazigh will face further discrimination and racism,” Khalifa said. “The country will be very divided even under the unity government, and even if the unity government has a more open-minded approach towards minority rights, on the grass root level it will still be misinterpreted.”

Discrimination impacts culture, language, history
Taziz Hasairi, an Amazigh woman and member of the editorial board for the Amazigh magazine Tafat, said she does not think the issue lies with the government.

“Our issues and problems are not with governments, but mentalities,” she said.
The Amazigh culture and language, Tamazight, was severely limited under the Gadhafi regime as a push for Arab nationalism. The language was banned, parents could only use Arabic names for their children and the education about the Amazigh was restricted. Hasairi said her friend was arrested for singing in the Amazigh language, and Bukahar did not learn about the history of his ancestors until he studied abroad in Australia. These restrictions, and others, lead to a lack of knowledge about Amazighs for other Amazighs and the Arab majority.

“It was difficult to hide your culture and a part of your identity even to your own circle,” Khalifa said. “The rest of Libya knows so little about Amazigh and they were [and] are still very paranoid of what is different.”

Agmar said it was this treatment which lead him to activism.

“I felt that I was not happy with the situation that we are in,” he said. “The racial and cultural discrimination that I and my people had faced and suffered… I had a feeling that we are different, we are not Arabs as they are telling us in government schools every day, so I had to get involved and fix something to at least be close to normal people’s level of life.”

Amazighs played a major role in the revolution in 2011, Mazigh and others said. The location of Amazigh populations in the Nefusa Mountains played a critical role in eventually overthrowing the past regime.
Since Gadhafi, some of the activists said the situation for Amazigh has improved minimally. However, Agmar said it has not changed.

“It was very hard, but not very far [from] what we have been suffering today,” he said. “Almost the same with more work, efforts required by us to save our children’s future and rights. It is a huge responsibility.”

All above descriptions are created from recounts in interviews and photos, not by first-hand accounts.

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