Tamazgha.fr : At the end of 2011, we witnessed a strong mobilization of the Amazigh movement in Libya : The Tripoli Symposium was held on 26 September ; a rally was held at the Martyrs’ Square on 27 September and several demonstrations were staged in Tripoli and in other cities following the announcement of the interim government of Abd-al-Rahman al-Kib which excluded the Amazigh people. How do you explain the Libyan authorities’ silence (government and the National Transitional Council - NTC), at times contemptuous of the grievances of Imazighen who have chosen the path of peaceful protest and dialogue ?
Fathi Bouzakhar : The minds of many members of the NTC and government are chained to misleading thoughts and ideology championed by Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi, especially those who were close to the late libyan dictator. These can be listed in the following three categories :
a) The will to ignore the role played by Imazighen to please the sickness of Arab arrogance in themselves and racist Arabs in Libya.
b) To please the Arab countries which contributed in one way or another to the 17 February revolution.
c) They believe that the Amazigh people did not want to create obstacles to the revolution because they did not set out pre-conditions before their participation in the toppling of the Al-Qadhaf’i’s regime.
Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil went as far as to accuse Libyan Imazighen who staged demonstrations in November and December 2011 of collaboration with hostile foreign forces in Libya. Can you shed some light on this ? Does Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil really think so or is he trying to sow hatred of the Amazigh among non-Tamazight-speaking Libyans ?
We need to remember that Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil is a product of the Al-Qadhafi’s regime and his school of thought. However, beside the points I mentioned in my answer to the first question, I think it was a great chance for him to belittle the role and contribution of the Amazigh people in the revolution, particularly their role in liberating the capital, Tripoli. What hurts most is the fact that the Amazigh people cannot find a logical explanation to Mustafa Abd-al-Jalil’s statements in which he accused us with implementing foreign agendas, while forgetting that the 17 February revolution collaborated with the NATO forces !!!
The mobilization to satisfy Aamzigh demands seems to have lost momentum with the beginning of 2012 ! What is the reason for that ?
The mobilization to highlight such demands is steadily being carried out even-though the momentum seems to slow down .The main problem for us is leadership and continuing to work with the same group. It is very hard for many Imazighen to obey instructions and accept discipline. Therefore, it is very difficult to unite our efforts and admit our differences.
On 26 September 2011, the Libyan Amazigh National Congress (LANG), of which you are president, was born ! What kind of actions your organization has taken ?
Indeed, the LANG was born on 26 September 2011 with a temporary committee which I was given the honour to lead. However, this was supposed to last for a maximum of six months and then a new body would be elected. Unfortunately this did not happen because we have been busy responding to the shocks received from the NTC and government in addition to the creation of various bodies. Our members on the ground, even when they are not members of the LANG, have been working extremely hard in order to serve Tamazight. As members of this group we succeeded in :
• Organizing - together with several Amazigh NGOs - a demonstration and a meeting with the UN office in Libya, with which we are still in contact.
• Trying to work closely with the Imazighen of the desert (the Tuareg) to prove that we are one nation and to promote unity.
• Working and supporting the Amazigh people who do not speak Tamazight, and cooperating in organizing large meetings which we view as a great achievement given the expanding circle of Imazighen.
• Bringing about reconciliation between the Tuarag and the inhabitants of Ghadamis.
• Cooperating within committees in order to teach Tamazight.
• Organizing a forum on the current developments in Libya and discussing the future of the country at the Petroleum Research Centre in Tripoli in June 2012.
• Working closely with No Peace Without Justice organization for transitional justice and raising the role of Tamazight in reconciliation.
• Raising the voice of Tamazight by publishing articles and addressing the media.
• Participating in a discussion panel on fragile governments at the Meday Forum in Tangier, in Morocco, organized by Amadeus Institute between 16th to 19th November 2011.
• Presenting a paper (Libyan Amazigh people between acceptance as a minority or loss of the right to self-determination ) at the Indigenous People forum which was held in Tangier, Morocco, on 14 July 2012.
• Some of our members are involved in preparing a big gathering on 12 February to promote the rights of Imazighen and Tamazight in Libya.
On the ground, and in particular with regard to cultural action, has the authorities’ attitude had any influence ?
With the exception of some kind of support by parliament Speaker Dr Muhammad al-Muqaryaf, the Ministry of Culture and NGOs had financed a three-day Tamazight festival in Jadu. It is also worth noting that on 30 December 2012, the government announced the creation of the Amazigh Armat Magazine written in Tamazight using the Tifinagh script only.
Did the election of the General National Congress (GNC) offer any hope for Imazighen ? Did Imazighen take part in the election ?
Before I answer this question, there is a point which I want to raise. Unfortunately, many Libyans, including politicians, think that rights can only be obtained through election. There was a respectable turnout in the elections. However, there was a lack of maturity and the problem of organizing ourselves. Votes of many Imazighen had been scattered among several political parties and groups. Even in Tripoli and in Amazigh towns, the large number of candidates had weakened us in many cases and, therefore, we lost seats in the GNC.
What is the position of Imazighen in relation to the initiative of the people of Cyrenaica who proclaimed their autonomy in March 2012 ?
Some agreed but many disagreed. At present, however, the autonomy approach is seriously being discussed among Amazigh activists, especially when they see the risk of Tamazight being deprived of an official status in the constitution.
Don’t you think that given the attitude of the Libyan authorities which insist on the negation of Tamazight, and the desire to impose exclusive Arab and Muslim values on all Libyans, it is the Imazighen who would benefit from a federal system which would allow them to manage their own affairs ? For how long will you continue to beg for a natural right from individuals who, in reality, are the real enemies of Tamazight, as most of them are remnants of the Al-Qadhafi’s regime ?
We believe that Libya is an Amazigh land. It is true that the Islam we believe in as Imazighen was somehow misused in the past by some Arab racists to impose their values and language. It is worth remembering that many Amazigh people have made enormous sacrifices in the defence of our language. Our feeling of resentment towards Al-Qadhafi stemmed from the fact that he was able to convince many Libyans to believe that Arabic is a holy and progressive language, while Tamazight was a reactionary and evil language. Today many practicing Amazigh Muslims have shunned the Arabic culture and language which proved to be a disaster to our identity and witch continues to cause damage to Tamazight.
Have you thought about organizing politically under the banner of one or more political parties which would defend Libya’s Amazigh identity and the rights of the Amazigh people ?
Again, as I have already mentioned, almost every small Amazigh group is forming or thinking to form political parties. I do accept the fact that Libyans are eager to exercise power and leadership, but I am sure that in the near future things will cool down. I have only watched and tried to help others to bring our efforts together and to unite, but so far we have failed. Dr Nasir, my brother president of the only party which expressed support for Tamazight (Algh’imah for Freedom and Development) won a seat in the parliament in the south.
Announced for June 2012, The General National Congress elections were finally held on 7 July 2012. Have they resulted in a positive change for Tamazight and Imazighen ?
I do not think that this has helped in any way. The results of the elections were not up to our expectations.
On 5 September, 2012, organizations from the civil society and the Amazigh movement, including the Libyan Amazigh National Congress, held a rally in front of the UN office in Tripoli. What was the purpose of the gathering and why did you chose to address the UN ?
To attract the attention of the UN to our right to have Tamazight enshrined in the constitution as an official language. It is worth recalling that the UN had supervised the 1951 constitution.
To say that we have lost faith in the government and to draw their attention to the fact that we are part of the International community which supports the rights of the indigenous people of Libya.
Was there any follow-up to your action, and is there any reaction by the UN ?
The changing of the UN office team has slowed down the progress of our action. On 7 January 2013, we met Dr Tariq, the chairman of the UN office and some members of his team, with whom we agreed to follow up the following issues :
1) To inform the Speaker of the GNC and the government about our request which should be protected by the constitution.
2) To arrange a meeting between Amazigh activists and political forces in Libya.
3) To organize workshops, create alliances and urge UN experts to back our demands.
Shortly after the rally which was staged outside the UN office in Tripoli, a meeting was held on 9 September 2012 during which the local council of Ifran decided to adopt the proposal of civil society organizations in the city which focuses on the teaching of the Amazigh language, starting with the new school year. On 13 September, all of the local councils in the Amazigh regions who met in Nalut decided to do the same.
Could you tell us more about this decision and the terms and conditions of its implementation knowing that it is a local decision that does not emanate from the central authorities of the Libyan state ?
Can we say that such a decision translates the willingness of the Imazighen of Libya to take charge of their destiny ? And isn’t this a step towards autonomy and, perhaps, independence of the Amazigh territory of Libya ?
It is the combined efforts of many Amazigh NGOs that pushed towards teaching Tamazight in local schools. The individuals knew such a programme requires financial support which can only be obtained from the local council. Moreover, there is some kind of pressure exerted by NGOs on local councils that is taken into consideration to ensure their support. Furthermore, some of those local councils have been elected.
We believe the whole of Libya belongs to Imazighen. Furthermore, many ordinary Libyans want to learn Tamazight. In fact, a director of a private school in Misratah has been looking for Tamazight language teachers. Our problem is only with some members of the government and the GNC, but not with the ordinary people. Many appreciated the role played by Imazighen in the revolution and are ready to learn Tamazight.
It was also decided to transcribe all school and state institutions’ signs (companies and public properties) across the country in both Arabic and Tamazight. Could you tell us more about this ?
This is a request by the Amazigh councils’ NGOs to push forward with the promotion of Tamazight, and it has worked to some extend, but the response varies from one town to another.
On 6 October, a big meeting was held in At-Willul (Zwara) to denounce the denial of the Amazigh issue and the falsification of Amazigh identity and history in Libyan textbooks. One of the conclusions of the meeting was to form a commission, of which you are a member, to be in charge of monitoring the necessary mechanisms for the implementation of the recommendations of the meeting. Who attended this meeting and what were the recommendations ?
The meeting was attended by Amazigh activists and NGOs, local councils and members of the GNC. The meeting provided the following recommendations :
• To organize a one-day school boycott on 16 October 2012 to denounce the falsification of history, show of contempt to Tamazight, and the exclusion of the Libyan identity in the curriculum.
• To demand the display of Amazigh signs and banners in Amazigh towns.
• To file a suit against those involved in the falsification of history.
• To form a committee to monitor the implementation of the recommendations.
• To address a letter to the minister of education to call for the withdrawal of the reference to the Amazigh people as a minority in Libya. As a result of this letter, Sulayman al-Sahli called us for a meeting on the 11 October and agreed to :
- Circulate a letter withdrawing any reference to Imazighen as a minority.
- To include six Amazigh scholars in the committee which was formed by him to revise the school curriculum.
- We provide the ministry with a list of Amazigh scholars to be consulted whenever there is a need.
What is the position of the Libyan institutions (GNC, government, etc.) towards all these unilateral decisions taken by local Amazigh councils ?
In the beginning, the ministry called those responsible to the education offices and asked them how they did this without its permission ! But when they insisted that it was the people’s request, the decision was accepted. It seems that they had to get along with the local councils, because the councils cannot go against the Amazigh masses’ free will. The will of the Amazigh people has been translated into some actions taken by the councils :
• To support the teaching of Tamazight.
• To write street and official buildings’ signs in Tamazight.
• To help supporting radio stations broadcasting in Tamazight in the Amazigh towns of Ifran, Jadu, Nalut and Zwara.
• To support a Tamazight TV station (Ibraran).
• To institutionalize 13 January as the Amazigh New Year and a public holyday.
• To mark 31 December as a day of protest against Prime Minister Ali Zaydan for the exclusion of Imazighen from government.
The school year has seen the introduction of Tamazight in schools located in the Amazigh regions. Can you make an initial assessment of this experience ? How were these schools funded (teachers’ salaries, funds to produce new schoolbooks, teacher training, etc.) ? Did you seek the help of Moroccan and Algerian Amazigh people ?
The money collected from the local councils has been spent on printing books and funding short courses for the preparation and training of teachers.
• Tamazight teachers have signed contracts for this academic year.
• There is a plan to bring four experts of Tamazight from Morocco to assist and train Libyan teachers.
In general, what are your relations with Algeria and Morocco ? Are there any exchanges ?
I know that there are closer contacts with Morocco than with Algeria. The Moroccan government had recognized Tamazight as an official language and Libyans can travel easily to Morocco. Politically, however, it seems that the Libyan and Algerian governments share a racist pan-Arab ideology which denies the right for Tamazight to flourish.
In November 2012, the Speaker of the GNC , Muhammad al-Muqaryaf, expressed support for the enshrining of the Amazigh language in the Libyan constitution. Can we talk of change in the institutions and in the authorities’ position with regard to Tamazight ?
As I mentioned in an article published in Usan Libya : (Dr Al-Muqaryaf and Tamazight) it seems to me that Al-Muqaryaf is less hostile towards Tamazight because of the following three reasons :
a- Dr Al-Muqaryaf shared with Imazighen a long history of opposition to Al-Qadhafi’s regime.
b- He seems to be a moderate Islamist who may not feel prejudice towards Tamazight.
c- On several occasions he praised Imazighen and their struggle against Al-Qadhafi, especially their role in the attack which was carried out by the National Salvation Front in May 1984.
However, I concluded my article with a question : How long can Dr Al-Muqaryaf resist the pressure from Arab nationalists and interfering Arab counties ? The answer is only time will tell.
It seems that you were personally a victim of discrimination ! You may even be subjected to racism by university authorities and perhaps the Libyan government. Could you tell us more about this ?
In April 2011, after I appeared on TV at Dehiba refugee camp in Tunisia, as an opponent of the regime, I was expelled from the University of Sirte by a decision signed by Chancellor Dr Muhammad Abd-al-Hamad, who is the nephew of Al-Qadhafi. They also broke into my apartment and messed up with my belongings. After the liberation of Tripoli, I went a couple of times to Sirte only to discover that I was the only lecturer to be deprived of salary. I Approached the ministry to intervene and then in January 2012, I received all my salary rears. I agreed to go back to work with the condition that they provide me with a room as my apartment was partially demolished as a result of the war.
They never provided me with the room and, for my part, I never went back especially after the Libyan TV reported killings in the city. I was promised by the deputy of the minister of higher education - who knew me very well - that a solution would be found. However, after the change of the government nothing happened.
What hurts me most is the fact that I knew a couple of ministers, including Prime Minister Dr Abd-al-Rahman al-Kib who knew me after I joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya while studying for a Masters degree in Canada. I met some of them in Benghazi during the revolution. I am sure all of them are aware that my revolution started in December 2010 after my twin sons, Mazigh and Madghis, were arrested and then accused of spying for Israel. After the liberation of Tripoli, I was presented to the media as the president of the Libyan Amazigh National Congress. I think this is the only reason why I was not paid a salary since February !
In the event that the Libyan authorities continue to observe this attitude of contempt and rejection of dialogue with Imazighen, do you think it would be necessary for Imazighen to change their strategy ? And what should they do ? What are the conditions of reconciliation with the Libyan authorities ? Is the Amazigh identity negotiable for Libyan Imazighen ?
I believe we should review every step and leave the door open for all kinds of solutions. Many NGOs have made considerable efforts in pushing towards the recognition of Tamazight in the constitution.
Reconciliation with the government requires the recognition of Tamazight in the constitution and Imazighen in the government. Prime Minister Ali Zaydan leads a racist government which follows the footsteps of Dr Al-Kib. He shows respect for armed groups, but he seems to hold the Amazigh people in contempt because they continue to act in a civilized manner. However, we are issuing a warning that if the Amazigh people explode it will be a serious disaster which will sweep Ali Zaydan and his government off libya’s political life. The Amazigh people will continue to unite in the face of any danger that would compromise their rights.
How do you see the future of the Amazigh issue in Libya ? Do you see it as a simple recognition of the Amazigh language and culture or something much deeper than that ?
There is no retreat. Tamazight will keep on marching forward. It will face some problems from the Al-Qadhafi’s remnants, especially those who succeeded to creep to power. If we exclude the language, the Libyan culture has its roots in Tamazight. Therefore, I believe in ordinary Libyans regardless of their backgrounds, but not pan-Arab racists. We can work out what is good for Tamazight and for Libya. The only thing which constitutes an obstacle to the future of Tamazight are Arab nationalists and radical Islamists within the GNC and the government. Winning the Tamazight struggle is not easy but possible through patience and persistence.
Dr Bouzakhar concluded his interview by saying that thanks to Amazigh activists, Tamazight in Libya has made and continues to make considerable progress. Like any other language, Tamazight is precious and dear to the heart of every Amazigh in North Africa.
Story by Masin Ferkal
Paris / Tripoli, December 2012.
With all our acknowlegments to Mohand Salah Tahi for having taken the time to help us realize this interview.