Most Moroccans applaud—and rightly so—the bold decision of King Mohamed VI to include in the preamble of the newly proposed constitution the official recognition of Tamazight as a state language alongside Arabic, the first official acknowledgement of Amazigh (Berber) identity on a constitutional level in a North African country. In fact, this inclusion is what some analysts have speculated led to the overwhelming approval of the July 1 constitutional referendum; Thomson Reuters reported that 98.5 percent of the population voted in favor, with a 73 percent turnout of registered voters. Skeptics cast doubts over that figure, citing voting irregularities, and point out that the king’s play of the Berber identity card is no more than a bid to pass off a cosmetically new constitution while holding on to his monarchy. Those who are more cynical suggest that the consequences might be dire, and lead Morocco down the road to the Algerian model of tension between those of Arab and Berber origins.
The second preambular paragraph of the amended constitution
outlines the national identity of Morocco:
"[Morocco is] a sovereign Muslim State, committed to the ideals of openness, moderation, tolerance and dialogue to foster mutual understanding among all civilizations; A Nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents : Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish and Mediterranean components."
The recognition of Tamazight is quite a shift; as recently as 2005, when Amazigh activists Ahmed Dgharni and Omar Louzi attempted to launch a political movement advocating Berber identity, their Moroccan Amazigh Democrat Party (PDAM) was banned by the Ministry of the Interior in 2007, and later legally dissolved on the grounds that ethnic-based parties were (and still are) prohibited in Morocco.
While Amazigh revival movements are a relatively recent trend in Morocco, Berber identity politics in the region are nothing new. During the colonial period, the French administration implemented policies intended to sow discord between Berbers and Arabs, while actively pushing a Francophone culture. The so-called “Berber Decrees” issued in May 1930 attempted to institutionalize two distinct legal systems in Morocco, one based on local “customary” laws for those considered “Amazigh” and another based on Islamic law for “Arabs.” Later nationalist movements in Algeria and Morocco reacted with a distinct emphasis on a pan-Arab unity and the role of the Maghreb in the Arabic-speaking world. The quest for a national and regional identity emphasized Arab while marginalizing Amazigh throughout North Africa, suppressing Berber identity for fear of breakaway movements—the most famous being the Berber Spring of 1980, which resulted in the arrest of hundreds of Berber activists in Kabyle and a general strike that lasted for weeks.
While the policy of “dual identity” succeeded in creating major social schisms in post-independence Algerian society, it failed in Morocco, where after centuries of intercultural exchange and intermarriage it has become difficult, if not entirely impossible, to distinguish a “pure Amazigh” from a “pure Arab.” From a historical point of view, claiming an Arab or Amazigh ancestry in Morocco amounted to nothing more than the political stressing of subjective identities, with one or the other emphasized at times and downplayed at others as the relation between movements and cultural changes in population were mediated by power. Claiming the Arab-Islamic title of sharif (noble) evoked a prestigious lineage connected to the Prophet Muhammad, giving the claimant the political legitimacy associated with the “commander of the faithful.” On the other hand, other Moroccan leaders have stressed an Amazigh pedigree so as to associate with such figures as Abdelkrim al-Khattabi, the Berber revolutionary who defeated the Spanish army during the battle of Anoual in 1921. It follows that Amazigh and Arab identities are not mutually exclusive, and that being one or the other is a cultural acquisition common to all Moroccans, even those who choose not to identify as such.
While historically different than Algeria, Morocco is not immune to a possible rift between what have hitherto been two fluid identities if the ongoing political reforms fail to deliver a truly citizen-based identity. Amazigh activists and pan-Arabists across Morocco have returned to the question of identity politics along the divisive model: within the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM), scholars question whether Morocco rightly belongs to the “Arab world,” while pan-Arab activists respond that Morocco’s Islamic identity is proof enough, accusing IRCAM of fostering ethnic divisions by choosing the neo-Tifinagh alphabet (rather than the Arabic) to write out Tamazight. Some Amazigh scholars and activists, such as the IRCAM member Meriem Demnati, have expressed concern that Morocco will follow Algeria’s example of “second-rate formalization,” in which the recognition of Berber identity is devoid of practical application. Such activists have become fierce critics of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development and the nationalist Istiqlal Party, which they accuse of being “Amazighophobe Arabists” bent on preventing official recognition of Amazigh identity and language. That said, ethnicity-based political parties (even ones advocating Berber identity issues) command little popular support, and are also still illegal under the newly approved constitution.
The king’s official recognition will also be felt elsewhere in the region. Ferhat Mehenni, President of the Provisional Kabyle Government (Kabyle being the Amazigh equivalent in Algeria) hailed
the constitutional reforms in Morocco, predicting that they will provoke other groups to press for similar constitutional recognition of Amazigh culture and language. Hitherto, other North African nations have, at most, recognized the vague “national” status of Amazigh, but left Arabic as the sole “official language” of state business. Mehenni has suggested that it will not be long before Algeria’s constitution will be changed if a working model gets underway next door.
Younes Abouyoub, Ph.D. researches political sociology at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.