Review: Amazigh Politics in the Wake of the Arab Spring, by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

By Juliet O’Brien

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman’s latest work, Amazigh Politics in the Wake of the Arab Spring, explores the complexities of the increasingly salient Amazigh identity movement in North African (and diasporic) politics and society since the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. His study possesses both depth and breadth, examining five case studies of Amazigh activism in Algeria, Libya, Azawad (Mali), Tunisia, and Morocco. By focussing specifically on Amazigh interventions in cultural, political, and socio-economic activism, Maddy-Weitzman adds much-needed nuance to the existing academic literature on the Arab uprisings of 2011. His thesis, that “the increasingly visible and assertive Amazigh movement shifted its emphasis from being primarily ethnocultural to one that was more explicitly political and socioeconomic,” captures the recent evolution of Amazigh activism and offers questions for the future of North African politics (Maddy-Weitzman, 4). 

In his introduction, Maddy-Weitzman contextualises the emergence of the Amazigh identity movement, which asserts the linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic rights of Imazighen, indigenous inhabitants of North Africa possessing their own distinct languages and cultures.[1] Tamazight-speaking peoples comprise 40-45% of Morocco’s population, 20-25% of Algeria’s population, 6-10% of Libya’s, and 1-2% of Tunisia’s; this is in addition to the millions of Amazigh Tuaregs in countries such as Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, and the millions of Imazighen in the diaspora (6). Despite the French colonial “Berber myth” that considered Imazighen to be ethnically superior to Arabs, as well as divisional colonial politics that sought to divide and rule Arab and Amazigh populations, Imazighen contributed significantly to the independence struggles of Algeria and Morocco in particular (see article by Mohand Tilmatine). Yet post-independence Arabisation policies, influenced by Nasser’s pan-Arab current, oppressed Amazigh peoples both de facto and de jure. As a result, Amazigh activism–then called “Berberism”–began in France in the 1960s with immigrants from Algeria’s Kabyle region (see source by Abderrahman El Aissati). Despite repression and intimidation, distinct manifestations of Amazigh activism emerged and, indeed, continue to increase into the present day throughout much of the region in which Imazighen are found.

In his first case study, Maddy-Weitzman examines “the Amazigh factor” in previous iterations of regime contestation in Algeria (23). He focusses particularly on the history and participation of the Kabyle region in Amazigh identity activism–the region in which the 1980 “Berber Spring” (Tafsut Imazighen) began (10). The majority of the chapter, however, centres on the post-2011 period. Maddy-Weitzman discusses the political challenge posed by the Mouvement pour l’Autonomie de la Kabylie (MAK), a more radical wing of the Kabyle movement that advocated for Kabyle self-determination (32). Demands from the Amazigh movement resulted in limited constitutional gains, such as the 2016 officialisation of the Amazigh language alongside Arabic. Imazighen participated extensively in the 2019 Hirak anti-regime protests; though the pouvoir (regime) tried to paint Amazigh participants and their flags as separatist in nature, their political and socio-economic demands illustrate the potentially far-reaching national consequences of increasing Amazigh assertiveness (50). 

Subsequently, Maddy-Weitzman turns to a previously-ignored location in studies of Amazigh history and activism: Libya. This chapter is particularly illuminating given the dearth of scholarship on Libyan Amazighité; here, the author demonstrates the ways in which the rebellion against Qaddafi brought Libyan Imazighen into the fore, such that they were “obscure no longer” (65). Maddy-Weitzman writes, “In seven months’ time, the Libyan Amazigh community had gone from a peripheral, ignored minority to an assertive and relatively cohesive community demanding a share in the post-Qaddafi landscape” (69). Libyan entry into the pan-Amazigh universe is indeed a phenomenon to watch in the evolving Amazigh movement.

Maddy-Weitzman’s next chapter tackles both the establishment and collapse of Azawad as a breakaway state with a distinct Tuareg (Amazigh) dimension. Despite the success of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) in declaring independence from Mali in 2012, its inability to administer the territory and keep jihadi-Salafi elements at bay ultimately resulted in the organisation’s division and Azawad’s breakdown the following year. This case study is particularly interesting given the Tuaregs’ “special place in the Amazigh imaginaire” as a distinct and often “idyllic” subgroup of Imazighen (97; 104). The assertion of ethnonationalism by Tuaregs marks a recent but important development in Amazigh activism.

Image accessed via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Azawad_map-english.jpg.

In his fourth chapter, Maddy-Weitzman looks at the “singular success story of the Arab Spring uprisings”: Tunisia (105). The relatively small size of the Tunisian Amazigh population and the endangerment of Tunisian Amazigh languages by Arabisation has led to a neglect of Tunisian Imazighen in scholarship. Maddy-Weitzman seeks to rectify this oversight, demonstrating Amazigh participation in the revolution of 2011 and their increasing assertiveness in the more open post-2011 political space. He also illustrates recent manifestations of pan-Amazigh solidarity, including those with Amazigh refugees from Libya (116).

Finally, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman turns to Morocco, the nation with the highest relative percentage of Tamazight-speakers in the region. This chapter arguably requires the most nuance, given the need to portray, all at once, the uneasy nature of royal cooptation of the Amazigh movement, the regionalistic aims of protests in the Rif region, and the evolving socioeconomic and political nature of Amazigh activism in the country. Here, Maddy-Weitzman answers the call. Though Moroccan Amazigh activists achieved the most significant of their aims, including the constitutionalisation of Tamazight and the recognition of the Amazigh dimension of Morocco’s plural identity, the author argues that a certain “pessimism, even malaise” characterises Moroccan Amazigh activism in the current moment (154). This pessimism stems mainly from a lack of implementation of Tamazight linguistic education and continued socio-economic grievances from impoverished rural parts of the country.

Overall, Amazigh Politics in the Wake of the Arab Spring contributes new, much-needed scholarship on the evolution of recent currents in Amazigh activism throughout North Africa. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman takes a comprehensive look at developments where Amazigh activism was previously established, such as Algeria and Morocco. In such contexts, he exposes a salient division between parts of the Amazigh cause that prioritise cultural and linguistic gains, and those that embrace newer and sometimes more controversial tactics in the political sphere (155). Maddy-Weitzman also devotes significant attention to typically neglected or previously unasserted spheres of Amazigh identity activism, such as in Tunisia, Libya, and the Tuareg communities of Mali. This book is essential reading for all those interested not only in Amazigh activism, but also minority rights and indigeneity discourses, North African politics, and transnational identity movements. 

On a lesser note, Maddy-Weitzman’s Amazigh music recommendations sprinkled throughout his chapters are not to be missed! I delved into the music of Tinariwen, Nora Gharyéni, and others following my reading. Amazigh Politics in the Wake of the Arab Spring is available from University of Texas Press and Amazon pre-order.

[1] Amazigh peoples were once commonly referred to as “Berbers.” This term is now seen as pejorative, due to its roots in the Greek barbaroi, meaning “barbarian.” “Berber,” Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, accessed January 10, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/berber.