From the Tuareg desert to Rif and Kabylia: an overview to recent Amazigh mobilization

Riffian diaspora members protest in Brussels against the jailing of Hirak leaders in Morocco.
Riffian diaspora members protest in Brussels against the jailing of Hirak leaders in Morocco. Autor/a: MO* @ Flickr
Everything is interrelated, even if at first glance it is not obvious.

In November 2010, weeks before the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia triggered a wave of popular revolts that profoundly changed the political landscape in North Africa and the Middle East, a group of Tuareg activists met in Timbuktu, Mali. They were founding the National Azawad Movement (MNA), an organisation seeking to represent the interests of the populations of northern Mali —where not only Tuaregs live— in the face of what they perceive as a historical marginalisation by the Malian government, a circumstance that had already contributed to three Tuareg rebellions between 1962 and 2009.

While throughout 2011 the MNA mobilized to convince the northern Mali society of the need to build a new nation —Azawad—, the enormous shockwave of Bouazizi’s death and the consequent fall of president Ben Ali crossed the borders of Tunisia to all surrounding states. It hit Morocco, where the February 20 Movement started to call for political and social reform; Algeria, where it built on recent protests against rising food prices; Egypt, where rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and beyond eventually resulted in the resignation of president Mubarak; and, of course, Libya, where colonel Gaddafi had to confront a revolt that ended up sinking the State. In all these countries, Amazigh popular movements —some of which, like that of Algeria’s Kabylia or those of Morocco, with a decades-long span— tried to put their social, political, linguistic and cultural agenda on the new chessboard.

In Libya, the revolt mutates into civil war, a conflict that will end up costing Gaddafi his life on 20 October. Among Gaddafi’s military forces, several groups of Malian Tuaregs flee with their weapons from Libya to Mali —towards Azawad— when the dictator falls. And they converge with the MNA to form a new political-military coalition, the MNLA, which in January 2012 launches a major offensive against the Malian army with the support of Islamist Tuareg group Ansar Dine. In April they control virtually all of Azawad, and declare independence. The world watches, very particularly the Amazigh political movements, which welcome the move: a Tuareg state —that is to say, an Amazigh state— has just been born. The Kabyle government in exile, linked to pro-self-determination MAK party, even recognises it officially and urges the UN to give the Azawadians a seat.

The case sufficiently illustrates how local and regional dynamics of protest and mobilization in the last decade intertwine and mutually influence within this vast geographical region —what the Amazigh movement calls Tamazgha, i.e. North Africa, the Sahara desert and parts of the Sahel— as they connect with long-lasting trajectories. All borders are crossed: events in one state trigger changes in another, Amazigh movements are in close relationship with non-Amazigh ones, while all intersections seem possible in one place or another: secular and Islamist, political and military, conservative and feminist...

Dream fades away

Azawad, contrary to what was demanded by the MNLA and the exiled Kabyles, did not gain UN recognition. In fact, little remained of this state-in-the-making when, in June 2012, several Islamist groups —among them, former allies Ansar Dine— expelled MNLA independence fighters from Timbuktu and Gao, Azawad’s main cities on the banks of the Niger river, home to diverse peoples—Tuareg and Arabs, but also Songhai, Fulani, Bozo and other black African groups. Control over those cities was fundamental to build any resemblance of a state comparable to those in the wider region, so that not to have just a vast expanse of desert.

Apart from a very limited success in convincing the Songhai and Fulani to join their struggle —to which reports of abuses and human rights violations obviously contributed little—, the MNLA also had to face another problem: by no means the idea of an independent state was embraced by a majority of Tuaregs who, divided into multiple clans each with its own agenda, could choose other routes, as journalist Andy Morgan pointed out, such as supranational Islamism or accommodation within the Malian state. Thus, he wrote, “the Tuareg are simply too internally divided, too inexperienced in terms of administration and statesmanship and too dominated by self-serving clan elites to make an independent state viable. [...] Lastly and most importantly, Azawad is an impossibility simply because Algeria would never allow it.”

Algeria will not allow either — or at least has not so far, and nothing indicates it will— a democratic regime and autonomy in Kabylia, the territory where probably the whole Amazigh political movement ends up looking at sooner or later. A pioneer in its struggle for linguistic and cultural rights —during the Amazigh Spring in 1980 and during the Black Spring in 2001—, Kabylia is once again going through months of agitation, conflict and repression at the hands of the Algerian state in 2019. We will not discuss the issue here, as Nationalia recently published two articles by journalist Kaissa Ould Braham on the country’s history, and a very interesting, in-depth story by Karim Toulieb on the current repression in Kabylia, written from the ground.

Demands for recognition, democratic reform and autonomy

The aspiration to achieve self-government is also echoed among the Amazigh people of Libya. Karlos Zurutuza explains in the first story of this series that the loss of control of many regions by Libyan authorities has allowed the introduction of a certain margin of autonomy, at least linguistic, cultural and educational, in Amazigh-speaking areas. Much more limited is the perspective among the tiny Amazigh community of Egypt, concentrated in the Siwa oasis, from where Marc Español, in the third story of the series, relates the fragile struggle for just recognition of cultural difference and the right to preserve and teach the Amazigh language, in a country where after the hopes deposited in the changes following the fall of Mubarak, a new/old authoritarianism has been reinstated, that of president Sisi.

It is probably in Morocco where Amazigh demands take on more varied forms, as Beatriz Mesa reports in the second story of the series. At one end, co-optation of Amazigh activists by the regime, which has gradually —very gradually— opened up to this identity over the last two decades, is witnessed. At the other, the example of the Rif Popular Movement —heir to many anti-repressive struggles, whether against the Spanish coloniser or the Moroccan state— stands out above all others, with a very broad list of demands —not necessarily agreed by all its members— ranging from the building of hospitals and universities to a true regime of political autonomy. And in between, a whole range of stances, more or less critical of the regime, more or less hopeful of a structural change that has not just arrived, more or less exploring the possibilities of an accommodation of the Amazigh identity in a country, Morocco, whose foundational nationalism is profoundly Arabist.

Also, more modestly, Amazigh demands emerge in Tunisia, as Ricard González writes in the fourth and last story. A dozen associations are striving to strengthen the position of Amazigh language and culture in a country that is often mentioned in Europe as a model of transition to democracy, but where acceptance of internal diversity is a pending issue. The founding of a new party with Amazigh roots, Akal, is the latest challenge to a national identity that, like those of neighbouring countries, is firmly anchored in Arab language and culture.