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the Amazigh town of Zuwara, Libya's first elected council, has suspended relations with Libya's national government and withdrawn its representative to the National Transitional Council (NTC).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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times