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Libya’s Amazigh: Natural Allies of Democracy and the West

The United States sometimes seems to make foreign policy in the light of Groucho Marx’s adage that he wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have him: we reward those who hurt and betray us while ignoring our real friends. We put up with murder from the likes of Pakistan and Russia, while giving the cold shoulder to India and the democracies of Eastern Europe.

We seem to be heading this way in our approach to Libya and North Africa too. We’re turning a blind eye to the endless missteps of Libya’s National Transitional Council, especially those that empower Islamic extremists. And we ignore the Libyan ethnic group that are our natural allies, the Amazigh (or Berbers). Recently they have got the short end of the stick, with zero government ministries in the lineup of the new seven-month cabinet. The Amazigh, including the more diffuse Tuaregs spread across the vast southern desert, may number as many as 800,000 of Libya’s close to six million citizens. Anecdotally, the Amazigh of Zwara and the Nafusa Mountains seem more educated than average Libyans. Yet they are vastly under-represented in nearly every branch of government.

Many Libyan Arabs speak of Libya as an “Arab country,” oblivious of the 10 to 20 percent of their fellow countrymen who identify as Amazigh. This seems particularly common among Libyans who support some sort of pan-Arab activity. One young fighter quoted in the Daily Telegraph said, “This is Arab unity” in approving of the trip by former al-Qaeda commander Abdel Hakim Belhaj, top military commander in Tripoli, to meet with the Free Syrian Army leaders in Turkey.

The riposte I’ve heard from Amazigh is that all Libyans are Amazigh, not Arab—it’s just that many won’t admit it and have lost their Tamazight language. In fact, the Amazigh would rather not speak Arabic, and amongst themselves, they don’t. Their Tamazight language is an ancient one, probably older than Arabic—there are inscriptions going back three thousand years, and rock art in the Sahara going back eight thousand.

Like their brethren in Algeria, where they are about 30 percent of the population, or in Morocco, where they are 60 percent, the Amazigh are largely immune to Arab calls for jihad or extremist activity—because they are not Arabs, and are not particularly keen on the Arabs. As one Amazigh from Zwara said to me, “I don’t like the Palestinians. They have caused us nothing but trouble for forty years. They talk about Israel taking their land. But what about the Arabs who took our land?”

The Amazigh are less inclined to view the world through the lens of Islam than most Libyans are. While the Amazigh in Libya are now Ibadi Muslims, they are acutely conscious that they were not always Muslim. Before the Arab invasions of the 7th century and after, the Amazigh were quite happily Jewish, and then Christian. Of course, the Arabs weren’t always Muslim either, but their entrance into the historical record mainly came with Islam. The Amazigh are at pains to remind foreigners that the great Greek and Roman ruins of Libya are the legacy of their people, too—and not of the Arabs, who arrived hundreds of years later. When I wondered aloud to Essa el Hamisi of Zwara why so many people in Zwara seemed to take an interest in classical ruins, and tried to protect them, in contrast to most Libyans’ indifference, he replied, “They’re not their ruins!”

While the National Transitional Council has promoted Islamists and former al-Qaeda fighters, the Amazigh are inclined to Western, secular values. Zwara is so far the only town to have held elections for its mejlis mahali (or local council)—and they chose a US-educated Ph.D. in philosophy, a far cry from the Muslim Brotherhood/Salafi types favored in many other small towns. One of the handful of Amazigh on Libya’s NTC, Othman Ben Sasi, who represents the Amazigh city of Zwara, is also one of the most liberal members. He believes in separation of religion and the state and in a 50 percent quota for women in the eventual Libyan Parliament. (Right now, there are just two women among the 24 recently named government ministers in the interim government.)

Of course, nothing would hurt the Amazigh in Libya more than being accused of being pawns for US interests. Like any minority group, they are vulnerable to the charge—often leveled by Qaddafi—of being “foreign agents.” The US should not openly intervene on behalf of the Amazigh. But through more discreet channels, we ought to lobby the new transitional government to give them their due.

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