The list of tragedies that followed the optimism of the toppling of 42 year dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 is long and takes in a wide range of casualties. The brief promise of truly representative democracy and human rights was crushed amongst a brutal multi-polar battle for power between well-equipped militias who let personal greed, ambition and conflicting ideology over what Libya’s future should look like take precedence over the security and stability of the newly liberated state.
One of the least examined of these tragedies is the plight of the Amazigh population. The Amazigh are a Berber community who have traditionally lived across North Africa, dating their history in the region to a time prior to the Arab arrival of the 7th century. The Amazigh have a varied and fascinating culture and they include the Tuareg, an Amazigh tribe who received some media attention due to their matrilineal practices and their custom of men being veiled in public but women not. The Amazigh can point to a wide range of culinary, musical and linguistic traditions in support of their unique cultural identity.
Under Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule the Amazigh suffered marginalisation and persecution. His regime denied their cultural heritage, insisting that the Amazigh were “of Arab origin” and banned Tamazight, the native Amazigh language, as well as the community’s flag and many of their cultural practices. This level of repression, not atypical of Gaddafi’s style of governance, left the Amazigh with a marginalised place in Libyan society. The vast majority of Libya’s 600,000 Amazigh based themselves in towns in the Nafusa mountain range in the West of the country.
In 2011, as the violent revolution emerged from the streets of Benghazi to engulf the entire nation, the Amazigh took their place on the frontlines, forming militias from their traditional mountain towns and fighting Gaddafi’s forces from the West, ensuring a division of the army that contributed to the overall military victories from the militias out of Benghazi and Misrata. In the joyful optimism that followed the revolution, the Amazigh began to imagine a new place for their community inside the new Libya.
Unfortunately, like much of the optimism that followed the removal of Gaddafi, the Amazigh have seen their hopes for reform largely disappointed. Under-represented at a national decision making level and frustrated by the security realities of the elongated transitional period (Initially, a transitional body, the General National Congress (GNC) was supposed to hold the reins of power until a new constitution had been drafted and agreed by a two thirds majority in a national referendum. Almost 4 years later the GNC is split into two rival governments and the body charged with drafting the constitution has yet to publish an agreed upon document) the Amazigh have begun several initiatives to create a space for their rich culture, including a language program being administered in schools in predominantly Amazigh towns and the promotion of their community at international conferences. The Amazigh, however, still find themselves caught in the middle of a violent security situation and unable to achieve recognition of their rights in a national context.
The blame for this, like for many of Libya’s present day problems, cannot be attributed to one source, internal or external. The lack of state institutions in place in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, along with the underwhelming international response and the fractured and well-armed nature of the rebel militias all contributed to the breakdown in rule of law and security the country has witnessed in the intervening period. Libya’s ownership of the 9th largest proven oil reserves in the world has provided their own resource curse.
Marginalisation is a familiar narrative that runs through recent Amazigh history. In Egypt, too, a small but significant population complain of maltreatment and neglect of their communities by successive regimes and in Morocco and Algeria there are documented cases of discrimination and persecution suffered by the Amazigh community
Ultimately, a secure and prosperous Amazigh future requires a secure and prosperous Libya and the immediate priority of resolving the ongoing conflict in the North African country remains. But when a peace deal is achieved – as Bernardino Leon, head of the UN Special Mission in Libya, stated recently that he believed it soon would be – the plight of the Amazigh people must not be ignored in the construction of a new nation. Indeed, the ability of this significant ethnic minority to freely celebrate and continue their rich cultural heritage while simultaneously having a voice in the important discussions that will shape Libya’s future will provide a key barometer of the country’s progress away from Gaddafi’s autocratic brutality and towards a more inclusive, pluralistic and peaceful tomorrow.