Challenging the State, Redefining the Nation: The Contemporary Amazigh Movement in Turbulent Times

By Bruce Maddy-Weitzman
Submitted to Session P4599 (The Maghrib on Edge: New State and Citizen Strategies in the Face of Regional Turbulence, Turpitude and Retrenchment, 2016 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Algeria; Libya; Maghreb; Morocco;
19th-21st Centuries; Current Events; Ethnic Groups; Identity/Representation; Maghreb Studies; Minorities;
This paper examines the efforts of the Amazigh (Berber) identity movement during the last five years to redefine the content of national identity in North African states in the face of unprecedented challenges to state and society.
It also analyzes the responses of state and other societal actors in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and the North African diaspora. It argues that the Berber-Amazigh identity movement has registered important achievements both vis-à-vis its own Berber-speaking communities and state authorities, and that ethnic differences and particularities have become more salient to contemporary circumstances, reinforcing the longstanding consternation of state authorities and others who fear the unraveling of the status quo and the national fabric as they previously understood it. The study is underpinned by the historical evolution of the Berber aspects North African history, from pre-colonial and colonial times, to the independence era. It is based on a close reading of published material and interviews with activists from the three countries.

The achievements of the Amazigh movement in Morocco following Morocco’s “Democracy Spring” in early 2011 centered on the constitutional recognition of Amazigh identity as an integral part of Moroccan national identity, and of the Tamazight language as an official state language alongside of Arabic. Belatedly, Algeria has suddenly enacted a constitutional upgrade of Tamazight of its own (something the regime had long resisted). In Libya, on the other hand, similar efforts failed, and the whole subject has since taken a back seat to the civil war there.

State ambivalence and resistance by Islamists and others continues to be a source of contention and mobilization. In Morocco, increased Berber militancy has manifested itself in outlying regions and on university campuses: recent clashes with Sahrawi students resulted in the deaths of two Amazigh students, providing a new and poignant focus for movement activists. In Algeria, where the “Berber question” has historically been more highly charged and confrontational than in Morocco, the competing efforts of the state and Kabyle militants to claim the legacy of Hocine Ait Ahmed, one of the historic “chiefs of the revolution” who passed away on December 23, 2015, indicates that it remains so. This study examines these and other episodes of confrontations, as well as the efforts of Libyan Nafusa Berbers to defend and strengthen their communal existence and culture in the fractured Libyan state, with the assistance of Moroccan and Diaspora Berber activists.