Washington / Morocco Board News–The Moroccan Foreign Minister, Saad Eddine El Othmani, unexpected proposal to rename the “Arab Maghreb Union” as “”the Maghreb Union” is reinvigorating the debate over the social, linguistic and political status of the Amazigh people in “post-Arab Spring” North Africa. Activists from both sides of the debate view Mr. El Othmani’s suggestion to drop the word Arab form the appellation of the five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (known in French as the UMA) as thought provoking and controversial. The Tunisian and Algerian delegations rebuked immediately the Moroccan proposal.
El Othmani’s decision to remove of the word “Arab” from the UMA name was an attempt to make the union of five nations, where a sizable number of citizens are not of Arab descent, more inclusive. However, political and social realities in Algeria and Tunisia hampered this reasonable proposition. Even in Morocco where the idea enjoys some traction, few voices voiced displeasure with the “rebranding” of the UMA.
Not to sound discriminatory in their opposition, the Algerian and Tunisian Foreign Ministers dismissed the Moroccan proposal as “cosmetic” since the word Arab in the UMA refer to geographical location of the five nations that compose the Union rather than describe the racial makeup of its inhabitants. For the Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Amazigh activists, the Algerian and Tunisian dispositions on this subject are discriminatory with political, religious and racial overtones. Not all the people of North Africa speak and read Arabic.
Amazigh groups consider the Algerian refusal to change the name of the UMA as an attempt by Algiers to keep the demands of its sizable local Amazigh populations at bay. The political, economic and social tensions in the Kabyle region have been mounting lately with frequent workers strikes and anti-government demonstrations with the popular display of the Kabyle culture, language and heritage on the rise.
Faced with a growing popularity of the secessionist organization MAK (Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie) among the young Kabyle, the Algerian government avoids highlighting the state of affairs of its Amazigh population including the Ibadites and Chaouis tribes in the South. The Algerian security forces have violently cracked down on recent attempts by pro-MAK to hold demonstrations in the Kabyle city of Tizi Ouzou.
The Tunisian opposition stems from a religious standpoint. The newly installed government in Tunisia, influenced by elements of Islamist Annahda movement, considers the Arab heritage of North Africa interlinked with the Muslim nature of the UMA. For Islamists in Tunisia and Morocco, the removal of the word Arab from the Arab Maghreb Union threatens the Islamic fabric of North African communities.
Even though it was the Moroccan Foreign Minister who proposed to rename UMA, endorsement of this ideas is not unanimous among Moroccans. Just like in Tunisia, Moroccan religious organizations are not eager to sanction this move. Several Moroccan writers came out against the design arguing that the name reflects the Muslim nature of the North African societies. Also, some Moroccans are weary of the mounting activism of some Amazigh groups in Morocco especially in the North where some elements have been displaying anti-establishment slogans.
Lost in this argument are several historical facts that showcase the Islamic achievements of the Amazigh dynasties in Morocco and the nationalist scarifies of the Kabyle population during Algeria war of independence against France.
The association between Islam and Arabism in today’s North Africa is misplaced and archaic. Renaming the UMA to reflect the Amazigh character and personality of North Africa is overdue. Highlighting the Amazigh culture should be a source of pride and self-respect for all citizens of the five nations of the UMA. The forces attempting to derail the resurgence of the Amazigh personality in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are working against the forces of history and nature, thus doomed to fail. It is time for all the people of “al Maghreb” to embrace the Amazigh side of the North African personality.