Perspectives on Geopolitics, History, and Political Economy

‘Libya needs to start again from scratch’: Interview with the President of the Amazigh Supreme Council

Originally published on New Internationalist

By Karlos Zurutuza

Kharie Elhamesi is the elected president of Libya's Amazigh Supreme Council. © Karlos Zurutuza

Kharie Elhamesi is the elected president of Libya’s Amazigh Supreme Council. © Karlos Zurutuza

Khaire Elhamesi chairs the Amazigh Supreme Council (ASC), an umbrella organization for the eight main Amazigh locations in Libya. He won his seat in August 2015 through a ground breaking election process from which the 26 executive members of the ASC were elected, in groups of three, for each location: a delegate of the municipal council, as well as two other candidates – male and female – elected by each community. In municipalities where there is an Arabic majority, two extra seats are allocated for two towns with an Amazigh population.

The ASC held its first congress on 27 September, 2011 agreeing on a clear demand for the constitutional recognition of Tamazight, their language. The organizers also decided to create representative bodies for each of the Amazigh towns in Libya. The one in Zuwara – an Amazigh coastal enclave as well as Elhamesi’s hometown – was elected in November 2011, in Libya’s first ever democratic election.

Over the last year the council has been holding monthly meetings in their Tripoli headquarters, or as often as security conditions allow.

Five years after the war that ended Moamar Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, Libya looks as unstable as ever. Your areas, however, look safer than others in the country.

Even before Tripoli fell to the rebellion, in August 2011, we knew it would take a long time for the various factions and sensibilities in Libya to reach an agreement. We decided not to wait until things settled down by taking our own path.

A pressing priority was the protection of our territory and today we have consolidated defence units in each of our locations, something which contributes to the high levels of security that we enjoy despite our many enemies. There’s also another key factor: we are a concentrated majority in our areas, mainly because we have barely mixed with our Arab neighbours.

The right for an autonomous region of our own is embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

I’d also like to highlight the brigade combating migrant smugglers in Zuwara. It’s a local initiative which has dealt a major blow to the scourge of human trafficking to Europe.

Other Libyan towns, such as Misrata, also boast of high levels of security. What makes you different from the rest?

In the political arena we have created our own electoral commission and organized elections with representation quotas for women. And let’s not forget the huge steps taken toward the standardization of our Tamazight language. We managed to stop the decades-long Arabization campaigns and today our schooling system offers education in our own language.

We even have an Amazigh Language and Literature Department at the University of Zuwara. It’s also important to mention the commission for the revision of the text books to avoid radical Islamic content littering Libya’s schools. I’m proud to say that our Tamazight language books are the only ones in which a Libyan child can come across a Libyan Jew, Muslim and a Christian.

Karlos Zurutuza
A Tamazight language class in Jadu, in the Nafusa mountains.
Karlos Zurutuza

Yet both rival governments of Tripoli and Tobruk agree that you want to break the country.

I challenge anyone to prove it. Gaddafi also stuck to that narrative and, unfortunately, both governments follow suit. We’ve always held out our hand to anyone who accepts the diversity of Libya but we are also blunt in the sense that we will not accept being treated as second class citizens again. That is, by far, the most poisonous legacy after four decades of Gaddafi in power: the systematic rejection of the different, be them non-Arab, non-Muslims… It’s a mindset deeply rooted in the psyche of the Libyan people and it will take generations to get rid of it.

However, the ASC has not yet been clear on their model of state for both Libya and its Amazigh community. Would you vow for an Amazigh autonomous region? Eventually a federal state like the one supported by the Kurds in Syria?

We follow with great interest the developments in Rojava given that the Kurds are another people seeking their place among the Arab nationalist and the Islamic pressure. There are many parallels between them and us. However, their political model cannot be extrapolated to Libya as we are talking about two different social and political scenarios.

In any case, the right for an autonomous region of our own is embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is true that we have not yet made a clear statement in this regard but an Amazigh autonomous region is a model that is increasingly getting greater acceptance among our people.

A autonomous region that includes the Nafusa mountain range and the coastal town of Zuwara?

This is something we should consider very carefully because, among other things, there are around 200,000 Amazigh living in Tripoli, who actually make the majority in two districts.

Karlos Zurutuza
An Amazigh political demand on display in the streets of Zuwara.
Karlos Zurutuza

The rival governments of Tripoli and Tobruk have the backing of countries such as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, UAE and Egypt. Who supports you?

Both inside and outside the country we tend to forget that Libya is in North Africa, and not in the Persian Gulf, and not even in the Middle East. We therefore seek allies among our Mediterranean neighbours, both in Europe and in Africa. A few weeks ago we met with members of the Democratic Renewal Movement in Niger. Also, an ASC delegation met with EU senior representatives in Paris and Strasbourg last June.

The Algerian government has also stated explicitly that the Amazigh in Libya are an asset for security in the region, although we are fully aware of Algieria’s belligerent position toward our brothers in Kabylia.

We follow with great interest the developments in Rojava given that the Kurds are another people seeking their place among the Arab nationalist and the Islamic pressure

We belong to the Mediterranean basin, and that is where we must look for our natural allies, be it recognized states such as France or Italy, or stateless peoples like Catalans and Basques.

The third government at stake in Libya is the so-called Government of National Accord, which has the support of the UN. Could this one be another potential ally?

They have never consulted us or called the ASC for talks so we cannot support a political entity that does not recognize us. This self-proclaimed ‘Government of National Agreement’ which includes former members from Tripoli and Tobruk is actually revitalising the other two governments whose term expired long ago. Libya needs to start again from scratch, with new and democratic institutions capable of articulating the will of all Libyans.

Khaire Elhamesi is President of Libya’s Amazigh Supreme Council.

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