Excluded from cabinet, Libya's Berbers fear isolation

JADU, Libya Fri Nov 25, 2011 5:22pm GMT

Members of the Libyan Amazigh or Berber ethnic group celebrate at a rally at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli September 27, 2011. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Members of the Libyan Amazigh or Berber ethnic group celebrate at a rally at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli September 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

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JADU, Libya (Reuters) - After playing a central role in the revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, members of Libya's long-oppressed Berber minority, known among themselves as Amazigh, thought they had finally won a voice.

But a new interim government lineup that did not give them even a single cabinet seat has caused alarm that they may once again be banished to the sidelines of public life.

"We do not disagree with the new government, but we want to be represented and included with ministerial positions. We feel we are not included," said Ali Muhammed Shetwi, a senior member of the council of Jadu, an Amazigh town of roughly 20,000 perched on the cliff of a plateau in Libya's Western, or Nafusa, Mountains.

Shetwi was dressed in a similar style to Arab elders in the region, with a white robe knotted at his shoulder, a skull cap and brown waistcoat. It was only the subtle red and blue Amazigh design sewn at the hem of his clothes that differentiated him from the majority Arab population in Libya.

The tension between Amazigh and Arabs is one of the deepest of the many faultlines inside Libyan society which will make it hard to forge a united and cohesive state out of the ruins of Gaddafi's 42-year-rule.

Amazigh leaders responded immediately when the 51-member National Transitional Council (NTC) named the new government on Tuesday without including a single Amazigh minister.

On Wednesday, a group calling itself the Libyan Amazigh Congress said it was suspending all relations with the NTC. When the cabinet was inaugurated on Thursday, five Amazigh NTC members boycotted the ceremony.

DEMANDS OF THE NEW GOVERNMENT

In Jadu, where the blue, green and yellow flag of the Amazigh is painted on shop shutters and lampposts, residents gave a variety of views on how to deal with the lack of representation.

Elders like Shetwi say they accept the new leadership and believe their ethnic rights will be respected but want Amazigh to get senior posts to give them a voice in the nascent government.

Omar Saeed, an unemployed resident and one of Shetwi's companions, said he was willing to wait before complaining as the interim government will only last for seven months before a National Assembly is elected.

"We can accept this during these seven months, but in the future we need to be represented," he said. "First of all we are Libyan, but we are also Amazigh. Therefore the government should be Arab and Amazigh together."

Others - the younger crowd - were disheartened and prepared to stage public protests in the capital.

"The Amazigh must be represented according to their percentage of Libya's population and their share of the fighting. We need at least one ministerial position. Amazigh fought all over Libya," said art graduate Jamal Shadwi, who was plastering the walls of Jadu's central square in preparation for a festival to celebrate Libya's liberation.

A few meters away, accountant Tariq Labah, was recruiting people to head to Tripoli and occupy the main square.

"We are all going to Tripoli for a sit in, to peacefully protest (the lack of) ministerial positions for Amazigh," he said, surrounded by around 30 young men. "The Nafusa mountains was one of the first places to turn against Gaddafi," he added.

Some say they will "continue to revolt" if things do not change. In the capital, protests have been small so far. After decades of suppression, those identifying themselves as Amazigh are probably fewer than 5 percent of Libya's 6 million people.

LIFE UNDER GADDAFI

The Amazigh are fearful of continued isolation and say they want human rights, education and services.

"During Gaddafi's rule, there was nothing called "Amazigh," said elder Shetwi, adding that Amazigh towns were ignored. "Look around, it is not like a town in a country that is rich with oil. There are no nice buildings or services, the roads are awful and people have moved out."

During Gaddafi's rule, the Amazigh language was forbidden and Jadu residents say posters were hung in police stations stating that families were prohibited from naming their children with traditional Amazigh names.

Horror stories of long jail sentences for those who spoke the Amazigh language in public are rife in Jadu. One story repeated by many in Jadu tells the tale of a man who entered prison when his daughter was one year old. When he left, she was already married.

Yahya Baroni a retired electrician, says he and other Amazigh were forced into the army to fight Gaddafi's war with Chad in the 1980s.

"I was working for a foreign oil company and Gaddafi put me in the army for eight years," he said angrily. "When I retired he paid me a pension of $100 a month. I wanted to hang myself."

Baroni, who comes from a prominent family which prospered before Gaddafi came to power, says the Amazigh and towns like Jadu were deliberately isolated by Gaddafi, who feared the Amazigh would rise up against his Arab state.

"None of my four sons are working. The Amazigh like hunting in the desert but Gaddafi repeatedly confiscated our hunting rifles," he said.

The old city of Jadu lies in ruins. The sandstone walls of Baroni's family home have crumbled and the wood rafters of the collapsed roof are scattered in the street. Baroni says that Amazigh heritage was deliberately not preserved and families were moved into concrete houses in the new town.

Tired of being voiceless, the aging electrician says he wants Libya to be like America - myriad races tied under one nationality.

"The prime minister said that he wants qualified people in his cabinet," he said. "I studied electric engineering in the US, Italy and West Germany. I worked with Mobil Oil. There are lots of Amazigh who are qualified, even me."

(Editing by Peter Graff)

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