This article is by Julien Chatel, a 2nd year student at King’s College London studying International Relations.
This article analyses how the Berber identity has been legitimized and protected with regard to its intentional appeal to global actors – such as the United Nations (U.N.) or non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In other words, how effective have Berber groups, specfically in Morocco and Algeria been at advancing their agenda by making their identity an international human rights issue? This article will argue that the Berber strategy has not been effective in this regard. Despite the legitimacy the Berbers have gained on the international stage, they have failed at manipulating global actors to successfully implement cultural and political policies in phase with their agenda.
The Berbers are an ethno-linguistic group spread across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger (Hoffman, 2008), speaking dialects deriving from Tamazight, the institutionalised language of the Berber people. Berbers, as a cultural group have been particularly influential in the North African states of Morocco and Algeria. They refer to themselves as Amazighs, which stands for free or noble men and will be mentioned henceforth as such.
In order to measure the success of a strategy, this article takes two elements into account: legitimacy and public policies. Drawing on post-structural concepts of identity, discourse analysis and performativity, legitimacy is analysed hereafter with regard to political recognition in public discourses. The ‘effectiveness’ of public policies is studied in comparison with the Berber Manifesto (Morocco) given the similarity of claims from Berber movements in Morocco and Algeria. While calling for protection of human rights, the manifesto makes nine requests:
- Integration of Amazigh issues in the public debate
- Recognition in the constitution of Tamazight as a national language
- Economic support for Amazigh majority regions
- The teaching of Tamazight at school and institutional codifying of the language
- Recognition of the historical role of the Amazigh people
- Use of Tamazight in public service
- Rehabilitation of Amazigh art
- End Arabization of toponyms
- Financial assistance for Amazigh cultural associations.
These demands will henceforth be used as indicators to assess the advancement of the Amazigh agenda.
Furthermore, this article only addresses the international development of the movement since the independence of both Morocco and Algeria in 1956 and 1962 respectively, though it is important to note Amazigh movements began as far back as the 1930s. However, it was only in the 1980s that the Amazigh turned to global actors to break out of their postcolonial situation.
This article will analyse how Amazigh questions were successfully politicized and gained legitimacy, contrasting this case with the use of global narratives in identity construction. This leads to exposing the set of deceiving domestic cultural policies undertaken by both Moroccan and Algerian governments in an effort to co-opt the movement. Together with underlying Amazigh nationalism, this contributes to the isolation of the movement from the international scene.
A Successful Politicization of the Amazigh Question.
Amazigh groups have suffered from under-representation ever since independence. In Morocco, post-colonial state-building favoured the Northern Arab identity of the country. This resulted in tensions between the government and the southern Amazigh community, with state violence used to uphold national unity in a colonial-like which ultimately culminated in a three-month rebellion in the Rif Mountains in December 1985. However, the insurgent Amazigh movements failed to reverse the Arabization policy. Nevertheless, the memory of the insurgency continues to shape the country’s political identity, fuelling an “ethnic fragmentation” (Silverstein, p. 93) that will be addressed further in this article.
In an attempt to subsume the Amazigh movement, until the 1980s, the Moroccan government applied a centralized policy of Arabization through media and schooling. Rejection of the Amazigh identity was the norm. The notion of ‘Berber’ was dubbed a colonial invention and was a taboo in Moroccan society. Hence, in Morocco, post-colonial structures remained tainted with colonial-like repressive behaviour. The Amazigh movement grew in this context of ethnic, political, and economic disparity.
In Algeria, it is significant that the nationalist movement was born in France with the creation of L’Etoile Nord Africaine in 1926. The movement arrived in Algeria in 1936. But in the meantime, it had been structured around the ideas of Arabhood and Islam – that of the Algerian Arab workers. Following independence the Algerian uprisings of the Kabyle Amazighs were repressed by the newly formed government. Two elements reveal the pervasiveness of colonial structures following Algerian independence. Firstly, the colonial state apparatus was used for state violence against minorities. For instance, the 1980 riots that led to the famous trial of 1985 were heavily repressed, resulting in the perpetuation of the policy of making political prisoners. Secondly, uti possedetis, the principle that “successor states are entitled to the international boundaries of the predecessors” (Joffé, 1987, p. 34) was upheld by Algeria to keep access to large reserves of oil in Amazigh areas. Hence, in the case of Algeria, the construction of a homogenous Arab nationalism and state-building led to the application of ethnic double standards towards the Kabyle Amazighs.
In this context, the Amazigh movement began to frame its identity in Human Rights terms in order to produce discourse aimed at a global audience. The objective was to gain the protection of the U.N. and thus advance the Amazigh agenda. To understand this requires discourse analysis, with a special emphasis on the 1985 Algerian trial. In December 1985, a trial of 23 political prisoners was held by the Court of State Security. This rare tribune was used by the prisoners to reconstitute the Amazigh identity while criticizing the Algerian government. The latter underestimated the highly public dimension the trial was going to have. Between April and June 1980, Amazigh activists were jailed after violent protests.
In turn, the Imedyazen collective, a Paris-based organization advocating for the preservation of Amazigh culture and language mobilized the international press and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights. Simultaneously, Amazigh associations released in February 1985 a flyer calling on the state to uphold “respect for human rights” and “freedom of expression”. Significantly, when the Algerian League for Human Rights was created in December 1984, the role of Amazigh culture was minimized: the focus was on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
This tactic succeeded in grabbing international attention, with both Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights beginning inquires on the motives for detention of the prisoners. Under pressure, the regime accepted foreign observers to witness the trial. Hence, when the trial started, the situation had already been under heavy international scrutiny. During the trial, prisoners spoke of their experiences as Amazighs in Algeria. For instance, Ali-Fewzi Rebaine finished his speech saying “I was born a free man in the fullest sense of the term. I will always remain that way” (Goodman., p. 113) His use of ‘free man’ embodies the strategy at stake during the trial: ‘Free man’ connotes as much his human rights-based discourse as his Amazigh roots. Amrane Ait Hammouda narrated his story as a folkloric Amazigh tale, often repeating ‘Once upon a time’ and traditional Kabyle proverbs. Only at the end did he briefly mention Human Rights, as a conclusion to his tale – or as an interpretative framework for the Amazigh condition. Others tried to demonstrate the legal non-conformity of the government’s actions with the U.N. Charter, the Bandung Conference Resolution, and the African Charter of 1981 (ibid.). Under international pressure, despite condemning the prisoners, the Algerian regime dropped some of these symbolic charges. Finally, in 1987 it allowed the creation of associations without state permission, thus retrospectively somewhat recognising the legitimacy of Amazigh actions. This trial was the first time Human Rights and the Amazigh condition were specifically linked in discourse highlighting the role of the U.N. and of NGOs in the promotion of the Amazigh agenda. The U.N. has given a tribune to Amazigh issues, thus granting them legitimacy.
In 1991, the Moroccan association Tamayut translated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into Tamazight. In turn, in 1993, it was invited by the U.N. to participate in an international human rights conference. Before attending, some Amazigh organizations drafted a document arguing that Amazighs corresponded to the U.N. definition of “indigenous minority populations”. Hence, under international law, their rights had to be protected. Idbelkassem, a member of Tamaynut, became a central figure of the movement, being appointed a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Like in Algeria in 1985, appealing to the U.N. also meant criticizing governments for their failure to abide by U.N. laws. In 1990, Amazigh associations denounced the failure to implement the “International Year of Indigenous Peoples”. The U.N. acknowledged their struggle, establishing the “International Decade of Indigenous Peoples” in 1994, complete with a committee in charge of protecting and implementing Amazigh rights. Tamaynut was also attributed an observer’s status at the Human Rights Commission.
In Algeria, the radical Kabyle Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK) has expressed stronger demands. Their 2001 manifesto demands an autonomous status, similar to the Spanish Autonomous Region of Cataluña. The document was sent to the U.N., the European Union (E.U.), the Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme, Human Rights Watch and to Nelson Mandela. Despite remaining marginal, this occurrence reinforces the importance of the U.N., and more broadly global actors, in advancing the agenda and giving legitimacy to repressed minority groups on a domestic scale.
This international legitimacy has led to a shift in domestic political discourses since the 1990s. There is a political will address the Amazigh identity in both Morocco and Algeria. In Morocco, under Hassan II, in August 1994 the monarchy acknowledged the role of Amazighs in the history of the country. Hassan II went even further in July 1995 during Trône Day, Morocco’s national day of celebration.
His speech opposed the policies of systematic Arabization by upholding the notions of individual and collective liberties. In 1999, Mohammed VI succeeded to his father and the recognition of Amazigh issues has continued to increase in public discourse. In his Discours du Trône in July 2001, he put the emphasis on the pluralistic nature of Morocco in which Tamazight would contribute to the democratization of the country. Amazigh issues are also referred to in the political sphere. In 1998 the opposition arrived in power. Despite being Arab centred, it assured the “Berber dimension” would be taken into account (Feliu, 2004, p. 409).
In Algeria, in 1994, following a long school strike in Kabylie, the government announced that “Islam, Arabism, Tamazight (…) should have their place and should be strengthened in the institutions, without any exclusion or marginalization” (Maddy-Weitzman, 2011, p. 46). It also announced the creation of an executive body in charge with the rehabilitation of the Tamazight culture. More generally, all political parties, even the FLN, have had to clarify and moderate their posture on the Kabyle question. Thus, in both Morocco and Algeria, the Amazigh movement has gained in legitimacy in recent years.
In light of this first analysis, one can conclude Amazighs’ strategy of appealing to global actors with regard to Human Rights has been successful in breaking out of their post-colonial situation to gain legitimacy.
The Role of Global Identities
Drawing on de Orellana’s work (2015), one can argue that the Amazigh movement has sought to redefine itself in relation to global identities. The discursive strategy of Amazighs has been similar to that of the Moroccan government with regard to the Western Sahara. In his paper, de Orellana explains how Moroccan diplomacy framed the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro as a terrorist threat to give international legitimacy to its occupation of the Western Sahara. Diplomatic communication channels were parasitized with counterterrorist concerns, allowing this local issue to become globalised as an international security issue.
Similarly, the Amazigh strategy can be read as an attempt to align itself with global identity polarizations: Human Rights vs Repressive Regimes. In the same way ‘Communism’ or ‘terrorism’ elevates local issues to the global security agenda, ‘human rights’ is a powerful label to be associated with. However, ‘terrorism’ and ‘human rights’ entail a very different set of consequences. ‘Terrorism’ often leads to breaches of sovereignty by regional organizations or states, as exemplified by the ‘War on Terror’. But ‘human rights’ actions tend to focus on shaming policies by NGOs. This is an element in explaining the deceiving cultural policies implemented by the governments addressed hereafter.
The domestic nature of the Amazigh agenda makes it hard for NGOs and the U.N. to influence policy-making beyond the limits of sovereignty. However, identity-construction within global narratives remains key. Post-structuralism and critical theory thus highlight the performative aspect of discourse in gaining legitimacy.
A Set of Deceiving Cultural Policies
Despite the recognition Amazigh movements have gained on the international stage political legitimacy has not translated into strict application of the Amazigh agenda.
In Morocco, the Discours du Trône of Mohammed VI in July 2001 announced the creation of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) under the pressure of the international community. In turn, Morocco was praised for its progressive stance. However, within the Amazigh community, activists feared this would be used as a tactic for dividing the movement. More precisely, they had concerns the National Institutes would reinforce the power by co-opting the Amazigh agenda. These fears are evidenced by two policies: schooling policies and script debates. In Morocco, after Mohammed VI’s Discours du Trône, Tamazight started to be taught at school. However, associations complained about the poor implementation of the policy: teachers only had a two-week training and poorly designed textbooks. Furthermore, Tamazight was taught merely as a springboard for learning Arabic.
In Algeria, Tamazight had been implemented in schools since 1995 but teachers were similarly under-prepared, lacked material and a unified script for the language. Moreover, coverage is patchy. In 2006 for example, Tamazight was only taught in 11 Kabyle counties over 48 (Maddy-Weitzman, 2011). Furthermore, Tamazight was only officially recognised in 2011 in an attempt to quell dissent during the Arab Spring demonstrations. Hence, Tamazight is not effectively recognised or taught. One can argue that the intention of the government is merely to ‘calm’ Kabyle resentment. On the debates surrounding the adoption of a script for Tamazight, Moroccan and Algerian governments tried to contain the Amazigh movement within an Arab culture and symbolic framework. Amazigh language was previously merely oral. Hence, to teach it and perpetuate it, a script had to be chosen between Latin, Arab, or Tifinagh.
In Algeria, the government heavily tried to implement the use of the Arabic script to subsume Kabyle culture within an Arab identity. However, most Amazigh Kabyle academics use the Latin script. The confusion spreads to the school system and is a factor contributing to a significant drop from 34% to 28% in Amazigh speakers between 2001 and 2011 (ibid.). In Morocco, the tifinagh script was adopted under government pressures. Associations were displeased as they saw this as an attempt to divide them from their Kabyle counterparts in Algeria, thus making transnational communication between different Amazigh communities more difficult (Silverstein, 2010).
In many ways, it may be argued governments continue pursue the policy of Arabization they officially adopted until the 1980s, merely in a different form. This is in evidence of the toponyms given and of birth names policies. Moroccan Amazigh associations have been complaining about the ongoing Arabization of Amazigh toponyms: Ifni becomes Sidi Ifni, Askourene becomes Sekkoura, and Tazagourt becomes Zagoura (Silverstein, 2010). In Morocco, Amazigh names such as Illy or Dihya were added in 2009 to a list of forbidden names because they were deemed ‘un-Moroccan’. This has again caught the attention of NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch which wrote to the Interior Minister asking for explanations, following which the Moroccan government backed down and declared that all Amazigh names were Moroccan names (Human Rights Watch, 2010).
However, for the most part, global actors such as the U.N. or the E.U. continue to praise Morocco and Algeria for the pluralistic turn their discourses towards the Amazigh minority have taken rather than engaging more closely with the biased cultural policies implemented by the governments. Ironically, one could say that both governments have adopted a strategy remarkably similar to that of the Amazigh movement. Echoing post-structural notions of performative discourses in identity-making, Morocco and Algeria have aligned their rhetoric to that of the U.N. and of global NGOs, giving enough signs of good faith for their policies to be overlooked. In this sense, discursive framing works both ways. For governments, as for minorities, it is a way to gain legitimacy in the international commnity. But it does not necessarily translate into policies that respect the spirit of Amazigh demands.
Given how the Moroccan and Algerian governments have co-opted such tactics, it must be recognised that appealing to global actors has its limits. Legitimacy does not always equal sincere policy implementation.
A Looming International Isolation
The ineffectiveness of the Amazigh strategy on a global scale is exemplified by two discursive tensions. First, the movement has not endorsed some key issues of the international Human Rights agenda. Second, its political objectives remain ambiguous. These two factors contribute to an international indifference which highlights that legitimacy needs constant performance to be preserved; or as Campbell puts it, a “stylized repetition of acts” (Campbell, 1998, p. 10).
A key difficulty with the deployment of Human Rights values by the Amazigh movement has is its failure to accept entirely the Human Rights agenda of international organisations on a global scale. For instance, the nationalist trend of the movement does not support the Palestinian cause. But it supports Morocco’s claims on the Western Sahara. For Silverstein, this is due to a form of underlying racism within the movement. Indeed, Amazigh organisations have seen in the Palestinian cause a form of Arab hegemony. This perceived “Arabo-Islamic Imperialism” has led many to identify with the struggles of Israel (Silverstein and Crawford, 2004), an issue reinforced by the lack of legitimacy of co-opted Cultural Institutes. On the Western Sahara, the movement has allied with the regime against the claims of self-determination of the Sahrawi in order to gain domestic legitimacy. For instance, in 1975 the Amazigh movement followed Hassan II in his crossing into Western Sahara territories, thus recognising the nationalistic claims of reunification (de Orellana 2009).
More generally in the South of Morocco, Amazighs have clashed with the ‘black’ Iqblyin minorities who have been increasingly occupying political offices in the region. As Silverstein puts it, this “ethnic fragmentation” (2010, pp. 90-93) shows how the conflict for land and the international agenda has become racialized. Hence, one could argue that despite having been second-class citizens, Amazighs tend to consider themselves a first-class ethnicity. These underlying nationalistic dynamics are a factor in explaining the refusal to endorse Palestine and support Moroccan claims on the Western Sahara. Thus, the movement is prevented from fully capitalizing on its Human Rights rhetoric as Amazigh discourses turn away from the rhetoric that made it legitimate in the first place.
The ambiguity of the Amazigh political project also contributes to its possible distance from global actors. The model for Amazigh recognition is the Catalan region in Spain. Political demands are especially vivid in Algeria where a Kabyle minority asks for autonomy. Their representatives argue that building an autonomous Kabylie is to “build a modern, pluralistic and democratic Algeria” (Maddy-Weitzman, 2011, p. 189). They explicitly link their project of “flexible regionalisation” with the functioning of the E.U.
Despite its global discourse, the main opponents of the Amazigh movement remain national governments. This is reflected in the ambivalent relationship Amazigh organisations have with globalisation: even though they reach to global actors for legitimacy, they still frame theirs as a struggle against globalisation, presenting the latter as “a movement that is in essence against cultural identities” (ibid., p. 132).
This has led to contradictory discourses, as Rollinde and Feliu argue. On the one hand, there is a mainstream inclusive cultural discourse that is framed in Human Rights terms. It asks for rights to be implemented in education and media and argues that all Moroccans have Amazigh roots. On the other hand, this discourse cohabits with a more negative approach which believes that Amazigh and Arab identities are incompatible, reflecting the nationalist trend of the movement. The negativist approach is more political than cultural. But it is growing due to the governments’ unwillingness to sincerely address Amazigh demands.
Social dynamics have tended to reinforce this trend. For instance, in December 2003, Amazigh militants were knifed at the University of Errachadia by Marxist students for refusing to take part in an exam strike in support of the Palestinian intifada (Silverstein, 2010). In Algeria, in 2001 the ‘Black Spring’ revolts were severely repressed by the regime. Following the death of a Kabyle high school student in a gendarmerie, riots erupted against the pro-Arab Police, leading to approximatively 200 deaths (Amrouche, 2009).
The ‘ethnic fragmentation’ lens is useful in explaining the contradictory set of discourses produced by the Amazigh movement. At the domestic level, it has supported the Moroccan government in the Western Sahara, while criticizing it for its non-respect of Human Rights against Amazighs. At the international level, it has tended not to support the Palestinian cause, while advocating for Human Rights. The movement has increasingly been developing in ways that contradict its original Human Rights rhetoric – which the referenced literature does not address.
Underlying forms of nationalism have led to a coexistence of very different discourses that challenge the original global legitimacy Amazighs gained.
In conclusion, this article shows the Amazigh strategy has not been effective in using global actors to advance its domestic agenda. Indeed, despite having gained domestic political legitimacy by appealing to global actors, the Amazigh movement has to a large extent been co-opted by governments which implement a distorted Arabized version of their Manifesto. Issues such as teaching or integration in the public debate and in the Constitution have suffered from this. It shows the limits of “global identities” in giving agency to ethnic minorities. The approach of the Moroccan and Algerian governments fuels Amazigh nationalism. This has somewhat shifted Amazigh discourse away from the Human Rights agenda of global actors. In other words, it has forced Amazighs out of the discourse that gave them legitimacy in the first place. In light of this, it can be argued that the movement might be internationally isolated. Failure to re-align with international Human Rights discourses could lead to a further loss of their already limited legitimacy on the international stage.
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