The Berbers, orImazighen (plural of Amazigh), represent the indigenous population of the North African region, where they have resided for over 4000 years, well before the Arab conquest. The group currently represents between 40 and 50 percent of Morocco’s population and between 25 and 30 percent of Algerians. Berber communities exist across the region, with small minorities stretching from Mali to Egypt.
The Berbers are a significant part of Maghrebi culture and society, and they are fighting for a greater presence in the national narrative. Throughout the post-independence era, and in particular the last thirty years, Berbers have voiced cultural and political demands through an increasingly vocal Pan-Amazigh movement, which calls for greater political pluralism and respect for Amazigh history and culture. But there are differences between the history and politicization of Berber movements in Algeria and Morocco, the two countries with most of North Africa’s Berber population.
In the case of Algeria, the Berber question is seen as a form of radical politics, as a result of a history of protests anchored in the Kabylia region. In Morocco, the increasingly vocal Amazigh protest movement has traditionally been more focused on linguistic and cultural demands. Both communities were active members of protest efforts in their respective countries during the Arab Spring. They were also active during uprisings in other North African countries, such as Libya and Tunisia. In these ways, Imazighen political movements have become integral elements in holding leaders accountable for their promises of reform in various North African states.
The Politicization of Berber Identity in Algeria
Scholars tend to agree that the key factors catalyzing the politicization of Algeria’s Berbers relate to the nature of the Algerian state and the overwhelming Arabization program that began under President Hourari Boumediene.
In its immediate post-independence years, the Algerian state was socialist, unitary, and emphasized the importance of a single nationalist narrative based on an Arab-Islamic identity. French Jacobinism played a role in framing this unitary nationalism, as the newly independent state began to recover from 130 years of French colonial rule.
This emerging Algerian identity was tightly regulated by the state and did not leave much room for Berber culture and history. Kabyle, the region where two-thirds of Algeria’s Berber population reside, was particularly hostile to these realities.
After the Nile Delta in Egypt, Kabyle is the most densely-populated rural region in North Africa and its residents have a long history of migration to urban Algiers and France. Kabyles were overly represented in the rise of Algeria’s nationalist movement and the National Liberation Front (FLN) during the war for independence. They also played an influential role in Algeria’s post-independence administration because of their competency in French; Kabyle was predominantly a Tamazight and French speaking area.
This unique experience left a linguistic and ideological mark on the small region, which was considered the “vanguard” and “spearhead” of the Pan-Berberist movements in the 1970s and 80s. The Arabization programs greatly threatened Kabyles’ place in the political system and administration, as well as the vibrancy of the Berber language and culture.
Algeria’s 1980 “Berber Spring” was far from a burst of revolutionary fervor against the Algerian regime. Instead, it was the result of several institutional processes: the Arabization program in Algerian public schools, Berber cultural collectives in Paris, student governance mechanisms in Algerian universities, and finally the rise of the Berber question in the international press and human rights scene.
The mass protests that took place in 1980 were the first major demonstrations against the political regime. They erupted over an issue directly linked to Berber identity, namely, the canceling of a lecture by a Berber poet at Tizi Ouzou University in Kabyle. The Algerian Berber Spring also had an important influence on the Pan-Berber (and eventual Pan-Amazigh) movement, as well as the political awareness of Berber communities in Morocco. The police crackdown against protests allowed activists to mobilize support throughout the 1980s. When formal political pluralism was introduced in 1989, Berbers seized the opportunity to take part in the democratic process and continued to voice their demands for their cultural and political rights.
In Algeria, Berber identity politics has largely been shaped by events in Kabyle. The 2001 Black Spring, which lasted from April to mid-June 2001, represented a significant shift in the question of Berber identity in Kabyle. During this time, the region witnessed a series of protests in reaction to police brutality, which catalyzed the development of various movements calling for greater political reforms for all Algerians. The demonstrations were not focused on issues of Berber identity. Instead, they represented a deep seated rejection of police violence and La Hogra, or regime impunity.
These issues were not unique to Kabyle, but rather were national level problems. Nevertheless, demonstrations did not resonate around the country thanks, in part, to the involvement of “Berber” political parties, the Front for Socialist Forces (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), as well as media portrayals of the demonstrations in the Algerian and French press as identity-focused.
Divisions in the “Coordinations” movements, the short-lived protest movement that articulated protesters’ platform, the failure to distinguish between long and short-term demands, and the regime’s ability to play factions off of one another, made the revolt falter.
The Algerian state recognized the Amazigh language, Tamazight, as a national language in 2002. This was different from adopting it as an official language, as Morocco did in response to Arab Spring demands in 2011. This subsequent period was marked by a series of state promises for greater cultural integration, including Tamazight instruction in schools and the language’s use in media broadcasts, all of which have been haphazardly implemented. The Berber allied parties, such as the FFS and RCD, have continuously boycotted presidential elections and were among key members of the opposition coalition that met in June 2014 to challenge Bouteflika’s controversial re-election.
While the Amazigh movement may be less of a political priority for the Algerian state, it is nonetheless an integral part of Algeria’s movement for greater democracy, and is likely to remain so.
Berber Identity and Amazigh Activism in Morocco
Many scholars often say Morocco’s Berber politics are fundamentally different because the country does not have an area like Kabyle. Berbers in Moroccan regions like the Rif, which has a unique history of republicanism, migration, revolt, and poverty, could potentially display more confrontational politics. But, the country’s Berber movement has historically been more focused on cultural and linguistic issues, like making official recognition of Tamazight their key demand.
While cultural issues have been at the center of Berber activism in Morocco, the community still has a history of political mobilization that cannot be ignored. To this day, Berbers in Morocco have made demands that, while couched in cultural terms, have decidedly political implications. This politics of culture has been a double-edged sword for the community, facilitating both cooptation by and resistance toward the Moroccan monarchy.
Morocco’s Berber community is the largest in North Africa and has a long history of resistance, including participating in the revolt against Spanish rule under the revolutionary Moroccan leader Al-Khattabi and establishing the Rif Republic of 1921-1926. Berbers played an important role in the Moroccan Liberation Army, which fought the French.
“After independence, the three main actors on the political scene were the King, the Istiqlal, and the Berber movement.” The Berber resented Istiqlal, the Moroccan party that was a beacon of Arab-Islamic nationalism in Morocco. This resentment, along with Berber resistance against Morocco’s centralized administration, or Makhzen, resulted in a series of revolts in the late 1950’s in the Rif region, which were violently crushed by Crown Prince Hassan and the army. A strong Berber consciousness developed during this period, in reaction to the hegemony of the Istiqlal and its attempt to exert administrative prowess over rural areas in Morocco.
Feeling alienated by Istiqlal, many Berbers showed their discontent through various political avenues. According to some scholars, the most popular of these were monarchism. The formation of the Mouvement Populaire, as a rural-based political party, facilitated the Berber community’s alliance with the monarchy. The movement also buttressed the push toward a multi-party system that helped cultivate Morocco’s current inter-party rivalries and palace co-optation of politics.
To secure their own place in the new national order, during the post-independence period, Berbers dominated some of the most powerful institutions in Morocco, such as the Army and the Ministry of the Interior. As Oxford University professor Michael Willis has pointed out, in Morocco “there was not the same official hostility to expressions of Berber culture, as witnessed in Algeria during this period.”
Still, the situation for Berbers in Morocco was culturally fraught. In the 1960s, small Berber associations developed in the country, but were not allowed to include the term “Berber” in their names. As in Algeria, the Berber community felt increasingly under threat in the 1970s because of the proliferation of Arabization programs in public schools. The politicization of Berber communities in Morocco began to develop in 1980, thanks to Algeria’s Berber Spring.
While similar revolts did not take place in Morocco, increasing Berber political consciousness could not be ignored. Berber publications, such as Amazight, began to appear in the 1980s. The dominant narrative about peaceful Arab conquest of North Africa also began to be challenged. In these and other ways, the Berber community began to assert its unique cultural identity while also challenging the discursive status-quo about the spread of Islam in the region. In 1991, thirty cultural associations issued the Agadir Charter, which demanded greater cultural rights for the Amazigh community, as well as the establishment of Tamazight as an official language in Morocco.
But, relations between the Amazigh movement and the monarchy in the 1990s revealed the king’s relative success in appeasing dissidents. The Amazigh Cultural Movement was established in 1994 with a national committee to effectively communicate its platform. Throughout the decade, King Hassan II made promises to increase the presence of Tamazight (and its dialects) in the national media and schools. This was similar to what was happening in Algeria at the time, where the regime was also offering theoretical concessions to the Imazighen.
At the heart of these compromises was a desire to co-opt the movement. At a time when Islamists were gaining traction as the party of populism and opposition, both the Moroccan and Algerian regimes saw an opportunity to cultivate a potential rival to this group. The 1990s were also a period of general liberalization in Morocco, as a result of international pressure on King Hassan to rectify the country’s poor human rights record, popular protest against the 1991 Gulf War, and the foreseeable transition to a new king.
With the arrival of the ostensibly forward-thinking King Mohammed VI in 1999, expectations for reform were very high. Rather than address the fundamental demands of the Amazigh community, that is, diversity and representation in Moroccan culture, Mohammed VI co-opted the reform process. Using a strategy that has now become commonplace, the king monopolized the issue and set about addressing the movement’s concerns on palace terms. This included creating the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in June 2001. Many Amazigh saw this as an utterly shallow attempt to appease the movement, which led to further radicalization.
The Parti Democratique Amazigh Marocain (PDAM), the first Amazigh political party, was created in 2005 and then subsequently dissolved in 2008. The party was never recognized by the Moroccan authorities, but it nonetheless demonstrates the increasingly political nature of the Amazigh movement in Morocco. That same year, the Agadir Charter reached a membership of 300 associations.
Many Moroccan activists see the Amazigh movement as the heart and soul of current demands for greater political pluralism and real democratic reform. The Amazigh represent the only Moroccan movement that has promoted the establishment of a federal state, which inherently challenges Makhzen hegemony over the political process. Today two different groups, the National Federation of Amazigh Associations and the Amazigh National Coordination, include 900 groups that constitute Morocco’s increasingly vocal Amazigh movement.
During the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, the Berber movement in Morocco joined forces with the February 20th protest movement. Through its participation in Feb20, the Amazigh became part of a broader coalition of actors in Morocco calling for greater political pluralism. In light of this development, the conditions seem ripe for further, intense politicization of Morocco’s Berber population.
King Mohammed VI has been very cognizant of this threat, especially after segments of the Rif and the Souss Valley began calling for autonomy in 2008. Yet, the very different historical trajectories of the Amazigh movements and divergent political systems make Morocco unlikely to follow the Kabylia model seen in Algeria. This is especially true in the wake of Morocco’s recognition of Tamazight as an official language, the increasing dissemination of the Tamazight dialects on national media, development projects that have been channeled to dissident regions, media restrictions, and continued repression of political opposition in regions like the Rif.
Promoting Greater Political Pluralism
Altogether, Morocco and Algeria’s Amazigh movements have become increasingly politicized in the post-independence era. This has made the Berbers key actors in national and regional level protest movements calling for democratic reforms throughout North Africa, such as the 2011 Arab Spring. However, different historical trajectories and political systems have led to divergent degrees of radicalism and co-optation by state authorities. Nevertheless, the Amazighs’ history of holding authorities accountable bodes well for their future role in promoting greater political pluralism in the region.
Goodman, Jane, ‘Reinterpreting the Berber Spring: From Rite of Reversal to Site of Convergence,” The Journal of North African Studies (Volume 9, Number 3, Autumn 2004), 62.
A. Coram, ‘The Role of Berbers in the early days of Moroccan independence,’ Arabs and Berbers, 269.
Willis, Michael, Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring, (Hurst Publishers: London 2012), 212.