Neutralising a potentially violent Berber uprising by instituting cultural reforms has been good for the Arab monarchy, the Berber diaspora and Moroccan people more generally.
Like many countries in Africa, Morocco is struggling to define its national identity. While the country is a melting pot of ethnicities, for centuries the Arab identity has monopolised public life. But in recent years, substantial segments of Morocco’s population have demanded increased recognition for their historic roots. This demand for recognition – called ‘Berberism’ or ‘Berber nationalism’ after the ethnic group that originally inhabited Morocco – could potentially destabilise the country.
The Berbers, who refer to themselves as Amazigh, or ‘free people’, are the indigenous peoples of the Maghreb – a region stretching from Morocco to Egypt. In the early part of the 8th century, Arabs from the Middle East moved into northern Africa, conquering the area and converting the Amazigh to Islam. Over hundreds of years, Amazigh and Arab culture and bloodlines melded to produce a uniquely Moroccan mélange. Today, ‘Berber-Arabs’ make up approximately 99 percent of the country’s population.
However, since 1549 Morocco has been ruled by an Arab dynasty that has promoted Arabic culture and values at the expense of the Amazigh. While Morocco never forcibly suppressed the Amazigh culture or language like neighbouring Algeria, Moroccan leaders did embark on a program of Arabisation. Key features of this program included the exclusive use of Arabic in schools and a ban on traditional Berber names on birth certificates. It was only in 2003 that King Mohammed VI – Morocco’s current king – decreed that primary schools could begin teaching the Berber language alongside Arabic.
THE AWAKENING OF BERBER NATIONALISM
In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, Berber nationalist movements in Morocco came to the fore. In response to popular demands for greater recognition of their culture, the Moroccan legislature drafted a new constitution enshrining Berber as an official language alongside Arabic. On July 1 of that year, a referendum on the new constitution was approved by 98.5 percent of voters with a reported 72.6 percent turn out.
Generally, the Moroccan government has been responsive to the interests and demands of Berbers. By making cultural and linguistic concessions in the 2011 constitution, interactions between the Moroccan government and Amazigh interest groups have remained peaceful. However, if members of Morocco’s Berber nationalist movement feel that their voices are no longer being heard they may resort to violence.
One only needs to look to nearby Mali for evidence of ethnic grievances resulting in violent unrest. There, members of a related Amazigh tribe called the Tuareg staged a pro-independence rebellion in 2012, ultimately resulting overthrow of the Touré administration (although Malian troops also had a hand in this). Similar violence could conceivably erupt in Morocco, although Rabat’s stable and responsive style of governance makes this outcome unlikely.
Given the Moroccan government’s willingness to cooperate with Amazigh groups, nationalists will instead continue to seek redress for grievances via political lobbying and peaceful demonstrations. Currently, political parties based on race and ethnicity are banned under Moroccan law, but some mainstream parties such as the Mouvement Populaire (‘Popular Movement’) have historically been receptive to Amazigh interests and are expected to continue to represent their interests in coming years.
ARAB CULTURE IN MOROCCO: HERE TO STAY
Despite the groundswell of acceptance of Berber culture, Arab culture and the Arabic language will remain the dominant force in Morocco. Nearly all citizens are Muslim and, despite the recent translation of the Quran into the Amazigh languages, reading and worshipping in Arabic is considered to be preferable by most Muslims. Similarly, although King Mohammed VI abrogated some of his power in the 2011 constitutional referendum, he remains a key figure in the Moroccan government and is generally liked by the people.
If current trends of nonviolent nationalism and permissive governance continue, the Amazigh language and culture are likely to become more integrated in Morocco over the next few generations. This will neutralise the latent threat of a violent Amazigh nationalist uprising (as seen elsewhere in the Maghreb) which could pose an existential threat to the Arab monarchy. Ultimately, embracing the cultural heritage of the Berber people is good not just for the Amazigh diaspora, but for all of Morocco’s citizens.
Colin is the Analysis division’s all-rounder editor, specialising in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency issues.