Libya's mountain Berber see opportunity in war

Berber seek to revive identity denied under Gaddafi

Published on 26 May 2011

Author(s): Reuters/Matt Robinson

Type:  News

Berber demands for greater rights have stirred tensions, sometimes violence, in Algeria and Morocco

On entering the building after the revolution began, the first thing Mazigh Buzakhar and his colleagues did was to unplug the surveillance cameras and switch the satellite Internet provider.

The smartly furnished building in the Libyan town of Jadu belonged to an investment group led by Saif al-Islam, son of Muammar Gaddafi, and was rumoured to be used by the state security agency.

Then they began publishing, in a language banned for four decades under Gaddafi.

"For us the revolution is a revolution of a new Libya, with its own identity and root and history – it’s an Amazigh country," said Buzakhar, editor of the Tilleli newsletter in both Arabic and the language of Libya’s Berber, or Amazigh, minority in the rebel-held Western Mountains.

"We couldn’t express the Amazigh language and culture and identity. It was like you’re committing a crime, you’re threatening state security," said Buzakhar, 29, who was educated in Canada and Australia before returning to the mountains of western Libya.

Berbers, who call themselves Amazigh or "Free Ones", inhabited north Africa for thousands of years before the Arabs brought Islam to the region in the seventh century.

They remain in large numbers in Morocco and Algeria, and smaller communities in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania, and say they struggle with discrimination. Tensions between Berber and Arabs have in the past flared into violence.


Looking to a Libya without Gaddafi, the Berber say they have one key demand; that their language hold equal status with Arabic in the new Libyan constitution.

Already, the Libyan television channel of the revolution, broadcasting from Qatar, carries Berber-language news broadcasts and the Berber of the rebel-held town of Jadu plan to start up a radio station in their own language.

"We have hope that in the new constitution for a free Libya, Amazigh will be included as an official language, to be taught to all Libyans, that they have the right to learn Amazigh and also a right to express themselves in Amazigh," said Buzakhar.

"For the first time in 42 years we have news in Amazigh, we have programmes in Amazigh. Now the newspapers are being distributed in the Nafusah (Western Mountains)." "We hope one day it will be printed in an official format, and will be distributed in the whole of Libya."

The idea would be anathema to Gaddafi, who espoused pan-Arabism. Buzakhar says he and his brother were jailed late last year for contacting Berber emigre groups in Europe and for promoting Berber culture. They were released on Feb. 19, just days after the uprising that would turn to war when Gaddafi opened fire on protesters.

It remains to be seen how post-Gaddafi Libya will accommodate the competing demands of groups who have found a voice in the rebellion, let alone the more than 140 tribes and clans that form the basis of society in the absence of political life under the system created by the Libyan strongman.

Berber demands for greater rights have stirred tensions, sometimes violence, in Algeria and Morocco. For now, people in this region say the war has joined Berber and Arab in a common cause to overthrow Gaddafi.

"We are just seeking our right, as a whole Libyan people," said Colonel Tarek Zanbou, a senior rebel in the town of Berber town of Kabaw. "It‘s our right, our language." "I am a Libyan, just a Libyan, from east to west, from the sea to the deep desert."

Back to previous page