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Will the US Respond to Amazigh Rights in Libya?

NEW YORK — “Can you imagine what just a few words from Hillary Clinton to the Libyan goverrnment would mean?”

Allen Moucer was referring to the cause that had brought him about thirty other members of the small, East Coast Amazigh community out to demonstrate in front of New York’s Plaza Hotel. Libya’s largest ethnic minority, the Amazigh (or Berbers), were not given any ministries in the newly named second transitional government of Libya, although they represent 10 to 15 percent of the population and speak a distinct language. Libyan Amazigh have been protesting ever since the new government formed, on November 23rd, and over the weekend held solidarity demonstrations in New York, Toronto, Montreal, and Paris.

Since the so-called Berber spring massacre in Algeria in 1980, Amazigh in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and other North African countries have joined their efforts to draw attention to their oppression and marginalization in most of the countries where they live. (There are around 10 million Amazigh in Algeria, perhaps 18 million in Morocco, 800,000 in Libya, and others in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and the Canary Islands.) So, although Mr. Moucer and the other well-behaved protestors in front of the Plaza were Algerian, they came out in the biting cold to support their Libyan counterparts.

It was a standing protest, and everyone wore sober, conventional American clothes and looked like the East Coast professionals they were. They carried American and Amazigh flags, but no Libyan flags. In fact, one of the well-made signs condemned the Libyan NTC, or National Transitional Council. Passersby seemed mildly curious at what must have struck many as mysterious, cryptic signs: “Tamazight is not negotiable” and  “Imazighen Means Free People.” (The most accessible was, “Stop Discrimination in Libya.”)

Tamazight is the ancient language of the Amazigh peoples, and Imazighen is their name for themselves. But most Americans, who have only recently become confident that they can locate Libya on a map, would probably have no idea that these words refer to an often life-and-death struggle of a population around the same size as the Kurds, about 30 million.

This pan-national solidarity is both a strength and a weakness of the Amazigh, as it is of the Kurds. On my last trip to Libya, in October and November, Arabs complained about the Amazigh’s display of their pan-national flag: “We have one flag in Libya, why do they need another one?” Barely acquainted with the mechanisms of democracy, it was useless to explain that in the US, many ethnic groups like the Irish and Italians and Puerto Ricans proudly display their national flag, while being no less American patriots.

I didn’t have the heart to say what I was thinking, that Hillary Clinton usually gets on the side of freedom just after everyone else has, and that I wouldn’t hold my breath. The Obama administration, at least in its public pronouncements, has overlooked error after error by the NTC. I think they just don’t want to have much to do with Libya, or to get sucked into what could be messy internal power struggles. After Iraq, will the US have the heart to exert its influence in Muslim countries? Doubtful, at least under Obama.

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