Benghazi ‘self-rule’ resonates with Berbers

Libya’s main ethnic minority still yearns for recognition, two years after Gaddafi’s death.

Amazigh protests for autonomy have become increasingly common in Libya [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]

Jadu, Libya – In the rocky, mountainous area of western Libya, the Amazigh people – a large and substanital minority – are staging protests for self-rule. Their calls for autonomy follow the heels of the declaration of self-government made by ethnic groups in east Libya.

The symbolic move is likely to anger the central government in Tripoli, which is trying to reopen ports blockaded by eastern rebel groups and tribes angered that they aren’t receiving what they deem to be a fair share of profits from oil extracted from the resource-rich east.

Western rebels say they will continue blocking the Mellitah gas and crude oil complex [Karlos Zurutaza/Al Jazeera]

“Benghazi’s declaration of self-government will surely speed up our process, everybody here is talking about it”, said Shokri Agmar, an Amazigh lawyer.

The Amazigh, also known as Berbers, are on of the indigenous groups of North Africa. Their population extends from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the west bank of the Nile – they share a common language with the Tuareg tribes deep in the Sahara desert. Estimates put their numbers in Libya at around 600,000, or ten percent of the country’s population.

Most of the Amazigh live around Jadu, a village in the Nafusa mountain range.

According to a man who wished to remain anonymous, calls for autonomy are becoming increasingly common. “Over the past months, every single time I’ve visited Benghazi, people would always ask me the same thing: how come you guys don’t have an autonomous region of your own yet?” As he spoke, he drew over a Libyan map the approximate boundaries of the region he considers his own.

“Our most immediate priority is to achieve constitutional recognition – but we’re still far from that,” lamented the Libyan highlander.

The country’s minorities have been granted only six seats – two for the Amazigh, two for the Tuareg and two for the Tubu – in the committee of 60 that will be in charge of writing Libya’s post-Gaddafi constitution.

“We have to decide on key issues, such as our language being co-official education, but a system based on majority systematically marginalises us,” said Agmar. A solution, he said, would be a consensus based system with a veto right.

But not every Libyan Amazigh overlooks the desert from the heights. Walloul Mensori is a native of Zuwara, a coastal town in the flatlands between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, which also hosts one of the country’s main gas and crude plants. Amazigh rebels have been blocking the Mellitah complex since October 26 – similar protests across the country have knocked crude production down 90 percent.

“Nafusa was already a self-ruled region during the Italian occupation [1911-1943] and Zuwara enjoyed an ‘autonomous city’ status,” Mensori told Al Jazeera outside the blockaded Mellitah plant. He handed the protesters a photocopied document for their perusal: 25 autonomous experiences, from Greenland’s Nunavut to Australia’s Norfolk Island.

“I don’t know if people get to understand the real meaning of federalism here. Personally, I’d be happy with an autonomous region as long as we have our own assembly and control over the education system,” added Mensori. The activist was also among the thousands that stormed Libya’s parliament on August 13.

“We all fought against Gaddafi for our rights – only to realise that post-war Libya still sticks to the same Arab-Islamist patterns,” lamented Mensori.

Prior dissidence

Madghis and Mazigh Buzakhar were among the most visible faces of the Amazigh resistance during Gaddafi times. The Amazigh library they had gathered “volume by volume” was confiscated in 2010 by the government, before the twins were jailed under a life sentence. They were charged with “sedition” and “spying for Israel”.

They were released in the heat of the Libyan uprising and ran back to the Nafusa mountains, where they set up a media centre in their native village of Jefren.

Today, Madghis devotes his time and energy to the release of the first Amazigh language books ever to be used in Libya’s schools. 

“Printing a book is easy, but qualifying the teachers that will use it in class is something else,” the language advocate told Al Jazeera in his downtown Tripoli office. “For the time being, both teachers and students are at the same level.”

His brother, Mazigh, said he saw Benghazi’s call for regional rule as “a good way to run a country which still lacks an effective central government”.

Mazigh produced a draft paper he wrote back in 2006: Autonomy, the concept and the establishment of the Movement for an Autonomous Region in Nafusa. It is yet more proof that the desire for self-rule is far from being merely a post-Gaddafi trend.

“It was an amateurish attempt to import the ideas of the MAK [Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie]. I could only share [it] with very close people,” recalled the 32-year-old activist.

Founded in 2001, the MAK seeks autonomous rule in Kabylie, a region of northern Algeria populated by the Kabyle, a Berber ethnic group.

Yet there are other key movements which attract the Amazigh. The World Amazigh Congress is an international organisation established to defend Amazigh rights and identity throughout the world and in the North Africa and Sahel regions in particular.

Its chairman is Fathi Ben Khalifa, an Amazigh dissident from Libya who lived in Morocco for 16 years – until he left for The Netherlands to escape Gaddafi’s attempts to get Rabat to hand him over.

People want immediate benefits from the revolution but Libya has still no solid ground for federalism. We have lost decades and Libyans lack the experience to conduct such an experiment.

by Fathi Ben Khalifa, World Amazigh Congress

Ben Khalifa resumed his dissident activities from Tunisia when the revolution started in Libya and became a member of the National Transitional Council – the rebellion’s leading body – until he quit in August 2011 due to “insurmountable differences”.

The lack of recognition of the Amazigh people was among those differences, and, he told Al Jazeera, “nothing has changed”. However, Ben Khalifa thinks the timing is not good for federalism in Libya.

“People want immediate benefits from the revolution, but Libya has still no solid ground for federalism. We have lost decades and Libyans lack the experience to conduct such an experiment,” Ben Khalifa told Al Jazeera over the phone. He said leaders in Benghazi were “fighting for their own interest, and not for the community”.

“The Eastern part of the country is overrun by Islamists and we all know this since Gaddafi’s times. They have their own agenda and they’ll support any initiative they can profit from,” he added.

The Amazigh leader is also concerned that “Islamist extremists” are deeply rooted within all government ranks. “Even the Prime Minister is afraid of speaking in front of many of his cabinet members,” he said.

He concluded that the country had bigger issues than self-rule for the Amazigh. “Radical Islam, and not federalism, is Libya’s most pressing problem,” he said.

“So far, Libya, nor the international community, has dared to tackle it.”

Follow Karlos Zurutuza on Twitter: @Keraban3

Source: Al Jazeera