Libyan Amazigh – also referred to as Berbers – recently elected a council representing their interests at the national and international level. The vote received little attention outside Libya, but for the Libyan Amazigh community it represents an important step towards greater self-determination. Public debates that followed the event reflected a persistent divide between Libya’s Amazigh and Arab populations and conflicting definitions of national identity.
Voters in eight predominantly Amazigh towns in western Libya, in addition to the capital, Tripoli, went to the polls on Sunday, August 30, to elect 12 out of 26 representatives who will sit on the Amazigh Supreme Council for the next two years. Another 6 seats will be filled in a second election round. The remaining eight seats on the Amazigh Supreme Council are for (already elected) municipal councillors from eight Amazigh towns, to be selected from within their respective municipal council.
The Council is meant to advocate for Amazigh demands and set up local entities to promote their culture and language. It is expected to take over from its unelected predecessor – also named Amazigh Supreme Council – within the coming two months. The latter was formed in Zuwara in September 2011 and staffed with local council members of several Amazigh towns. Its mandate was renewed twice, in 2012, and 2013. None of the candidates elected on Sunday was involved in the previous body, reflecting the truly democratic nature of the process, according to Amazigh activists.
Activists lauded the work of the electoral commission or “Tasmilt n Istayn” by its Tamazight name – claiming that the independent body staffed by volunteers achieved better results, in relative terms, than Libya’s High National Electoral Commission with its remunerated staff. Another aspect highlighted is the progressive 50% quota for women. Civil society groups such as the Amazigh Woman Movement prepared the ground for this through awareness raising campaigns in the months leading up to the election.
The election did encounter difficulties. Yefren, Kabaw and Wazin were meant to have two elected representatives – a man and a woman – but no qualified female candidates presented themselves. Two Amazigh towns did not elect any representatives: in Rahibat polling station could not open for security reasons and in Jrijen there were no qualified candidates. Also worth noting is that not all predominantly Amazigh towns took part in the election, such as the desert oasis Ghadames. While Amazigh culture and traditions are cherished in Ghadames, inhabitants generally do not adhere to the more political vision of their neighbors to the north.
In their struggle for cultural and political recognition, activists refer to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, as key treatise outlining the rights of indigenous groups. It therefore is no coincidence that the starting date for candidates and voters registration – August 9 – coincided with the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Amazigh activism in Libya experienced a revival following the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Though not discriminated against on ethnic grounds, Libyan Amazigh were not allowed to express their cultural identity and teach their language, Tamazight. Gaddafi famously denied the mere existence of the Amazigh nation, claiming that the concept was invested by Western powers to sow division in colonial-time North Africa and arguing that anyone fighting for the Amazigh cause was an agent of imperialism. Gadhafi also called for the extinction of Tamazight, a “useless language”.
While the cloak of political oppression has been lifted, the Libyan Amazigh still face the challenge of convincing their Arab contemporaries who look upon their activism with suspicion. For many Libyans, demanding separate rights – whether cultural or political – equals betrayal of the Libyan nation. The idea promoted by Gadhafi that Libyan identity is inseparable from Arab identity is deeply rooted in contemporary Libyan society.
The widespread anti-Amazigh sentiments transpired in a TV debate that Libya Channel broadcast on Monday after the election. The guests on the evening show “Sijal” were Fathi Ben Khalifa, former head of World Amazigh Congress, Aissa Ashur, a former Libyan ambassador, Idriss Ben Tayeb, a writer and political activist, and Abdallah al-Hamdi, a political activist who used to live in Nalut.
Talk show host Ahmed al-Gomati launched the debate by provocatively asking whether the election reflected the “long-held dream to establish an Amazigh state along the historical borders of Amazigh lands, from Siwa (in Egypt) to the Canary Islands” or merely the wish for “a minimum of Constitutional rights”. In the debate that ensued only Fathi Ben Khalifa defended the Amazigh people’s choice to form a political entity outside the mechanisms provided for in the current political system.
Participants in the debate portrayed Amazigh activism as harmful to national cohesion, saying that it threatened to exacerbate divisions among Libyans. For Abdallah al-Hamdi the new council is an expression of “Amazigh extremism”. On his part, Idriss Ben Tayeb likened the ASC to the Muslim Brotherhood in that both have ties to the outside world. “Their goals are political, not cultural”, he said, “and we know… that they plan to create their own state in North Africa.”
Ben Khalifa rejected the claim that the Amazigh seek to weaken the Libyan state, saying that in his view these elections were on the contrary a way to strengthen the young democracy in a context of political crisis. “The Amazigh are giving another example of real democracy by not relying on foreign support to solve internal problems”, he said.
Another argument brought forward by the opponents of the ASC was that it is bad timing to discuss particular cases and that Libyans should focus on solving their national crisis. Aissa Ashur, who is himself Amazigh, explained that although he hoped the Amazigh would get their rights, it was “not the right time to bring up this matter”. Adding to this, Idriss Ben Tayeb suggested that Amazigh activists were exploiting the political vacuum to change facts on the ground. “We have to save the nation and not use today’s division for political gains”, he appealed.
The “Sijal” show raised criticism in the Amazigh community, with many activists complaining that its overall tone was biased and that it had not been a fair representation of the Amazigh cause.
The elected members of the Amazigh Supreme Council are Khairi Abdallah Sulaiman a-Hamisi and Siham Hussein Mussa Bin Khalifa for the coastal town of Zuwara, Hisham Ahmed Sassi Ahmadi and Asma Ibrahim Said Aka for Jadu, Imhamed Abdallah Ahmed Taleb and Siham Mohamed Ahmed Bin Taleb for al-Qalaa, Mohamed Khalifa Amru Ali for Wazin, Khairi Khalifa Amr Bin Taleb and Fatma Aissa Khalifa Shalbak for Nalut, Aburawi Ibrahim Sulaiman al-Hijaj for Kabaw, Mohamed Jumaa Masoud Imbarak for Tamzin and Ali Ashur Ali Abudiya for Yefren.