Morocco, the Amazigh issue and the 2011 Constitution
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Morocco, the Amazigh issue and the 2011 Constitution

September 12, 2019

The Amazigh population is an ethnic group
spread in all North Africa, known also by its more generic and pejorative term: “The
Berbers”. In Morocco they represent between the 40 and the 60 percent of the total population.
The Amazigh people are called Imazighen and the general name for the various dialects
is Tamazigh. Inside Morocco we find different Amazigh subgroups: in North of Morocco, Central
Morocco, in the Sousse Valley and the in the North Atlantic desert. Since the 70s they have been claiming the
recognition of their identity in several domains of the State, but their requests have been
largely ignored until the year 2001 In the last decade, under king Mohamed VI rule, they
have been recognised certain rights, as the institutionalisation of the Ircam, the Royal
Institute of Amazigh Culture. The Ircam was appointed, among other things, to the standardisation
of the Tamazigh alphabet: the Tifinagh. Since the adoption of the Tifinagh in 2003, school
books have been printed and Tamazigh classes have been created in some primary and secondary
schools in certain areas of the country. A TV channel with news and cultural programs
has also been created, and some road signs in Tamazigh have appeared. However, the most
significant claim of the Coalition of Amazigh Associations has been long ignored. Indeed,
the main proposal of the Manifest Amazigh (2000) and of the previous Charte d’Agadir
(1991), the most important Amazigh documents submitted to the King in the last decades,
was the constitutionalisation of the Amazigh language. This was not achieved until 2011. During the month of January, 2011, the spirit of the Arab Springs streamed in Morocco. An assemblage of civil society groups gave birth to the demonstrations that have been eventually named the 20 February Movement. The predominant claims of political nature, addressing the monarchical dominance and parliamentary corruption, were accompanied by a minor group of protesters advocating for human rights
and identity issues. Among these the recognition of Tamazigh was the major claim. In direct response to the protests, in March 9, 2011, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, gave a speech in the national TV announcing a referendum for the revision of the 1996 Constitution. The first point of the King’s
speech addressed the pluralist nature of the Moroccan identity, including the Amazigh identity, and only by the third point he started enumerating the political reforms that would limit the
King’s power, which constituted the very heart of the 20 February Movement. Neither the protests nor the Arab Spring were mentioned during his announcement, which seemed to incorporate the new constitution in the broad range of reforms initiated by the King from his taking office in 1999. In June 17, 2011, the King gave a second speech,
announcing that the new Constitution made of Tamazigh an official language of the Moroccan
Kingdom, thus apparently fulfilling the Amazigh Movement’s long-standing claim.
The Moroccan people welcomed the new Constitution with great enthusiasm. However, they focused
on changes about socio-cultural issues: the human rights and the institutionalisation
of Amazigh ethnicity. In other words, while the Amazigh issue was only a small part of
the 2011 demonstrations, the constitutionalisation of Tamazigh became one among the main factors
of the Morrocans’ support to the New Constitution. The majority of the political parties and
of the newspapers ecnouraged it’s approval in the referendum, although little had been
done to limit the King’s rule, proving their “domestication by the monarchy”. On the
contrary, nearly all the Amazigh organisations motivated their followers either to boycott
or to vote “no” in the referendum. Why? The Amazigh Movement’s most important critic
to the New Constitution concerned the unequal status given to Arabic and Tamazigh. Although Article 5 listed both of them as official languages, the legislator avoided
to attribute them an equivalent title by mentioning them in two separate sentences and by using
different formulas to introduce them. In particular, the distinction between “the”
and “an” official language of the State, marks a hierarchical relation between the two, where Arabic stands
as the primary language of the State, while Tamazigh appears to be only one among its
idioms. Since the Amazigh Movement considered the recognition of Tamazigh as a key for the
amazighophones to access further civil rights, this apparently small distinction might be
at the basis of additional discriminations that would create first and second class citizens.Thus,
the new constitution, although having been welcomed as a major event in the context of
the moroccan reforms, failed both to answer the 2011 demonstrations’ requests and to
satisfy the historical claims of the Amazigh movement. The Makhzen, the Moroccan establishment,
strategically managed to ensure the people’s support to the King by emphasising the identity
achievements of the new constitution, and by placing them in the broader context of
reforms carried out by the King over the last decades. The 2011 referendum has been used
by the Makhzen as a modern means of popular obedience, a tool to renew the bay’ah, the
traditional act of allegiance between the King and his subjects. In this way the new
constitution appeased the 2011 protests without answering, or even referring to them. Thus,
the Amazigh issue has been instrumentalised by the Makhzen, while being contemporarily
emptied from within. As we have seen, while the Amazigh association insisted in continuing
their battle and boycotting the referendum, for the majority of the Moroccan people a
symbolic recognition of Tamazigh was more important than a coherent project of linguistic
integration. The appropriation of the Amazigh cause by the monarchy has a long tradition
in Morocco, starting from Mohamed VI’s father, Hassan II. By symbolically answering to its
claims, the King domesticates and controls the Amazigh movement, preventing its development
into a regionalist project as it happened with the Movement for the autonomy of Kabylie
in Algeria. However the weight of the Amazigh association’s discontent might be more significant
than what the Makhzen have forseen it to be, eventually ending up in a radicalisation that
might put in danger the social cohesion. Thank you for watching.

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  1. Thanks for uploading this in English, we hardly get such material to divulge the cause, which I have tried do raise awareness about since 2010 in my cultural activism over the web. Please, if you can, also try and add English subtitles to the seven-video series "Amazigh Resistance" here on Youtube, I can feel it must have precious content on the cause! May all cultural and spiritual minorities in the north of Africa and the Middle East get their rights respected and their cultures preserved.

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