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Amazigh town of Zuwara, Libya’s first elected council, has suspended relations with Libya’s national government and withdrawn its representative to the National Transitional Council (NTC).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