North Africa's Berbers get boost from Arab Spring

Associated Press Published: May 5, 2012
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AZDINE, Morocco (AP) — One of Said Lakenizaa's two remaining cows fell sick and died last year as he led it down the steep dirt track from his village in Morocco's Atlas mountains to the rest of the world.

It was the second time he'd lost a cow because the lack of paved roads hampered access to health care, for animals and humans. But now, after enduring their lot for years, the 40 Berber families in Azdine have started protesting for better services. They demonstrated in front of local government offices four times in the past year.

The Arab Spring has galvanized the Berbers, North Africa's original inhabitants, to push for their own political and cultural rights, with some success — they have secured official recognition for their language in Morocco. But the new political openness has also brought to power their implacable enemies, the Islamists, possibly setting the stage for a new conflict in an already volatile region.

Lakenizaa says they are just struggling to improve their lot, and neglected by an Arab-dominated government.

"We are demonstrating because we are tired of their lies. The government said it was going to build a road, but it is still not here," he said, sitting inside his stone hut, which lacks both electricity and running water. "As soon as the people in the government realize you are a Berber peasant, they don't care about you."

Berber dreams go beyond the basics.

They long for northwestern Africa to be a unique region with its own Berber heritage and culture — not just a lesser-populated extension of the Arab heartland of Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. And they say it would be a good deal more liberal and tolerant than the rest of the Arab Middle East.

"We are a society apart, we are different — different by language, different by culture," said Rachid Tijani, an activist from the town of Khenifra, near Lakenizaa's village.

In Berber societies, he said, there is no rigid segregation of the sexes as in traditional Arab tribes, and there is more of a separation between religion and state. While most Berbers are Muslim, they pride themselves on secular traditions at odds with some of the Islamist movements gaining ground in the region.

As the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East last year, Berbers in every country in North Africa took advantage of the new climate of freedom to push forward their own long-simmering demands.

There are no official figures for the number of Berbers in North Africa, but estimates for those who speak one of the many Berber languages are around 25-30 million, mainly concentrated in Morocco and Algeria.

In Morocco, where they make up 50 percent of the population, they became an integral part of the pro-democracy movement. And when King Mohammed VI presented a raft of reforms to defuse the protests shaking the country last year, he included a constitutional amendment to make the Berber language, Tamazight, an official language alongside Arabic.

In Tunisia, the small Berber community has formed its first cultural associations and is once again speaking its forbidden language. In Libya, the Berbers were a key part of the rebel force that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi. In Mali, the Tuareg, another Berber people, have armed themselves and are declaring a homeland in large swatches of the north.

Yet the same Arab Spring has also brought to power Islamist parties that traditionally have seen the Amazigh, as the Berbers call themselves, as a threat.

"Overall, increased democratization ... provides greater space for the Amazigh to promote their cause, but it also does so for the Islamists, who generally view the Amazigh movement with disdain, or worse," noted Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a leading expert on the Berbers. "As the Islamists have the momentum on their side, it appears that the Amazigh movement has its work cut out for it."

Islamist movements, which have come to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco and are poised for strong showings in upcoming elections in Libya and Algeria, are strong champions of Arab identity and Islam.

Berber activists in Morocco fear the Islamists now controlling the government may try to roll back the progress they have made since the Arab Spring. Several Berber villages in the northern Rif mountains rioted in March after a local activist was arrested, blocking highways and clashing with police for days.

The newly-elected Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, has been publicly dismissive of the Berber movement, describing their ancient, rune-like alphabet as similar to Chinese and alien to Moroccans. Before the elections, Saadeddine al-Othmani, the No. 2 at Benkirane's Islamist party and later foreign minister, questioned the need to make Tamazight an official language.

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