The Berbers, essence of the Mediterranean culture

Although it is quite complicated to make a census of minorities spread in various continents, some statistics have shown that the world’s population is made up of hundreds of ethnic groups. Among them, in addition to the Chinese Han Dynasty considered as the largest ethnic group in the world, representing the 19.73% of the global population, the Berbers did not go unnoticed. The Berbers are autochthonous North African inhabitants of present particularly in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Western Sahara, Mauritania, but also in some countries of West Africa such as Niger and Mali, where there is the Tuareg, a people Berber-speaking Tuareg language, one of the many Berber dialects.

Moreover, the Berber populations are present, even if with a modest amount, also in the Canary Islands where, however, the Berber language is no longer spoken. Indeed, the other North African countries communicate with what is called Tamazight or Berber. Given its vast extent, it is also composed of many dialects like tashelhi, the language of Chleuh, a Berber ethnic group of Morocco which lives especially in the region of Souss. In percentage, in the Moroccan state the people who speak the Berber language is equal to 60%. For this reason, it is considered the first with a higher percentage rather than Algeria (30%), Libya (23%) and Tunisia (1%). Furthermore, the Tuareg tribes of the Sahara Desert are also Berbers and the current number of Berbers in Egypt is very small, estimated at 30,000 people, mostly in Siwa Oasis and in the region of Beni Suef. However, in ancient times the part of Nile was inhabited by Berbers, including the Delta and all the oases in the Libyan Desert. In pre-Dynastic Egypt, the Berbers were the dominant population of Egypt (before its invasion by the Pharaohs).

Hence, the indigenous population of the Berbers is very wide. It is not very correct to call it “minority” but better “majority” ethnic, thanks to its linguistic and cultural baggage. In Italian, the word berbero comes from the French berbère taking over the pronunciation of Arabic Maghreb barbar. In this way, there is a link with the Greek and Latin words: barbarus and βάρβαρος. They mean “barbarians”, group of individuals who did not speak the language of the ancient and did not share their culture. They were considered strangers, so minorities.

An ethnic minority often is evaluated as a subordinate social group that is not a reality politically dominant in a given society. After a long period of social, political and economic discrimination caused by the colonialism, the Berbers have been able to really be Masiri (or “free individuals”) becoming driving forces of democratic renewal in their country form the eighties. In fact, in Tamazight that is the language of Berbers, the Berber word is translated in the singular like “Amazigh” (plural “Imazighen”) and means “free man”. It highlights the opportunity to freely exercise their language and culture. More than ability or opportunity, we could really talk about right. The Berber people have fought hard for democracy and the protection of human rights. For example, in October 1994 in Algeria about 100,000 Berbers protested for the release of the pop singer Lounes Matoub. The artist, very involved in the movement for the rights of the Berbers, was kidnapped in September 25th by Muslim extremists of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) who had immediately condemned to death. With a general strike that paralyzed the daily life in Kabylia, the region where the greatest number of Berbers live, the immediate release of Matoub was required. The singer was released two weeks later but, since 1992, many Berbers were victims of terrorist attacks. There was not the conception that a minority would have the right to rebel for a dignified life. In Algeria, Hocine Ait Ahmed, secretary general of the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS) is considered an exemplary figure having fought for an Algerian democracy. With important figures like Ahmend and also that of Saïd Sadi, President of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) until 2012, many Berbers continue to be active in Algeria through a great democratic movement to prevent the destruction of their culture.

Anyway, there are countless examples of Amazigh repression and violations of human rights under North African regimes. Many Berbers were massacred in Mali and Niger after them several revolts for self-determination. In Morocco from 1958 to 1959, the Moroccan army fought the Rif Mountains, Berber tribes rebels who opposed the government of the dynasty Alaoui. The riots were repressed violently, causing thousands of losses. In addition, a very important event was the approval of the new Moroccan constitution that took place July 1th of 2011. It recognized officially the Berber language and the Amazigh culture as part of a national identity no longer exclusively Arab-Muslim. The article 5 of the Moroccan Constitution states that Arabic is the official language of the state. The State is committed to the protection and development of the Arabic language, as well as the promotion of its use. Even the Amazigh is an official language of the State, as the common heritage of all Moroccans without exception. An organic law defines the implementation process of the official nature of this language, as well as the modalities of its integration in teaching and in the priority areas of public life. It was an essential goal because it was also a priority of the claims listed in the Charte dAgadir (1991) and in the Amazigh Manifesto (2000). However, the wording chosen for this article was ambiguous and it left room for dangerous interpretations. In the first version, the Arabic language and the Berber were included in the same sentence, considered both official languages on an equal footing. After the revision made by Moatassim, Arabic and Amazigh are implemented in two separate paragraphs, where the second is hierarchically subordinate to the first. For this reason, the Amazigh Observatory for Rights and Freedoms, the largest association for the number of Moroccan Berber members, decided to boycott the constitutional referendum. The confederation was aware that a possible improvement would be only temporary.

In fact, there is still a deep contradiction between the Arabs and Berbers. For example, Tadla Azilal is a region with a strong presence of Moroccan Berber. Here, a high rate of poverty and illiteracy exist. Therefore, after many years, the Berbers have not yet obtained full independence from the Arab rule in North Africa. This is caused mainly by the so-called policy of Arabization that want to impose an education based on the Arabic language among North African states. These policies would be designed to implement a process of decolonization by replacing the French language with Arabic. In reality, doing so it has created another type of colonialism which, though distinct from the European one, tried to impose brutally wanting to confirm Arabic as the official language and the prohibition of Tamazight. The result is that the Tamazight is not systematically taught in all the countries of North Africa, creating a significant disadvantage for children Amazigh who are often forbidden to speak their native language at school and are violently punished if they do so.

Such linguistic repression has not largely benefited the development of the language of the Berbers. Some opponents argue that the rights for Tamazight is too difficult to learn, or that dialects are too disparate. The point is that these problems cannot be solved if there is still a strong discrimination against Amazigh.

Jointly with issues of language, Amazigh activists struggle to promote the rights in general, such as those of women. Thus, they are convinced that they will manage to achieve global recognition and to be considered truly Masiri, free people.

The Berber population proves to have a strong national pride. Despite the constant threats, it tries in every mode to ensure the development of democracy and the defense of human rights. Mistakenly Amazigh is often forgotten; indeed, it has to be taken as a point of reference for understanding and expand the consideration that great changes are possible only when reality is seen not from the center but rather from the periphery.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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