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North Africa's Berbers get boost from Arab Spring

Associated Press Published: May 5, 2012

"We are a Muslim country and the greatest resource of our government is Islam," he told the U.S. government-funded Magharebia website. "To raise Amazigh languages to the status of (Arabic), that is difficult."

Even though the new Moroccan constitution now recognizes Tamazight as an official language, its actual implementation in schools and the bureaucracy awaits a law that has to be written by Benkirane's government — which Berbers fear will fall short of their goals.

In response, the Berbers have been mobilizing. And this year, for the first time, they are holding their own demonstrations outside of the broader pro-democracy movement.

Youth activists have united in a movement born of the countless small local Amazigh associations scattered around remote parts of the country. It has held demonstrations in recent months in the capital Rabat and the commercial capital of Casablanca.

"We were all divided and couldn't get anything done, but with the rise of the Islamists, we have become united," said Mohammed el-Ouazguiti, an activist running a Berber website from the southern city of Marrakech.

"We are the opposite of them, we are the only movement in Morocco that is officially secular," he said, as 2,000 young Berber activists from all over Morocco marched and chanted through the streets of Casablanca.

The young men and women flashed the three-finger Berber victory signs and marched wrapped in the yellow, green and blue flags of the Berber movement that are now being waved across North Africa, from Libya to Mali to Morocco. They were calling for a release of Berber prisoners of conscience, a more democratic constitution and solidarity with other Berber movements in the region.

Modern history plays a part in the plight of the Berbers.

When the French colonized the region, they pitted the Berbers against the Arabs, trotting out anthropologists to categorize the Amazigh as an enlightened "European" race as opposed to the "backward" Arabs.

The result was an anti-Berber backlash when North Africa gained its independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Berbers pushing for their cultural and linguistic rights were seen as subversive and pro-European.

Some of the fiercest resistance to Arabization came from Algeria's Berbers, an estimated 30 percent of the country, who remain a center of opposition to the state and are widely seen to have founded the modern Berber rights movement in the 1960s from exile in France. Waves of Berber rights movements in Algeria have been met with harsh crackdowns.

Algeria and Morocco embarked on sweeping "Arabization" programs, ostensibly to cleanse French from their newly independent states but also to turn Berbers into Arabic speakers, said Ahmed Aasid, a Tamazight language expert at Morocco's Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture. He estimated that before independence, some 80 percent of Moroccans spoke Berber.

"Morocco was Arabized by the media and education," he said. "You don't need to Arabize a country that already speaks Arabic."

The language of the Amazigh, the defining aspect of their ethnicity, has always been central to the Berber struggle. But it is more than just a symbolic issue — for many, it has very practical consequences.

In Morocco's poor rural regions, Berber villagers often don't even speak the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, much less the high classical Arabic that is the official language of government and media.

Squatted on the packed earth floor of his hut high in the mountains, Lakenizaa maintains he knows nothing of political movements but is quick to say officials must learn Berber.

"All the representatives of the authority, from the lowest to the highest should learn to speak my language, otherwise they can just get away with whatever they want," he said, while two of his eight children played on his lap.

Lakenizaa at least can get by in the Moroccan dialect. But his wife, Mimouna, needs a relative to go with her any time she has to go into town to deal with the bureaucracy. If she ever had to go to court, she would need a translator to follow proceedings in her own country.

Dressed in a brilliant blue robe tied with a red sash, Mimouna fed bread loaves into a wood-fired clay oven.

"In front of the authorities," she said, "I just feel like a mute animal."