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Libya’s Amazigh Debate Their Future

3:50 PM, Nov 11, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE
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At the conference, the Tuareg, who claim to number 500,000, complained of decades of discrimination. There were no Tuareg ministers or ambassadors under Qaddafi, and one local complained that he knows of only one Tuareg employee in the powerful ministry of foreign affairs. “We must talk about our nationality,” said Mustafa Al Ansari, a young Obari man in the revolutionaries’ khaki uniform. “It is written in the Acacus Mountains,” he said, referring to the world-renowned prehistoric art in the Acacus Mountains a few hours’ drive southwest.

Over the traditional desert meal of iftat —big pieces of lean lamb over a casserole of shredded clay-oven bread—Abu Bakr Akaty said that 69 percent of Libya’s oil reserves were used during the Qaddafi years, making it crucial to allocate the remaining wealth fairly. Even within the Amazigh community, the Tuareg seem to have got the short end of the stick though they far outnumber the 180,000 or so Nafusa Amazigh and Zwara’s 50,000. Akaty claimed that he was the only Tuareg on the Libyan Amazigh Congress for 32 years, and said that now there are only 3 others.

The main order of business on November 1 was mustering Amazigh to demand Libya's emerging government recognize them as a minority and their Tamazight language as a national language, to receive government financial support, and to be given a place in school curricula. Many activists view the language issue as crucial, because after 42 years of Qaddafi’s repression, few Libyans can read and write the 3,000-year-old Tiffinag script. So far, the National Transitional Council has proven noncommittal, as it has on most other issues. In an August statement, the NTC stopped short of recognizing Tamazight as a “national” language,” and instead declared it an “official” language, which leaves the issue of financial support unresolved.

At the small but exuberant performance of Tuareg “desert blues” that concluded the proceedings, Ben Khalifa Fathi, president of the World Amazigh Congress, explained that official recognition in the as yet unwritten Libyan constitution is the most important issue for the Amazigh right now. “Amazigh identity is a serious thing, a question of life and death for us,” said Fathi, who after returning from an 18-year exile in Morocco was treated like a celebrity. “The Arabs still can’t understand this problem. We have no time to lose. We gave a lot to our country in the revolution and we helped the transitional council with foreign contacts.”

Another attendee from Zwara, Senussi Mahrez, a major general in the Libyan army who led a rebel brigade in the revolution, agrees with Fathi that it is important “to look after our Amazigh culture,” but questions the priorities of some of the other Amazigh. “It is not the time to trouble the government about the oil,” says Mahrez. “Now is the time to build up the country.”

Othman Ben Sasi, who represents Zwara on the NTC, also differs with Fathi’s approach. I reached him after the conference, when he argued that most Libyans are Amazigh, whether they admit it or not; there are very few Libyans of Arab descent. (A quip has it that Libya is “an Arab country without Arabs”.). So he sees the struggle to save the Tamazight language as one of bringing all Libyans to see that it is part of the national heritage, to be offered in all Libyan schools. “Berber must be for all Libyans or not at all.” But he thinks setting up a Tamazight curriculum is going to take a long time.

“We don’t have teachers or books. We need to teach the teachers first, and prepare the curriculum. In Morocco it took 15 years, and it is not finished.”

Mr. Ben Sasi sees a “just and modern constitution” as the best hope of the Amazigh. “We have to be organized as a democracy.” All Libyans, he says, and not just the Tuareg, were deprived of their fair share of the national wealth by Qaddafi. 

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