The Amazigh people in Egypt: a fragile struggle for survival

Omran Mutaim, el contacontes de Siwa.
Omran Mutaim, el contacontes de Siwa. Autor/a: Marc Español
Lying on a wooden chair on the shores of lake Siwa, just a few kilometres from a town of the same name in north-western Egypt, 55-year-old local storyteller Omran Mutaim fondly evokes that day in 1977. In an unusual gesture towards this remote oasis some 65 kilometres from the Libyan border, Egypt’s then-president Mohamed Anwar El Sadat landed on the spot with an interest in the situation of the villagers, among whom the only Amazigh in the whole country are to be found.

“I was at school when enthusiastic people tried to find nice clothes, show a clean oasis, and convince others not to go to work and welcome him,” Mutaim tells Nationalia as he sips local tea. In his case, he recalls how he and his father, who years earlier had ended up as a trumpeter in the British army chorale, travelled together to witness the arrival of the Egyptian leader, who had come from distant Cairo.

Reasons to receive Sadat’s visit with hope were not lacking. As the storyteller recalls, at that time there was still no electricity or running water in the oasis; no telephone lines or decent hospitals; there was just a school and no paved road connecting with the rest of the country. “Life was very modest,” he recalls.

“People here did not speak Arabic well either, except for an older man, Sheikh Ahmed Said, who had travelled to Alexandria, [so] it was he who was talking about Siwa” to Sadat and the entourage that moved with the president to the Amazigh town, he says.

When the Egyptian president returned to Cairo, changes in Siwa would still take time to arrive. It was not until almost 1984 —when Sadat had already been assassinated three years earlier in a military parade and replaced by Hosni Mubarak— that the transformation began to be tangible, with a paved road linking the place to the coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, in the north, as an allegory of the new union with Egypt.

“Elders here keep a good memory of Sadat,” says Mutaim, who believes that, for his generation, “that was the real beginning of change in Siwa.” The oasis had already undergone major changes before. But the doubt, as in previous cases, was again where would it lead, an enigma that still persists today.

The forgotten oasis

The Siwa Oasis lies in an extensive depression of the same name in the western desert of Egypt. It is a part of the westernmost chain of oases in the land of the Pharaohs. So much so that the depressions of Qattarah, slightly to the east of Siwa, and Jughboub, already in Libyan territory, are part of the same line that links east and west.

The Siwa Oasis. / Photo: Marc Español.

In the case of Siwa, the inhabited part is in the depression’s deepest, where the accumulation of water for the local population has nothing to envy to that of the Nile valley, the artery of a country that stretches almost infinitely 600 kilometres away.

Thanks to the dynamic archaeological activity of the area, it is known that Siwa has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic and Neolithic. But it was from the Late Period of ancient Egypt, still during the Pharaonic era, that the place became an important hub through which five major caravan routes linking the Nile valley, central Africa and the Mediterranean coast crossed, a commercial knot that thrived until almost the 20th century.

The Amazigh, in turn, arrived in Siwa presumably some 900 years ago —albeit they might have done so earlier— from other parts of North Africa, and have since lived here, along Bedouin tribes.

Because of its location, the Siwa Oasis was remarkably isolated from the rest of the world for centuries. Many point to the time of Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, as the time when the place became dependent on the central Egyptian government, after the Ottoman leader formally annexed it in 1819.

Far from directly going from a situation of isolation to one of connection with Egypt, authority over Siwa had historically fluctuated like a tide.

“During the Greek period, the borders of the empire extended as far as Barqa, but all those territories sometimes belonged [to the central Egyptian government] and sometimes remained outside,” illustrates Abdel Aziz El Demey, director-general of the Antiquities Authority of the Marsa Matrouh governorate, in a conversation with this news site. “If the central government was strong, then they were here; but if it was weak, Siwa would remain somehow separate,” the archaeologist adds.

Although Siwa belonging in Egypt since that time has not been questioned, its remoteness remained largely intact until changes were introduced following Sadat’s visit, which saw modern forms of transport, communication and tourism as the main catalyst for change.

“In a way, transformation has come very slowly,” Mahdi Hwieti, director of the oasis’ tourism centre, tells Nationalia in his office in downtown Siwa. “But sometimes it arrives very quickly.”

Contact with Egypt

It is currently estimated that some 30,000 Amazigh live in different parts of the Siwa Oasis, a territory washed by some 200 natural water sources with the town of the same name as their urban centre. It is administratively dependent on the governorate of Marsa Matrouh.

For some, the isolation in which Siwa has traditionally lived, famous for being a land for growing dates and olives and for local craftsmanship, has had a positive effect insofar as it has made it possible to protect the territory’s heritage, which is very fragile from both a natural and a social point of view.

“Siwa is really very far away from everything, so issues like the [Amazigh] language have been able to hold,” assumes Mahdi Soleiman, who is close to the Amazigh World Congress. “If Siwa had been next to Cairo, the language, for example, would have disappeared a long time ago,” he adds, from his herbalist’s shop near the famous Shali fortress.

As Soleiman points out, the local language, popularly known as Siwi, is one of the precious diamonds that have been fortunate enough to survive to this day, especially since it is just an oral language. Although it has similarities with the Amazigh variants of Morocco or Algeria, Siwa’s isolation has meant that its dialect, close only to those spoken in Libya, has remained relatively pure until recently.

Social organization is another notable feature of Siwa that has been kept to this day. Structured on the basis of a tribal system, the leaders of the various oasis tribes, in some cases jointly with a council of men from the same group, have traditionally been responsible for resolving disputes and maintaining order according to a combination of customary law and Islamic jurisprudence.

“Today, if there is any problem, it will be solved through the tribes: the people [affected] will come to the leader and resort to customs,” explains El Demey, who, however, makes it clear that if the traditional method does not work, those involved “can then go to court, but it is a more costly and lengthy process.”

Thus, the local government, which depends on Cairo, only has an administrative role, and oversees services such as running water or electricity. Egypt is thus a very centralized state, and municipalities —where they exist— have little room for manoeuvre.

Another feature highlighted by some locals is the fact that the status of women in Siwa is better than in the rest of Arab-majority, very conservative Egypt. However, women in Siwa have traditionally been reserved the role of housewives and mothers, and gender segregation is very rigid. A walk through the town of Siwa is enough to realize that the presence of women in the streets is almost nil, reduced to displacement, and the way of dressing is similar to that of ultraconservative rural areas of southern Egypt, with clothing fully covering them —including eyes.

Moreover, until a few decades ago, particularly violent customs against women were taking place in Siwa. After marrying, often at a very early age and at the discretion of their parents, women were imposed strict dress codes such as those mentioned above. In the event of divorce they were forced to return to the father’s or brother’s home, from where they would be prohibited from going out or working outside. In the case of widows, who in some cases were still teenagers, the community came to consider them possessed by a powerful evil eye that affected anyone who watched them, thus isolating them in subhuman conditions for a period that could last up to a little more than four months.

Their situation, however, is considered to have begun to change some decades ago. Women now tend to marry at a later age (in some cases, however, they are still minors), some have a say in approving or rejecting a marriage proposal, and some are allowed to work outside the home.

Integration, the Egyptian way

As for the relationship of the local people with Egypt, the paved road that connects Siwa with Marsa Matrouh and beyond seems designed to exemplify the integration of the oasis in the country, especially considering the deplorable state of the road in some stretches.

Thus, in the Constitution currently in force in the country, approved in 2014 by the military regime then in charge of Egypt, it is foreseen that the State “shall pay special attention to protecting the components of cultural pluralism in Egypt”, in an attempt to embody the supposed will to draft “a Constitution for all Egyptians”. In addition, the State undertakes to “support and make available all types of cultural materials to all strata of the people, without any discrimination on the grounds of [...] geographic location [...] and paying special attention to remote areas”.

The gesture was welcome from the beginning by some locals such as Amany El Weshahy, leader of the Amazigh World Congress in Egypt. “The Constitution is not ambiguous in this sense,” she argues in a conversation with this news site, “but Egypt has several cultures and several languages, and since it is impossible for it to mention all of them, it does so in a general way.”

Amany El Weshahy, leader of the Amazigh World Congress in Egypt. / Photo: Marc Español

In practice, however, Egypt is not as diverse a country as El Weshahy describes, or as is the case in some countries of the Mediterranean Levant. In addition, the Egyptian Constitution is considerably long, specifying issues such as that Islam and Arabic are the only official state religion and language, and that only Arabic and national [Egyptian] history should be a part of the core subjects of compulsory education. The Constitution commits itself to “protect the Egyptian cultural identity with its various origins,” but nowhere does it specify which are they.

In a state where, in addition, the Constitution is a dead letter used at the convenience of the regime, the weak protection provided to peripheral communities ends up proving worthless.

In this case, language is once again one of the most obvious examples. Amazigh is not taught in Siwa schools, where Arabic is exclusively used. There is no cultural centre in the oasis where the language can be learned, and not only is there no support to produce basic Amazigh learning materials, such as books or dictionaries, but in addition several locals have told this news site that they have undergone political pressure when they have tried it themselves.

The most subtle case of this lack of protection is, in parallel, silence that emerges from the total absence of political or cultural organizations dedicated to the protection of Amazigh rights beyond the local branch of the Amazigh World Congress.

“There is no Amazigh association in Egypt besides the World Congress, which only has three members who [added to those people who sometimes participate in the movement] amount to about a dozen,” says El Weshahy.

The problem in Egypt is profound. On the one hand, the authoritarian regime that controls the country with an iron fist creates a totally adverse context to the emergence of organizations with a political scope that do not fit within the strict official order. A fact that, moreover, coexists with the regime’s deep skepticism towards the communities located on the country’s margins, be they Amazigh to the west, Nubians to the south, or Bedouins to the east.

“The government believes that the Amazigh are dangerous because it assumes that our minds and hearts [answer to a foreign cause], even if it is false,” says Soleiman, who complains that, like other groups, the Amazigh hardly have access to prominent positions in state institutions, the most important of which is the army.

The fact that they live far away from other Amazigh communities does not help them either, argues Soleiman, who points out that, beyond some contacts with Amazigh tourists coming from Morocco or Algeria, there are no links between them, not even with the nearest ones in Libya.

For these reasons, the demands of the Amazigh World Congress in Egypt are very basic, mainly focused on existential issues. “[Now] we are working with Nubians and Copts on a project to be able to teach local languages in cultural centres, which should be ratified by Parliament,” explains El Weshahy, who considers this as a key move to prevent “the [local] Amazigh language from becoming extinct.”

Even if this is a minimum demand, El Weshahy is cautious in pointing it out, and repeats that it does not imply any will to take distance with the Egyptian people.

“We are proud of our identity, ethnicity and culture, but we don’t feel separated from the Egyptian people,” she says. “It’s not a question of being either Amazigh or Egyptians,” she adds, “but of being both Amazigh and Egyptians.”

A distant spring

The popular revolution that broke out in Egypt at the beginning of 2011, as part of the springs of that region, was the last bit of hope in recent decades to introduce profound changes in the country. However, the uprising was experienced very differently in Siwa than in much of the rest of Egypt.

“The situation here is very calm, and those events did not reach Siwa, or the western desert area in general,” recalls El Weshahy, who evokes how in her case “we only saw [what was happening] through the media, almost as if it was taking place in another country.”

Not everyone sees it that way. According to El Demey, indeed the media and the fact that many Amazigh have contacts with other villagers living in Cairo or Alexandria made the locals aware of the uprising.

“After the revolution the people changed, just as in any other part of Egypt”, agrees Soleiman, who details: “The point is that the [social] system in Siwa is different [from other parts of the country], since Siwa not only has a government [in reference to the central one], but it has an internal [tribal] system that allows to maintain control.”

Furthermore, all interviewees agree that one feature of the Siwa tribal system is that it lends support to the regime that holds power, whatever it may be.

“If there was Mubarak, then Mubarak; if there were the Muslim Brotherhood, then the Muslim Brotherhood; if there is the army or [current President Abdel Fatah] Al Sisi, then the army and Al Sisi; and if there is another change, then to support change,” exemplifies Soleiman: “This is how the system works in Siwa.”

“It is a local version of the sentence ‘The King is dead, long live the King’, adds El Weshahy, who argues that, also because of this, they have a phrase of their own: ‘Every man who marries my mother I will call him ‘uncle’’, and ‘every man’ can be Mubarak, Morsi, Al Sisi or whoever. Egypt is our mother, so any man who marries her will be our uncle.”