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Morocco’s Berbers urge broader reforms

Constitution recognising Berbers' Amazigh language hailed as a good start, but social and economic problems persist.

Last updated: 06 May 2014 08:24
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Berber villagers struggle to make a living from the land [Paul Adrian Raymond/Al Jazeera]

Arayid, Morocco - A cluster of stone huts sit in the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, too dry to grow grass for livestock. The land produces little, except almonds and prickly pears. There is no main water supply, and to get to the nearest paved road, you have to drive 12km along bumpy gravel tracks.

"People here change the suspension on their cars every three or four months, at enormous cost," said Yousef Riyadi, who runs a local development organisation.

Arayid shares its problems with many of Morocco's Berber villages. Decades of neglect have left the country's remote, non-Arab communities without basic infrastructure and cut off from services, such as health and education.

"Historically, the Berbers have sought refuge in the hills. But that was in the past. Now things should be different," Riyadi told Al Jazeera.


VIDEO: Inside Story - Berbers in North Africa


Last June, villages in the area were hooked up to the country's electricity network for the first time. It's a small change, but across the country, Berber activists say they are winning political concessions that would have been unimaginable only a generation ago.

Berbers, also known as Amazighs (meaning "the freeborn"), descend from the pre-Arab inhabitants of a region stretching from Egypt to the Canary Islands. Experts estimate as many as 20 million Moroccans speak a Berber dialect. But despite the country's Berber roots, the ruling elite suppressed Amazigh culture for decades following Morocco's independence in 1956.

Activists say Berbers are more confident than in the past about expressing their culture [Paul Adrian Raymond/Al Jazeera]

In 2011, the Amazighs won a landmark victory: official recognition of their language and culture in a new constitution. It followed months of Arab Spring-inspired protests by the 20 February Movement, a broad coalition in which Amazigh activists played a key role.

"We convinced the government to recognise all aspects of the Moroccan identity," said Ahmed Assid, an activist and researcher. "Before, the emphasis was on Arab unity and Islam. Now the Amazigh movement's narrative has entered into the constitution. That's a big achievement."

That official recognition was a far cry from the "Arabisation" programmes of the 1970s, when the government tried to impose a uniform Arab identity on Moroccans. After independence, the government replaced French with Arabic as the main language of education and administration, even though most Moroccans spoke Berber.

"In 1956, the majority didn't speak Arabic. At that time only a small elite knew it," said Assid. "But the state thought the Amazigh cause was a big threat to its existence, because it had adopted the French, Jacobin model of the nation state based on one of everything: one language, one culture. That led to repression of the Amazighs right up until the death of [King] Hassan II."

He recalled how his father kept the volume low on the radio in his shop when he was listening to Berber stations, so customers wouldn't hear the language. Now, he said, people play Amazigh music loudly in the streets and they are no longer ashamed to express their Berber roots.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who came to power in 1999 following the death of his father, King Hassan II, was the first ruler to acknowledge the Amazigh element of the country's identity. In 2001, he set up the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in the capital, Rabat. Berber cultural associations mushroomed across the country and a few schools started teaching Amazigh.

But it was not until the King's speech on March 9, 2011, that he promised to "enshrine in the constitution the rich, variegated yet unified character of the Moroccan identity, including the Amazigh component".


VIDEO: Al Jazeera World - 40 Years of Solitude


While that promise was kept, many activists now complain that parliament has still not passed legislation specifying how Amazigh will be used in public life.

"Now we've been waiting three years, and there's still no will on the part of the political parties to write that law," said Amina Ibnou Cheikh, editor of Le Monde Amazigh, a monthly newspaper published in Amazigh, Arabic and French. She said Islamist parties are particularly reluctant to push through the law.

Abdelilah Benkirane, who took office as the country's prime minister in late 2011, makes no secret of his views on the Amazigh movement. Last year the party drew accusations of "systematic hostility" to Berbers after Benkirane described them as "simple people who eat little and spent their time dancing and singing" and compared the letters of the Amazigh alphabet, known as Tifinagh, to Chinese. Benkirane's comments prompted an outcry from Amazigh groups, and the prime minister later defended his remarks, saying the comparison with the Chinese, a great people, was a compliment to Berber culture. The explanation convinced few of his Amazigh rivals.

In many ways, the Amazigh project is an articulation against the Islamist project.

- William Lawrence, professor at George Washington University

"They're trying to put out laws to protect Arabic, as the language of Islam, as if it's under threat - even though it's in the administration, the courts and the hospitals," Ibnou Cheikh told Al Jazeera. She was referring to a bill proposed last May by the PJD, which argued that since Arabic is an official language and an essential component of Moroccan identity, the state is obliged to protect it. 

"They want to pull the carpet from under the feet of the Amazigh movement. But the language is important to us, because it's the bearer of the culture."

Khaled Rahmouni, a member of the General Secretariat of the PJD, denied the party was biased against the Berber cause, saying the party is committed to supporting legitimate Amazigh cultural and linguistic rights. Discussions of legislation to bring the Amazigh language into public life had been delayed by technical issues, but would resume during the current session of parliament, he said.

"Many of the founders of the PJD come from Amazigh areas and have social and cultural roots in those areas. The PJD takes its general outlook, its positions, its choices and its programme from the pluralist identity of Morocco," he told Al Jazeera.


RELATED: Berbers celebrate Amazigh New Year


Still, the conflict continues to grow across North Africa. While the Arab Spring has produced openings for the Amazigh movement, it has also empowered their ideological rivals in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

"In many ways, the Amazigh project is an articulation against the Islamist project," said William Lawrence, a professor at George Washington University and Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

He said the Moroccan palace had been able to play the two sides off against each other. In the 2011 protests, Berber activists teamed up with the Islamic movement Al-Adl Wa Al-Ihssane (Justice and Benevolence) and others in the 20 February Movement to call for shared goals including a new constitution and an end to corruption. It was a short-lived alliance of convenience.

"That created a perfect opportunity for the palace to make concessions to the Amazigh activists to pull the alliance apart," Lawrence told Al Jazeera. "It was palpable after the King's speech in March 2011 that as he gave concessions to Amazighs, some of them began to peel off from the 20 February Movement because they started to get what they wanted. The same thing happened with the women's movement."

Michael Willis, a lecturer on Maghreb politics at the University of Oxford, agreed.

"The way the Moroccan government usually deals with political opposition is to co-opt. Plus, it looked good to the EU, made Morocco look more pluralistic, and it was also a stick to beat the PJD with. But the practical implications were not thought fully through," Willis said.

Despite these challenges, there has been a clear improvement in the standing of the Amazigh in Morocco since King Mohammad VI took power in 1999. While it's still impossible to get medical prescriptions or legal documents in their language, Berbers in Morocco say outright discrimination against them has been consigned to history.

"The situation now is a result of the policies of the past," said Riyadi. "There is no ethnic or political problem any more; it's more a social and economic problem. But I can openly say I'm Amazigh in Dakhla, in Fes or in Tangier."

The rocky tracks criss-crossing this forgotten corner of the anti-Atlas mountains are a reminder of how Morocco's government has traditionally neglected the country's majority-Amazigh areas. But as the political climate warms towards their culture and language, the Berbers of Arayid are hoping that economic development will finally reach their part of the country.

Follow Paul Adrian Raymond on Twitter: @Paul_A_Raymond

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Al Jazeera
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