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North Africa's Berbers get boost from Arab Spring

One of Said Lakenizaa's two remaining cows fell sick and died last year as he led it down the steep dirt track from his village in Morocco's Atlas mountains to the rest of the world.

It was the second time he'd lost a cow because the lack of paved roads hampered access to health care, for animals and humans. But now, after enduring their lot for years, the 40 Berber families in Azdine have started protesting for better services. They demonstrated in front of local government offices four times in the past year.

The Arab Spring has galvanized the Berbers, North Africa's original inhabitants, to push for their own political and cultural rights, with some success -- they have secured official recognition for their language in Morocco. But the new political openness has also brought to power their implacable enemies, the Islamists, possibly setting the stage for a new conflict in an already volatile region.

Lakenizaa says they are just struggling to improve their lot, and neglected by an Arab-dominated government.

"We are demonstrating because we are tired of their lies. The government said it was going to build a road, but it is still not here," he said, sitting inside his stone hut, which lacks both electricity and running water. "As soon as the people in the government realize you are a Berber peasant, they don't care about you."

Berber dreams go beyond the basics.

They long for northwestern Africa to be a unique region with its own Berber heritage and culture — not just a lesser-populated extension of the Arab heartland of Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. And they say it would be a good deal more liberal and tolerant than the rest of the Arab Middle East.

"We are a society apart, we are different — different by language, different by culture," said Rachid Tijani, an activist from the town of Khenifra, near Lakenizaa's village.

In Berber societies, he said, there is no rigid segregation of the sexes as in traditional Arab tribes, and there is more of a separation between religion and state. While most Berbers are Muslim, they pride themselves on secular traditions at odds with some of the Islamist movements gaining ground in the region.

As the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East last year, Berbers in every country in North Africa took advantage of the new climate of freedom to push forward their own long-simmering demands.

There are no official figures for the number of Berbers in North Africa, but estimates for those who speak one of the many Berber languages are around 25-30 million, mainly concentrated in Morocco and Algeria.

In Morocco, where they make up 50 percent of the population, they became an integral part of the pro-democracy movement. And when King Mohammed VI presented a raft of reforms to defuse the protests shaking the country last year, he included a constitutional amendment to make the Berber language, Tamazight, an official language alongside Arabic.

In Tunisia, the small Berber community has formed its first cultural associations and is once again speaking its forbidden language. In Libya, the Berbers were a key part of the rebel force that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi. In Mali, the Tuareg, another Berber people, have armed themselves and are declaring a homeland in large swatches of the north.

Yet the same Arab Spring has also brought to power Islamist parties that traditionally have seen the Amazigh, as the Berbers call themselves, as a threat.

"Overall, increased democratization ... provides greater space for the Amazigh to promote their cause, but it also does so for the Islamists, who generally view the Amazigh movement with disdain, or worse," noted Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a leading expert on the Berbers. "As the Islamists have the momentum on their side, it appears that the Amazigh movement has its work cut out for it."

Islamist movements, which have come to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco and are poised for strong showings in upcoming elections in Libya and Algeria, are strong champions of Arab identity and Islam.

Berber activists in Morocco fear the Islamists now controlling the government may try to roll back the progress they have made since the Arab Spring. Several Berber villages in the northern Rif mountains rioted in March after a local activist was arrested, blocking highways and clashing with police for days.

The newly-elected Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, has been publicly dismissive of the Berber movement, describing their ancient, rune-like alphabet as similar to Chinese and alien to Moroccans. Before the elections, Saadeddine al-Othmani, the No. 2 at Benkirane's Islamist party and later foreign minister, questioned the need to make Tamazight an official language.

"We are a Muslim country and the greatest resource of our government is Islam," he told the U.S. government-funded Magharebia website. "To raise Amazigh languages to the status of (Arabic), that is difficult."

Even though the new Moroccan constitution now recognizes Tamazight as an official language, its actual implementation in schools and the bureaucracy awaits a law that has to be written by Benkirane's government — which Berbers fear will fall short of their goals.

In response, the Berbers have been mobilizing. And this year, for the first time, they are holding their own demonstrations outside of the broader pro-democracy movement.

Youth activists have united in a movement born of the countless small local Amazigh associations scattered around remote parts of the country. It has held demonstrations in recent months in the capital Rabat and the commercial capital of Casablanca.

"We were all divided and couldn't get anything done, but with the rise of the Islamists, we have become united," said Mohammed el-Ouazguiti, an activist running a Berber website from the southern city of Marrakech.

"We are the opposite of them, we are the only movement in Morocco that is officially secular," he said, as 2,000 young Berber activists from all over Morocco marched and chanted through the streets of Casablanca.

The young men and women flashed the three-finger Berber victory signs and marched wrapped in the yellow, green and blue flags of the Berber movement that are now being waved across North Africa, from Libya to Mali to Morocco. They were calling for a release of Berber prisoners of conscience, a more democratic constitution and solidarity with other Berber movements in the region.

Modern history plays a part in the plight of the Berbers.

When the French colonized the region, they pitted the Berbers against the Arabs, trotting out anthropologists to categorize the Amazigh as an enlightened "European" race as opposed to the "backward" Arabs.

The result was an anti-Berber backlash when North Africa gained its independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Berbers pushing for their cultural and linguistic rights were seen as subversive and pro-European.

Some of the fiercest resistance to Arabization came from Algeria's Berbers, an estimated 30 percent of the country, who remain a center of opposition to the state and are widely seen to have founded the modern Berber rights movement in the 1960s from exile in France. Waves of Berber rights movements in Algeria have been met with harsh crackdowns.

Algeria and Morocco embarked on sweeping "Arabization" programs, ostensibly to cleanse French from their newly independent states but also to turn Berbers into Arabic speakers, said Ahmed Aasid, a Tamazight language expert at Morocco's Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture. He estimated that before independence, some 80 percent of Moroccans spoke Berber.

"Morocco was Arabized by the media and education," he said. "You don't need to Arabize a country that already speaks Arabic."

The language of the Amazigh, the defining aspect of their ethnicity, has always been central to the Berber struggle. But it is more than just a symbolic issue — for many, it has very practical consequences.

In Morocco's poor rural regions, Berber villagers often don't even speak the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, much less the high classical Arabic that is the official language of government and media.

Squatted on the packed earth floor of his hut high in the mountains, Lakenizaa maintains he knows nothing of political movements but is quick to say officials must learn Berber.

"All the representatives of the authority, from the lowest to the highest should learn to speak my language, otherwise they can just get away with whatever they want," he said, while two of his eight children played on his lap.

Lakenizaa at least can get by in the Moroccan dialect. But his wife, Mimouna, needs a relative to go with her any time she has to go into town to deal with the bureaucracy. If she ever had to go to court, she would need a translator to follow proceedings in her own country.

Dressed in a brilliant blue robe tied with a red sash, Mimouna fed bread loaves into a wood-fired clay oven.

"In front of the authorities," she said, "I just feel like a mute animal."