The voice of Libya's minorities

Gaddafi's discriminatory policies will outlive the dictator if post-revolutionary Libya defines itse

When I called my Libyan friend Wail on Sunday afternoon, I hadn't expected to disturb him mid-protest. But since the unveiling of Libya's new interim cabinet on Thursday, Wail has been joining public demonstrations in Tripoli in protest at the under-representation of Libya's largest ethnic minority, the Amazigh (also called the Berbers).

On Sunday, several hundred Amazigh and Arab supporters surrounded the office of interim Prime Minister Abdulrahim Al Keib, telling him to "Go home". Al Keib has held the post for less than a month.

The local council of the Amazigh town of Zuwara, Libya's first elected council, has suspended relations with Libya's national government and withdrawn its representative to the National Transitional Council (NTC).

Libya's transitional government is struggling to centralise power, to assert control over squabbling and power-hungry militia groups, and to balance the competing claims of different towns and regions. The country's ethnic cleavages could yet unsettle it further.

In the absence of reliable statistics it's hard to confirm the exact size of the Amazigh community, although it's commonly estimated that they make up around 10-15 per cent of Libya's population. The Amazigh trace their roots to before the Arab invasions of the seventh century, and speak their own language, Tamazight. They are scattered across Libya -- indeed, across North Africa -- but are concentrated in certain regions such as the coastal town of Zuwara, small towns like Jadu, Nalut, Yefren and Kabau in the Nefusa mountains, and deep in the South, oasis settlements like Ubari, Ujula and Uweinat.

The Amazigh were longstanding opponents of the late Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, who considered them a threat to his vision for a unified Arab nation, built according to his design. As a result, Tamazight books were outlawed, it became illegal to teach Tamazight in schools, to give children Tamazight names or to speak Tamazight in public.

In the aftermath of the revolution, the Amazigh took advantage of the newly open atmosphere to reassert their cultural identity. Even during the violent uprising, Tamazight classes recommenced. "I can't remember how many times my cousin was arrested for singing Amazigh songs in public," says Asma Khalifa, who, like Wail, is from Zuwara, one of the most culturally distinct Berber towns. "Now he's singing all the time."

He may not be singing much longer. Wail and his fellow Amazigh protestors are furious that no ministerial level posts were given to Tamazight speakers in the latest reshuffle, and fear that the new Libyan constitution will not recognise the Amazigh or their language.

Wail also objects to the appointment of Fathi Turbil as minister for Youth and Sport. Fathi Turbil is the human rights lawyer whose arrest in mid-February sparked the first public demonstrations in Benghazi. For some, he is a hero of the Libyan revolution, but Wail says that he is "racist and openly anti-Amazigh". Several Arabic media sources allege that during the summer Turbil verbally threatened members of the NTC who were calling for Tamazight to be given equal status to Arabic in the draft Libyan constitution.

"There's a lack of trust between the two parties. The Amazigh don't trust the Arabs because they have a long history of oppressing them, and the Arabs don't trust the Amazigh because they think they want to take over," says Asma Khalifa.

Asma is also frustrated by the lack of progress in recognising Amazigh Libyans -- "all we hear is words, even in the draft constitution there's no mention of the Amazigh, and then people say things like 'you should just be grateful that the constitution doesn't say we're a Libyan Arab Republic'"

But she isn't convinced that suspending relations with the National Transitional Council is the best way forward. "I think it's a bit extreme, they [the Arabs and the Amazigh] should probably sort these things out between each other and not stop talking to each other," she says. "It's good that the protestors are making people aware of what's going on, but they shouldn't take it too far. It's only a matter of months, and then people can elect who they want."

Like many of the internal divisions surfacing in post-revolutionary Libya, the rift between the Arabs and Amazigh is largely the product of Gaddafi's discriminatory policies throughout his 42-year rule. Ethnic tensions are a particular cause for concern, because unlike the skirmishes between rival militia groups, or the disagreements between different Libyan cities, this is not simply a dispute over power-sharing, or dividing the spoils of the revolution -- it is a disagreement over the very nature of the Libyan state. The Amazigh, who found they were pushed out of Gaddafi's "Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya" fear they will be similarly sidelined in a post-revolutionary Libya that defines itself as Arab.

At the same time, commentators from across the political spectrum are quick to pronounce Libya's revolution a failure, and are likely to read every setback as confirmation that the country is incapable of democracy. There is a lot at stake, but if the interim government continues to tolerate non-violent protest, and shows a willingness to engage with the Amazigh protestors' concerns, this could yet be taken as a positive sign for Libyan democracy.

If the announcement of a new cabinet was met with silent, grudging acceptance from a public too scared to speak their mind, I would be deeply worried; Gaddafi's regular ministerial reshuffles, it should be remembered, rarely elicited comment. As it is, I remain cautiously optimistic. Lively public debate and the tolerance of public protest are, after all, the hallmarks of an open, pluralistic society, and responsive government.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's. She previously lived in Tripoli.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Today's immigration figures show why the net migration target should be scrapped

We should measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact.

Today’s net migration figures show, once again, that the government has raised expectations of tackling migration and failed to deliver. This is a recipe for disaster. Today’s numbers run far in excess of 300,000 – three times over what was pledged. These figures don’t yet reflect the fallout from Brexit. But they do show the government needs to change from business as usual.

It has been the current strategy, after all, that led the British public to reject the European Union regardless of the economic risks. And in the process, it is leading the government to do things which err on the side of madness. Like kicking out international students with degrees in IT, engineering or as soon as they finish their degrees. Or doubling the threshold for investor visas, and in the process bringing down the number of people willing to come to Britain to set up business and create jobs by 82 per cent. Moreover, it has hampered the UK’s ability to step up during last year’s refugee crisis - last year Britain received 60 asylum applications per 1,000 people in contrast to Sweden’s 1,667, Germany’s 587 and an EU average of 260.

The EU referendum should mark the end for business as usual. The aim should be to transition to a system whose success is gauged not on the crude basis of whether overall migration comes down, irrespective of the repercussions, but on the basis of whether those who are coming are helping Britain achieve its strategic objectives. So if there is evidence that certain forms of migration are impacting on the wages of the low paid then it is perfectly legitimate for government to put in place controls. Conversely, where flows help build prosperity, then seeing greater numbers should surely be an option.

Approaching immigration policy in this way would go with the grain of public opinion. The evidence clearly tells us that the public holds diverse views on different types of migration. Very few people are concerned about investors coming from abroad to set up companies, create jobs and growth. Few are worried about students paying to study at British universities. On the other hand, low-skilled migration causes concerns of under-cutting among the low paid and pressure on public services in parts of the country that are already struggling.

The first step in a new approach to managing migration has to be to abolish the net migration target. Rather than looking at migration in the aggregate, the aim should be to measure different types of migration separately and set targets that reflect their true impact. In the first instance, this could be as simple as separating low and high skilled migration but in the long term it could involve looking at all different forms of migration. A more ambitious strategy would be to separate the different types of migration - not just those coming to work but also those arriving as refugees, to study or be reunited with their families.

Dividing different flows would not only create space for an immigration policy which was strategic. It would also enable a better national conversation, one which could take full account of the complex trade-offs involved in immigration policy: How do we attract talent to the UK without also letting conditions for British workers suffer? Should the right to a family life override concerns about poor integration? How do we avoiding choking off employers who struggle to recruit nationally? Ultimately, are we prepared to pay those costs?

Immigration is a tough issue for politicians. It involves huge trade-offs. But the net migration target obscures this fact. Separating out different types of immigration allows the government to sell the benefits of welcoming students, the highly skilled and those who wish to invest without having to tell those concerned about low skilled immigration that they are wrong.

Getting rid of the net migration target is politically possible but only if it is done alongside new and better targets for different areas of inward migration – particularly the low-skilled. If it is, then not only does it allow for better targeted policy that will help appease those most vocally against immigration, it also allows for a better national conversation. Now is the time for a new, honest and better approach to how we reduce immigration.

Phoebe Griffith is Associate Director for Migration, Integration and Communities at IPPR