After Centuries of Oppression, a Libyan Minority Sees Hope in Qaddafi's Fall

The original inhabitants of North Africa, Amazigh (also called Berbers) may have finally won the freedom to observe their culture -- if they can convince the Arab majority to go along

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Graffiti reading "Freedom fighters of Dahra District of Tripoli", at right, and a Berber logo at left, are seen in a street in Tripoli / AP

This article is the first of three on the fate of Libya's Berber minority after Qaddafi. Read about the Berber activist movement's struggle on Wednesday and about the new Berber identity crisis on Friday.

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Hasan Abu Sagar was an 18-year-old law student and occasional poet living in Libya's capital when, in 1999, he saw his native language written down for the first time. Internet cafés had just come to the North African country and, like many university students, Abu Sagar killed time exploring the web. One day, he came across a website devoted to Tifinar, the ancient script used by the region's ethnic Berber minority, also known as Amazigh, the original inhabitants of North Africa. It hit him like a sack of bricks -- though he was Amazigh, he had no idea how to read it.

Abu Sagar's family spoke Tamazight, the Amazigh language, at home, but Muammar Qaddafi's policies had forbidden teaching the script in schools or showing any Amazigh symbols in public. That day something clicked in Abu Sagar, he told me. He decided it was unacceptable for anyone not to know their own language.

The doe-eyed, soft-spoken performer looks nothing like a covert revolutionary or rebellious youth, but appearances in Qaddafi's Libya were often deceiving. Abu Sagar and a few of his friends decided to teach themselves the script, letter-by-letter and word-by-word. It was political dissent by alphabet. They swore one other to secrecy, fearing arrest. They began to hop from one internet café to the next, changing locations every hour and never signing in with their real names. "We were very scared," Abu Sagar remembered, "people were watching everywhere."

Abu Sagar said it took him two years to master the language. Eight years after that, he would hold clandestine classes for other Amazigh who wanted to learn it. For one month last summer, 25 students convened nightly in a cave in the Nafusa Mountains, a scraggly range west of Tripoli near the Tunisian border where many of Libya's Amazigh communities still reside. Abu Sagar taught his students what he knew and he shared the Amazigh poetry he'd composed. Like many before him, his goal was to keep the language alive, despite the risks.

From Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Vandal, Arab-Muslim, and European conquerors to the policies of modern-day North African leaders, the Amazigh have been oppressed throughout their millennia-long history. This year's Arab Spring unleashed a lesser-known social movement: unprecedented Berber activism and an Amazigh cultural revival. Nowhere in the region has this new movement been more unique than in Libya, where after playing a vital role in the fight against Qaddafi, the Amazigh want their contribution to Libya's revolution acknowledged and their identity accepted. But despite the relative openness of post-Qaddafi Libya, the Amazigh face a difficult road ahead and their fate will become one of the true tests of Free Libya's freedom and its future.

Centuries of assimilation and decades of outright oppression have left the minority, which Berber scholar Bruce Maddy-Weitzman estimates today make up about 9 percent of Libya's 5.7 million people, marginalized. The Arab conquests in the seventh century promoted Arabic as the language of God and created a stigma against using Tamazight. Amazigh identity took an even harder hit from populist Arab-national sentiments promoted by the region's leaders against European colonialism, often denying Berber identity altogether. Past Amazigh cultural revivals in the region have ended with brutal repression. In a country whose future looks more and more tumultuous each day, some worry that history may repeat itself, especially if Libya's new government is hyper-nationalist.

"In the end, they kept their heads down during all the Qaddafi time. I just hope that having stuck them over the barricades they don't have them chopped off," says archaeologist and academic Elizabeth Fentress, who studies Amazigh communities and co-authored of one of the definitive books on the group's history, The Berbers. "There's a tremendous tendency in these countries for the Arab groups to say, 'Thank you very much for your help now would you shut up and start speaking Arabic again.' They [Arabs] really don't trust them or like them or want to know them."

Qaddafi was one of the worst propagators of nationalism through Arabization. To create a country out of disparate tribes that had lived under Italian occupation only a generation earlier, the Brother Leader, after taking office in 1969, played up shared Arab history. He banned texts, names, and symbols of the Amazigh to help solidify his vision for a unified Libya and help prevent a challenge to his rule.

Next door in Algeria, as Amazigh protests for national recognition in the 1980s challenged the state, Qaddafi arrested around two dozen Amazigh to quash any possibilities of a similar movement in Libya. Many of the older generation have since warned their children to keep their heads down. "Our fathers lived in fear because they saw suffering come to Amazighs who spoke up," Abu Sagar tells me. "We didn't see it, we heard about it."

But it wasn't just Qaddafi's policies that made life difficult for the Amazigh; it was their effect on the general Libyan population. Many gave up teaching their children Tamazight, few learned to read and write it, and no one could promote the culture in public -- then there was the widespread ignorance regarding Amazigh and, at times, harassment. Abu Sagar always remembered his first year of university, when a group of guys from his program stopped him on the street. "Some students started telling me 'You're Amazigh, you're Jewish -- you're not Libyan!' I tried to make them understand what is an Amazigh, we are a part of Libyan history," he told me, still uncomfortable with the memory.

In 2007, after a short period of openness with Amazigh leaders, Qaddafi changed his mind and established a counter-narrative to the Amazigh identity, claiming Libya's population was entirely Arab and that ancient Amazigh tribes had died out from a drought. Qaddafi accused colonialists of manufacturing a Berber identity to fragment the Libyan population. They suffered for his words, but they didn't forget. This and other attacks on Amazigh culture helped propel the minority to the forefront of the rebellion against Qaddafi's rule.

Cities and towns in the Nafusa mountain range were among the first to declare themselves liberated. The Amazigh formed battalions to fight against the loyalist army, pushing troops out of population centers and suffering heavy casualties.

Abu Sagar joined the Yafran Martyrs brigade, where most of his fellow rebel fighters were Amazigh. They marched on Tripoli, as brigades from the Nafusa Mountains moved west to cut off a major supply route to the capital, a significant moment in Libya's eventual liberation. Now, they are expecting a major role in Libya's future -- as well as official acknowledgement of their language and contribution to the country's history. So far, it's not looking good. Last week, the Transition National Council announced a new interim government -- none of the cabinet positions went to Amazigh.

Berber movements have aided their Arab countrymen before, only to spurned by the Arab majority. In the Algerian rebellion against French colonial rule after World War Two, Berber of Algeria's Kabylie mountains gained a reputation as fierce resistance fighters and played a critical role in expelling the French. But once the Algerian rebel movement National Liberation Front (FLN) assumed power in the 1962, they violently suppressed the Kabylie Berbers, officially banning their language and refusing to acknowledge their identity for decades.

"However much they [Libya's new government] are really keen on the Jabil Nafusa being a major part of the rebellion, the historic parallel that's closest is that the Kabylie [Berber movement] was huge in the FLN and the victory in '62 over the French," Fentress said. "The first thing the FLN do in Algeria is to kill off the leaders and attempt to smash the Berbers that had taken part, because they really see them as somebody who could be useful but you're never going to like."

The Democracy ReportBut in Libya, the Amazigh hope their contribution will end differently. Across North Africa, recent developments have spelled major gains for the Amazigh identity. In Morocco, Tamazight has finally been accepted as an official language alongside Arabic, though whether or not the appropriate measures are implemented to enact its integration into society remains to be seen. In Algeria, pockets of fierce resistance against the state, as well as mass arrests and violence continued from 1981 until 2001. Today, Tamazight has achieved national language status, though Arabic remains the official language of the state.

Berbers only make up an estimated 9 percent of the Libyan population, while they compromise 40 to 45 percent in Morocco and 20 to 25 percent in Algeria. But so far, with rights movements finally taking center stage in the region, optimism for the Amazigh struggle in North Africa is prevailing.

"This is now the new North Africa, the genie is out of the bottle, what that means is different in each place in terms official state acknowledgement. They may even get this in Libya as well," said Maddy-Weitzman, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University, who has written extensively about Berbers in North Africa. "This may be the historic moment, galvanizing the community to act as a collective in a way they never did before in their history."