After Gaddafi, Libya's Amazigh demand recognition

The Berber, or Amazigh, flag being flown in Martyrs' Square, Tripoli Amazigh are hoping for a brighter future with the right to express their heritage

In the coastal towns and mountain villages of western Libya, there are two flags proudly flying side-by-side from every balcony and shopfront in celebration of the end of 42 years of Muammar Gaddafi's rule.

The first is the now-familiar red, black and green of Libya's new national flag, adopted by rebel fighters at the beginning of the uprising in February.

But the other is less well known: sky blue, bright yellow and luminous green, with a curious red symbol, like a doubled-ended pitchfork, emblazoned in the middle.

It is the flag of Libya's Amazigh, as the Berbers call themselves. They consider themselves the original Libyans and they suffered decades of repression and discrimination at the hands of the Gaddafi regime.

With Gaddafi now gone, they are hoping for a brighter future with the right to express their heritage and recognition of the sacrifices they made during Libya's bloody eight-month civil war.

"This flag represents our identity and our culture," explains Hisham al-Hares, an Amazigh former rebel fighter from the Nafusa Mountains, to the south-west of Tripoli.

Berbers in North Africa

Map
  • Name is derived from "barbarian" as they spoke neither Latin nor Greek
  • Before the Arab conquest of North Africa, they were successful agriculturalists
  • In their own tongue they call themselves Amazigh and their language is Tamazight
  • They were Islamised and even played an important role in expanding Islam in Spain but have always retained their original identity
  • Algeria: Estimated at between 20% and 30% of the population - the vast majority in the northern Kabylie region
  • Egypt: Estimated 30,000 in the oasis of Siwa near the western Beni Suef regions
  • Libya: Statistics vary. The most reliable suggest that there are anywhere between 25,000 and 150,000 Amazigh
  • Morocco: The census does not distinguish who is Berber, but it is believed that Amazigh speakers make up 60% of that population
  • Tunisia: Estimated 1% of the population in Djerba, Tataouine, Metmata and east of Gafsa
  • Canary Islands: The indigenous people were Berber. The language survived until the Spanish invasion
  • Tuaregs are nomadic Berber pastoralists living mainly in southern Algeria, north-eastern Mali, north-western Niger and northern Burkina Faso

"Under Gaddafi we couldn't have the flag. If you showed it publicly, it meant the end of your life. But now that he is gone we want our rights, guaranteed by a new Libyan constitution."

Persecution

Gaddafi appeared to make special efforts to persecute the Berbers, whom he saw as a threat to his view of Libya as a homogenous Arab society.

The Amazigh language and script, Tamazight, which distinct from Arabic, was officially banned and could not be taught in schools. Giving children Amazigh names was forbidden.

Even singing traditional Amazigh songs could land you in serious trouble. Those attempting to promote Amazigh culture, heritage and rights were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed.

"Amazigh culture was effectively forbidden during Gaddafi's time. If you were an activist that could really cause you a problem," says Fathi Abouzakhar, a former lecturer at Sirte University and now the chairman of a newly-formed Amazigh rights pressure group.

He describes how his two adult sons, both academics, were sentenced to death last year for their activist activities, accused of being Israeli spies.

Paperwork found since their release during the revolution showed they had a lucky escape - their execution date was set for September this year.

"[Gaddafi] said it loud and clear: 'Libya is an Arab country.' That was a humiliation to us," Mr Abouzakhar says. "You feel that you are living in country that doesn't belong to you."

Though they make up just 5-10% of Libya's 6 million population, Amazigh predate the Arab settlers who brought Islam with them from the east.

"Our entire culture here in Libya is Amazigh - our food, clothes, music, jewellery - it's all traditionally Amazigh. Now that needs to be recognised."

'Contributions quickly forgotten'

Mr Abouzakhar and other activists are now calling for the Amazigh identity to be included in Libya's new constitution, and for Tamazight to be made an official language alongside Arabic.

But so far they say Libya's new leaders have completely ignored their demands.

Amazigh former fighters from the Jadu Brigade Amazigh fighters played a key role in the uprising

A draft of the constitution, outlined by the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) only mentions Amazigh culture in broad terms, and when Libya's new interim Prime Minister, Abdurrahim al-Keib, appointed his cabinet in November, none of his ministers were of Amazigh origin.

Younes al-Hares, an Amazigh lawyer and rights campaigner, says he fears the decisions are a deliberate ploy to continue to marginalise his people, a result of decades of influence and thinking by Gaddafi.

The apparent snubs have also provoked anger and bitterness among the Amazigh fighters who fought Gaddafi forces on the western front, freeing the Amazigh-dominated Nafusa Mountains before going on to liberate other towns and cities far from their heartlands.

"We played a huge role in the revolution," said Hossam Aisa Hamisi, an Amazigh former rebel fighter from the coastal town of Zuwara, near the Tunisian border.

"We liberated our own towns and cities. No-one did it for us. We forced Gaddafi to divert many of his forces from Misrata and Benghazi. If it wasn't for the Amazigh forces, the tide would never have turned to the revolutionaries."

Now the fighting has finished, he says, their contribution is quickly being forgotten.

"The NTC thanked us, but that was it," he says. "They ignored us and they are still ignoring us. The ways of doing things are still the same as they were in Gaddafi's time."

'Revolution not over'
Children at an Amazigh school in Jadu Amazigh make up 5-10% of Libya's 6 million population

Libya's first elections are due to be held in six months.

A new parliament will appoint a body to write the final constitution, giving Amazigh an opportunity to press their case.

But Mr Abouzakhar argues that the basic human rights being demanded by the Amazigh are "not up for voting".

This issue, he argues, is an important test case of whether Libya's new leaders have credibility and are serious about protecting human rights at all.

"This revolution was all about freedom, so for the Amazigh the revolution is not over," says Hossam Aisa Hamisi.

"When we get our rights, then the revolution will be finished."

Edwin Lane is an independent journalist and Middle East specialist.

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