Morocco grants Berbers greater rights, as Libyan Berbers join revolution

In an obvious move to head off the emergence of a powerful protest movement, Morocco‘s King Mohammed VI on March 9 announced a constitutional reform that gives more power to parliament and regional governments, strengthens human rights guarantees, and officially recognizes the importance of Amazigh (Berber) culture for the national identity. Tens of thousands of Moroccans demonstrated around the country for greater democracy on Feb. 20, and smaller rallies have been staged frequently since then. (DPA, Maghreb Blog, March 9)

In January, following years of petitioning by the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM), Morocco launched the first Berber-language TV station, dubbed Tamazight (for the name of the Amazigh tongue), and gave greater weight to the Berber language in elementary education in Berber-majority regions. “We are relying a lot on television,” said IRCAM director Ahmed Boukous. “Our language is threatened and the young generations master it less and less.” (AFP, Jan. 18) With the monarchy and jihadist opposition alike viewing the indigenous Amazigh culture only as a threat to national unity, the country’s Berbers have long been marginalized, and mostly relegated to poverty in the Rif Mountains.

Significantly, Morocco’s constitutional reform comes as Amazigh tribes in eastern Libya have joined the rebels fighting to overthrow Moammar Qaddafi. (The Guardian, Feb. 28) We noted in 2005 a secret meeting of Libyan opposition groups to call for resistance against the regime, which included representatives of the Berber people—and was boycotted by the Salafists (North African jihadis) because of its secular orientation.

We’ve also noted that Berber demands for cultural rights and recognition have contributed to a groundswell for democratic reform in Algeria in recent years. A wave of Berber protests in Algeria’s Kabylia region in 2001 was followed by the arrests of political and cultural leaders.

We recently noted that the Berbers’ southern cousins, the Tuaregs (or Kel Tamashek in their own tongue)—a chiefly nomadic people of the interior Sahara, speaking a closely related tongue—are in danger of being pitted against each other by the Libyan crisis. In the 1990s, Moammar Qaddafi backed Tuareg insurgencies in Mali and Niger, where they had long been denied rights or autonomy, and is now recruiting former guerilla fighters from these countries as mercenaries to defend his regime. Meanwhile, Libya’s own Tuareg tribes have declared for the revolution.

The former consul general of Libya in Mali, Musa al Koni, on March 8 issued a call from Paris for “the Tuareg people to join forces with the Libyan people to fight Moammar Qaddafi’s regime.” He appealed to potential mercenaries: “Do not by any means join these murderous troops… Instead, join the cause of the Libyan people.” (AFP, March 9)

See our last post on the regional wave of revolution.

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