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A turning point? The Arab Spring and the Amazigh movement

Pages 2499-2515
Received 10 Jul 2014
Accepted 27 Apr 2015
Published online: 03 Aug 2015


This study examines the place of the Amazigh movement and communities in the evolving political fortunes of North African states. It evaluates the prospects for attaining a genuine recognition of Amazigh ethnocultural demands as part of a broader democratic transformation of society and state, and the Amazigh movement's likely contribution to that transformation. The Amazigh movement has the potential to make alliance with governments and other sectors of societies, in part to try and balance the strength of Islamist groups. However, the process is only at the beginning stages, and there is also a possibility that Amazigh self-assertion may lead to greater polarization of North African societies.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


1. Mauritania is the fifth member of the Arab Maghreb Union (Ittihad al-Maghrib al-`Arabi), a largely moribund multilateral institution established in 1989 to promote closer political and economic links among member states (Maddy-Weitzman Citation1993).

2. This in no way implies that the system is ‘closed’ and disconnected from inputs coming from other directions (Saharan, Mediterranean, the Arab-Islamic East, etc.). The interaction of all of these inputs and influences are actually part of what makes the Maghrib distinct.

3. Thanks to an anonymous reader for this insight.

4. The long-time Kabyle militant Ferhat Mehenni argued this point in Le siècle identitaire (Michalon 2010), published just months before Mohamed Bouazizi lit the spark, literally and figuratively, for Tunisia's ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and beyond.

5. This in no way contradicts the fact that Kabyles play central roles in the Algerian state administration, and can also be found in the ranks of radical Islamists.

6. Literally ‘storehouse’, ‘strongbox’, or ‘treasury’, the term is a central one in the Moroccan political-historical lexicon, referring to the country's ruling apparatus, headed by the sultan.

7. The president of the World Amazigh Congress Federal Council (a rival body to the World Amazigh Congress), Brahim Benlahoucine, was injured in clashes with police during a 20 February Movement march in his home town of Tiznit on 29 May 2011 (Le Monde Amazigh/al-`Alam al-Amazighi/Amadal Amazighi, no. 132, June 2011: 11). Tiznit had already been the scene of unrest at the end of 2010.

8. Although Jewish communities had a long history in many countries in the Middle East that predated the rise of Islam, Morocco is the only one thus far to have officially acknowledged the Jewish contribution to its heritage and national character.

9. For an English translation of the constitution, see http://www.ancl-radc.org.za/sites/default/files/morocco_eng.pdf.

10. Interview with Lahcen Oulhaj, Rabat, September 2011.

11. Interviews with various Moroccan Amazigh activists, Rabat, al-Hoceima, Nador, September 2011.

12. Interviews with activists. There were also ‘pull’ factors as the authorities sought to peel away the disparate groups in the movement with incentives, leaving activists who had initially been inclined to remaining within a large, reconciled political space without organizational backing. Thanks to Bill Lawrence for this insight.

13. This alienation was heightened by the state's failure to respond adequately to the destruction caused by the 2004 earthquake in the al-Hoceima region.

14. Interview with Riffian activist, September 2011.

15. The dynamics analyzed by Waterbury (Citation1970) remain remarkably relevant to our understanding almost half a century later.

16. Interviews with Moroccan Amazigh activists and journalists between 2011 and 2013.

18. The draft constitution, which also emphasized that shariʿa would be the primary source of legislation, was harshly attacked by a leading Amazigh association in France (Tamazgha Citation2011).

19. See LibyaImal (Citation2012). The Toubou, an African ethnic community, lives mostly in Chad but also in south-eastern Libya and portions of Niger and Sudan. Those in Libya participated in the anti-Qaddafi uprising. They had been represented at the WAC conference in Djerba in September and October 2011, marking an expanded definition of Amazigh identity.

20. For the background to Algeria's ongoing culture of protest, see Roberts (Citation2011).

21. Kabyle alienation from the established regional political parties, the Front des Forces socialistes (FFS) and the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD), was widespread. In 2009, a new party emerged to challenge them, the Union for Democracy and the Republic headed by a former Berber movement and RCD member, Amara Benyounes, who advocated greater decentralization while condemning his former colleague Ferhat Mehenni's call for autonomy for Kabylie.

22. For more on the Berber diaspora and a comparison with the Kurdish diaspora, see Bengio and Maddy-Weitzman (Citation2013).

Additional information

BRUCE MADDY-WEITZMAN is Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.

ADDRESS: The Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, 69978, Tel Aviv, Israel.

Email: bmaddy@post.tau.ac.il

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