Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, Amazigh Politics in the Wake of the Arab Spring (University of Texas Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman (BMZ): This book is a culmination of a quarter-century of interest, research, and teaching about the indigenous Amazigh populations of North Africa and the diaspora. As a scholar, I have been endlessly fascinated by the ways in which Amazigh groups that were systematically marginalized by national movements and post-colonial regimes in North Africa have striven to refashion their collective identities, fashion a grand narrative that challenges existing hegemonic ones, and insist on official recognition and amelioration of their status. As an individual, I cannot help but empathize with the Amazigh movement and other ethno-linguistic groups that seek to rescue, modernize, and revalorize their languages and cultures, in the face of real threats to their continued existence.

The extraordinary waves of popular protest that cascaded back and forth across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, beginning in 2011, generated a veritable flood of commentary that touched on fundamental aspects of state-society relations and collective identities across the region. However, the Amazigh communities, and the evolving and dynamic Amazigh identity movement in general, were given short shrift in these analyses. As the decade unfolded, and the Amazigh factor repeatedly manifested itself in the newly contentious political arenas across the Maghrib and Sahel, it became clear to me that this was a story that needed to be told. Hopefully, readers will find it to be properly contextualized within the larger story of state-society dynamics, in which the legitimizing formulas that underpinned the authority of ruling elites for many decades lost much of their validity.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

BMZ: One ongoing subject that the book addresses is the nature of regimes’ and elites’ treatments of the Amazigh movement—from partial recognition and cooptation to utter rejection. Another is the strategies adopted by Amazigh movement activists. A third is the degree to which the movement has broadened its base beyond a narrow intellectual stratum. A fourth is the varied responses from other political and societal currents, from Islamists to liberal secularists, from leftist opposition groups to regime supporters.

My central argument is that the Amazigh factor, in all of its varieties, constituted an integral part of North Africa’s increasingly contested politics during the “Arab Spring” decade. The increasingly visible and assertive Amazigh movement shifted its emphasis during the decade from being primarily ethno-cultural to one that was more explicitly political and socio-economic. This overall shift towards explicitly political issues further refined the Amazigh movement’s rejection of the hegemonic post-colonial narratives that had consigned Amazigh communities to subordinate status within independent “Arab” nation-states.

A number of common themes characterized this shift, even as the specifics varied from country to country. Firstly, in the formal, constitutional sphere, Tamazight was recognized as an official state language in both Morocco and Algeria, and “Amazighiyya” (“Amazigh-ness”) as a component of their respective national identities; in Libya, intensive efforts to achieve similar recognition fell short of the mark, but remained an area of contention; in Tunisia, by contrast, the efforts by activists and sympathetic non-Amazigh liberals did not bear fruit.

Secondly, the territorial dimension of Amazigh activism was increasingly salient: In Algeria, the concept of self-determination, whether within a federal and consociational democratic Algeria, or even complete independence, was now part of the militant Kabyle political lexicon. “Autonomy” and “self-determination” entered into the lexicon of Libyan Amazigh as well, even if their meanings remained vague and organically linked to the Libyan state and nation as a whole. In Morocco, Amazigh intellectuals spoke of the need for genuine regionalization, and the large-scale Riffian Hirak protests clearly had an ethno-political and territorial dimension. And in northern Mali, an independent Touareg-led state, Azawad, was briefly established, but lacked the capacity to survive.

Thirdly, socio-economic marginalization, including discrimination and willful neglect by state authorities against Amazigh populations in peripheral regions, was increasingly central to the Amazigh movement’s discourse, and protests over specific grievances abounded. Insistence on their rights was framed as being commensurate with their status as the indigenous people of their lands, in line with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Fourthly, formidable obstacles remained extant. One in particular was the difficulty in building durable alliances with other elements in society that would help the Amazigh advance towards their fundamental goals of refashioning the fundamentals of their countries’ national identities.

And lastly, the increasing salience of trans-state ties between Amazigh organizations across North Africa and in the Amazigh diaspora was noticeable. Moreover, diaspora-based organizations and communities played significant roles in bringing the Amazigh agenda to the attention of the international community. Social media was an ever-more important tool for mobilizing on behalf of the Amazigh cause, helping to sharpen the collective consciousness of Amazigh in both the imagined homeland of Tamazgha—“the land of the Amazigh”—and the diaspora. This transnational sharpening was also accompanied by the further articulation and elaboration of more local identities, particularly among Libyan, Riffian, and Kabylian Amazigh.

Notwithstanding these common themes, the variety of specific contexts and experiences led me to organize the book according to developments in five different states—Algeria and Morocco, of course, but also Libya, Mali, and Tunisia, which up until now have barely figured in discussions of the Amazigh movement’s challenge to the existing socio-political order in North Africa.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

BMZ: My previous book on the subject, The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (University of Texas Press, 2011) provided a historical overview of Amazigh existence and detailed examination of the rise of the Berber identity movement, focusing on Morocco and Algeria. Amorphous, leaderless, and multi-vectored, with both country-specific and trans-state aspects, it had one clear core demand: the recognition by North African state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective, and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. This latest book is a natural outgrowth of the previous one.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

BMZ: I hope that my book will be read by multiple audiences: country specialists, scholars who work on ethnicities, nationalism, collective memory, and minority-state relations, policymakers, and broader audiences interested in political, social, and cultural developments in the MENA region. I would be thrilled to see the book translated into French and Arabic (and Tamazight!).

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BMZ: I am currently completing a lengthy chapter analyzing the history of Morocco’s interaction with the larger inter-Arab system, dating back to the rise of Arab nationalism and the Moroccan independence movement, and following the story through the years of radical pan-Arabism dominated by Gamal Abdel Nasser, King Hassan’s active inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and the current king’s markedly lower profile in Arab affairs. The story is of course linked to Morocco’s ongoing nation-building project. The chapter will appear in a volume that will honor the life and work of my doctoral adviser and historian of modern Syria, Lebanon, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Professor Itamar Rabinovich.

On another note, I have just participated in a wonderful conference at the Heidelberg Hoschsule for Jewish Studies, on Indigeneities and Diasporas, comparing the Amazigh, Kurdish, and Jewish cases. My contribution focused on the enduring myths and contemporary affinities between the indigenous Amazigh and (equally indigenous?) Jewish communities in North Africa, and will be expanded for publication.


Excerpt from the book (from pp. 63-67)

Coming out of the Closet: Libyan Amazigh Assertion in Fractured Polity

The Uprising

Perhaps the most difficult political choice that individuals and communities confront is whether or not to take up arms and rebel against their government, for the consequences of failure are likely to be severe. The very process of deciding is likely to be highly charged, creating or exacerbating divisions within the community that could threaten its cohesiveness and adversely affect the outcome. And the more fluid and uncertain the setting, the harder it is to be confident in a particular course of action.

These dynamics were very much in evidence among Libyan Amazigh in early 2011. The reverberations of the Tunisian and Egyptian mass protests were being felt throughout Libya, and Amazigh youth were no exception. While they pushed for action, particularly after the authorities started to arrest potential agitators, community elders tried to hold them back. As a vulnerable minority community, the uncertainty about how to react and the possible consequences was especially poignant. In early February, three veteran Amazigh activists, representing three different mountain towns, agreed that in the event of an uprising in the east, their community should wait to see how neighboring Arab communities reacted before making a decision. The possibility that Qaddafi would use neighboring Arab communities against them was ever present in their mind.

On February 15, the rebellion was ignited by large scale protests in Benghazi, which were fired upon by security forces. Unexpectedly, the Nafusa Imazighen’s Zintan Arab neighbors, who had a strong presence in the Libyan military, decided to join the rebellion. Their move came after heated internal debate, overtures from the regime and countervailing pressure from their youth. The decision tipped the balance for the Nafusa Amazigh communities, who now joined as well. So did other neighboring Arab towns. Local military councils supported by deserting officers were established. Pickup trucks carrying Amazigh fighters often bore Tamazight inscriptions, written in Tifinagh characters, such as Igrawliyen n Adrarn Infusen (“Revolutionaries of Adrar n Infusen”), along with Arabic equivalents. A number of civilian functionaries did agree to meet with Qaddafi in early March, but they had lost whatever influence they once had. The National Transition Council, established by the anti-Qaddafi forces in Benghazi on February 27, was quickly endorsed by the Amazigh leadership, which sent representatives from different towns, including Yefren, Nalut, Jadu, Ghadames, and Zuwara, to participate. The swift establishment of the NTC and the Amazigh endorsement was partly the outcome of years of periodic discussions, going back to 2005, among a number of Libyan opposition groups and representatives of the World Amazigh Congress on how to build a post-Qaddafi, democratic Libya.

The immediate priority, of course, was the battle: recognizing the NTC enabled Amazigh groups to negotiate external military support for their portion of the insurgency, while keeping their distance from the Council. In this, they were not essentially different than other units in the rebellion. While the NTC had formally established a National Liberation Army, this military institution was in practice a loose coalition of independent brigades and not a unified command structure.

Qaddafi’s air force had already begun bombing Yefren on February 20th, prompting women and children to take shelter in caves. A more sustained military offensive was launched in early March, and at the beginning of April, Yefren found itself besieged, and would remain so for two months. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that nearly 55,000 civilians from Yefren, Nalut and other towns streamed across the Tunisian border seeking safety. A large refugee camp was established in Tataouine, whose own Amazigh population mobilized to support the refugees, and the area became a hub for humanitarian supplies to the mountains, supplied by Qatar, the UAE and Oman, each one directing its aid to specific clients……

During the first months of the rebellion, the hodgepodge of anti-regime forces in the western region, Amazigh and Arab, volunteer irregulars and defectors from the army, were on the defensive, and often left to their own devices. However, from the beginning of June, the tide shifted, with increasing support from NATO forces. An August offensive seized the strategic western coastal area, including the predominantly Amazigh town of Zuwara and the crucial Zawiyah oil refinery 50 km. from Tripoli. The city was taken by rebel forces on August 21, and its many Amazigh residents joined the throngs of celebrants, waving Amazigh flags along with the old, pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag that had been adopted by the NTC.

Overall, Amazigh fighters had contributed substantially to the rebellion’s ultimate success by helping to create an important second front. As Frederick Wehrey observed, “whoever controls the Nafusa commands the western approaches to the capital.” Hence, their efforts complemented the main thrust coming from the east. It was a formative collective experience, and provided them with a measure of legitimacy for their future actions and demands. Their efforts were also recognized in real time by the Libyan Arab rapper Ibn Thabit, whose songs praised the Nafusa fighter and recognized their deep roots in the country, offering up the possibility that the post-Qaddafi Libyan nation could be inclusive in nature.

Coming out of the Closet

Emboldened by their struggle and the vacuum left by the withdrawal of regime officials and security forces from the region, Libyan Amazigh communities swiftly asserted their “Amazighité” in public for the first time. The Tamazight-language song “Agrawli Itri Enegh” (“The Rebel is Our Star”), sung by Dania Ben Sassi and written by her activist father, became one of the anthems of the revolution. The song honors his sister’s son, who was killed in the fighting. Ben Sassi performed the song in central Tripoli’s renamed Martyr’s Square shortly after the eviction of Qaddafi’s forces, before large celebratory crowds, Amazigh and Arab alike. It was a moment that seemed pregnant with possibilities for a new Libya, one in which its Amazigh elements might play an integral part.

Ben Sassi’s father was from Zuwara, her mother from Belgrade, Serbia, where she grew up. She would appear on numerous occasions before adoring audiences in the years after the revolution. In January 2013, she was joined on stage by the well known Moroccan Amazigh singer Khalid Izri at a large concert celebrating the Amazigh New Year (Yennayer). Later that same year, in a festive concert in Paris celebrating Amazigh culture, she sang the unofficial Amazigh anthem, “A Vava Inouva”, together with its originator, the iconic Idir. Izri also performed with both of them at the concert, making it a truly pan-Amazigh cultural moment. Ben Sassi’s presence was an indication of how far her own star had risen as the voice of the Libyan Amazigh, how hungry they were for such a star, and how the Libyan Amazigh community was now on the pan-Amazigh cultural and mental map. For her, it must have been an especially poignant moment, for she had grown up listening to his music, thanks to her father. It had been a primary mode through which she began to identify with the Amazigh cause.

From the moment of the uprising, Amazigh flags had become ubiquitous, as did symbols in the Tifinagh script. A modicum of self-rule was established in Amazigh communities, and Tamazight was quickly introduced into local schools, public spaces and radio and television broadcasts. The improvised, amateurishness nature of the initial efforts mattered less than the fact that they were taking place at all. Teachers were given crash courses of instruction on teaching Tamazight, using the Tifinagh script. They were assisted by hurriedly obtained textbooks and educators from Morocco and Algeria; a delegation from the World Amazigh Conference made a five-day visit to the region in August, further deepening the pan-Amazigh connections. The first “national” television broadcast in Tamazight, already took place on May 2, in the midst of the war, on “Libya Free People TV”, broadcasting from Doha, Qatar. The broadcast and subsequent ones suggested that the incipient new Libya could, and perhaps would include its Amazigh and other communities within the fabric of the nation.

Anecdotal evidence attested to the transformative effects of the uprising on the Amazigh community, on both the communal and national levels. Signs of an emerging modern ethnie identity were provided by a resident of Yefren, who noted that previous local divisions had been superseded by a common bond forged in struggle: “The revolution has brought us all together. We all had our tribal allegiances before, and it would be rare for anyone to eat from the same gasa’a (“shared plate”) as someone from another Amazigh town. Now Nalut, Kabaw, Jadu, Zintan, Yefren, al-Qalaa – we all eat in [from] the same plate.” Historical figures from the Nafusa region who had been downplayed or ignored by official accounts of the struggle against Italian colonialism were now publicly iconized. The most important of these was Sulayman al-Baruni (1870-1940), whose father was venerated throughout the Ibadi communities in North Africa, as well as by non-Ibadis in Tripolitania…. Another revived historical figure was Khalifa ben-Askar, who was executed in 1920 by the Italians and especially revered in his native Nalut. By contrast, images of Omar al-Mukhtar, the lionized leader of the anti-Italian resistance in eastern Libya, were absent.