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National Identity in Post-Gaddafi Libya

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National Identity in Post-Gaddafi Libya 

After the international intervention in Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, the Libyan people are, as the summer of 2014 draws to a close, finally facing the crucial task of setting a new constitution. The main question is which Libyan national identity the constitution will set forth. Will it be an Arab and Islamic national identity? Or will it be more inclusive of the non-Arab Libyans and the secular part of the population?

Photo: Frank M. Rafik, Creative Commons

Until now the political authorities, represented by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and from June 2012 the General National Congress (GNC), have promoted an Arab and Islamic Libyan national identity which is widely accepted by the majority of Libyans. This article will focus on the persistent criticism of a common Arab and Islamic Libyan national identity from one of the ethnic minorities in Libya, namely the Amazighs, i.e. the Berbers, representing 8-9% of the Libyan population, and their struggle for constitutional recognition as equal citizens in post-Gaddafi Libya.

The current situation in Libya
In the summer of 2014, Libya is in the midst of severe fights similar to a civil war. It appears to be a battle between Islamists and anti-Islamists, although the ideological contention might be tied to different economic interests or to mere power struggles.

The anti-Islamist agenda is headed by Khalifa Haftar, a retired general, whose main task has been to fight the Islamists’ influence in the government and consequently the control by Islamistic militias of large areas of Libya, mainly in the East. Especially the escalation of violence in Benghazi within the last year and the total control of Derna by Ansar Al Shari’a, an Al Qaeda affiliated Salafist movement, have led to his attacks on the GNC and to a demand for a more confrontational approach toward militant Islamic groups. In February he declared the government suspended, but the alleged coup was rejected by the GNC. In May Haftar was back, and now, supported by different parties of the Libyan society, he launched Operation Dignity, a military campaign to directly confront the Islamistic influence in Eastern Libya.

The military confrontations have spread from the Eastern part of Libya to the Tripoli area in the West. The battle for control of Tripoli Airport between attacking Misrata militias in support of an Islamistic agenda and the Zintan militias supporting Haftar has received considerable attention from the international society and withdrawal of diplomats from Libya.

The current situation is a result of the failure of the GNC which seemed to lack both the will and capacity to perform basic tasks of a political leadership such as promoting security and economic stability in the country. The opposition to the political leadership culminated in February as the GNC had extended its own mandate without popular support. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan finally resigned, but it did not solve the disputes over who was to take power. In May the GNC reacted to the political deadlock and called an election to the House of Representatives in order to replace the GNC by June 25. We still need to see the consequences of the outcome of the election, though in the beginning of August Haftar expressed his support for the new parliament, apparently less dominated by Islamists.

The constitutional drafting process
In the middle of this political and military turmoil, the Constituent Assembly is working on a constitution draft. The assembly was elected in February and met for the first time in April 2014. According to the legal set-up, the assembly has 120 days to put forward the draft. This means we may expect the draft at the end of August (On August 24, the Assembly announced that an initial draft of the constitution will be presented in December). The assembly, headed by Ali Tarhouni, has issued a behavior codex for the members to ensure political independence. For instance the members may not make contact with persons or groups outside the assembly who want to influence the drafting process. It is obvious that it is an attempt to add legitimacy to the assembly and consequently to the constitution they draft.

A final constitution has been long anticipated as the constitutional drafting process has been extended repeatedly due to contention about the designation and composition of the drafting body. As stated in the interim Constitutional Declaration of August 2011, the constitutional power should be selected by the parliament. By amendments to the declaration, the formation process has been altered so that the constitutional power instead should be elected directly by the Libyan people. As a consequence the parliament has renounced the right to reject a constitution draft before handing it over to a referendum. This is the main issue which has been criticized by the Libyan Amazighs as they fear that by denying the consensus principle the minority claims might be overridden. Although three ethnic minorities, the Amazighs, the Tuaregs, and the Tebus, are represented in the 60-member assembly by two seats each, they are still underrepresented compared to the composition of the Libyan population; this is the accusation. The crisis escalated in the fall of 2013 as the Supreme Council of Libyan Amazigh announced a boycott of the constitutional election in February because the consensus principle was infringed.

The Amazigh council was established in January 2013 in order to speak with one Amazigh voice in the political debate. The council is seen as representing the Amazigh cities in Libya. It goes without saying that there might be internal disagreement in the Amazigh community on both goals and tactics, but it seems as if the council has succeeded in uniting the Libyan Amazighs.

What are the Amazigh claims to a Libyan national identity?

From the begining of the civil war in 2011, Amazigh rebels were part of the struggle to overthrow Gaddafi. The Amazigh identity was clearly a motivational element for the fighters from the Amazigh dominated areas of the Narfusa Mountains in the Western part of Libya. The international Amazigh flag was flying from cars and roof tops, and the three Amazigh letters of the word Amazigh were painted on pickups. And as soon as the state control loosened, classes were set up to be taught the Amazigh language, which was banned under Gaddafi.

The Amazigh claims to the post-Gaddafi state have been very clear. They want recognition by the Libyan state, not only as a minority, or a component of the Libyan society, but as the indigenous people of the Libyan territory. This means that they demand a Libyan national identity that is not primarily Arab, and not primarily Islamic. As for the Arab element, they demand the Amazigh language to be recognized as the official language of the state beside Arabic and not only as a national language accepted to speak for the Amazighs. As for the Islamic element, they demand that Libya becomes a secular state which recognizes different religious identities on equal terms. Beside the ideological desire for a secular state, the reluctance toward Libya becoming an Islamic state is due to the fear of Libya becoming an Islamist state, which might view the Ibadi Muslim identity of the Libyan Amazighs as heresy.

In April the Supreme Council of Libyan Amazigh specified their ultimative demand for the consensus principle, stressing that at least two thirds of the entire Constituent Assembly, including all six Amaizgh, Tebu, and Tuareg members, must agree on a draft concerning the name of the state, its identity, flag , national anthem and language.

The international Amazigh movement
The Libyan Amazighs fight alongside Amazighs in the other countries in North Africa and the Sahel as well as Amazigh minorities in Europe and North America. The Amazigh movement emerged primarily as a reaction to Arab socialism (combining socialism with nationalism), which became the ideological foundation in many post-colonial states in the Arab world. In Algeria, as an example, in the attempt to build a post-colonial national identity against the French influence, the state conducted a forced Arabization on the Algerians. The consequence was a very strong resentment among the Algerian Amazighs and the Amazigh immigrants in France. Other Amazigh groups shared this resentment, which evolved into a cultural awakening in the sixties and the seventies, with the focus on maintaining Amazigh language and culture, and from the eighties and the nineties a political awakening demanding constitutional rights. The culmination was the establishment of the World Amazigh Congress (WAC) in 1995, which was created to protect Amazigh identity and to advocate the rights of Amazighs throughout the world and particularly in the Amazigh countries in North African and the Sahel. The cultural and language rights of the Amazigh are only seen guaranteed in states based on universal rights, not on particular ethnic identities.

The Libyan Amazighs have adopted the WAC agenda, just as Libyan Amazighs work within the WAC. From 2011, Fathi Ben Khalifa, one of the leading Libyan Amazigh activists, has been the elected president of the organization.

What are the Libyan Amazighs up against?
When the Constitutional Declaration was issued in August 2011, the majority of Amazighs felt betrayed by the NTC which, in their point of view, just repeated the Arab-centric attitude towards the Amazighs, so they stopped backing them. In Article 1 of the declaration, it is stated that the identity of the state is Islamic and Arab: “Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Shari’a) […] Arabic is its official language”. Although it also ensures freedom of religion for non-Muslims and “cultural rights for all components of the Libyan society and its languages shall be deemed national ones”, it was unsatisfactory for the Amazighs as they were only granted minority rights. In addition to this legally sanctioned marginalization of the Amazighs, there was a growing feeling among Amazighs of condescension and hostility from Arab NTC members. For example, the NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil accused Fathi Ben Khalifa of being an Israeli agent after he had criticized that the Palestinian case got more attention than any other conflicts in the Arab world. It is clear that a major group of Libyans believe the Amazighs are pushing their luck too far.
On the other hand, the insensitivity and ignorance displayed by Arab Libyans are heard as an echo of the Gaddafi era where no identity but the Arab one was accepted. In a speech in 2007, Gaddafi emphasized that Berber is synonymous with Arab, and if the Amaizghs do not submit to this they must be foreign agents: “We [i.e. the Libyans] went by land, by land [in Arabic: barr barr] so they call us ‘Berbers’ […] The Amazigh tribes died out a long time ago […] No one can say ‘my origin is this, that, or the other’. Whoever says this is an agent of colonialism.”

The Constituent Assembly has expressed a more inviting attitude than both the NTC and the GNC. In June they set up a committee to negotiate with “our Amazigh brothers”. The Amazighs have so far declined the invitation, though, and uphold the boycott.

The future
As we have seen in other Arab countries after the 2011 uprisings and regime changes, the constitutional process is a locus for ideological and identity discussion. The main area of contention has been the role of Islam. In Libya the Arab identity is challenged by the Amazighs, and it is of great importance how the Constituent Assembly gauge the political development over the summer and how they will meet the Amazigh claims unilaterally. 

Further reading

About the author

Anne Sofie Schøtt

Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College

Email: fak-ifs-17@fiin.dk