Libya beset by ethnic tension as elections loom

Luke Harding reports: In a villa on Libya’s stunning sea coast, a sculptor finishes off a war memorial. It commemorates the 50 men from the western town of Zuwara who perished last year in the battle against Muammar Gaddafi.

The slab, which is destined for Zuwara’s small concrete roundabout, is engraved in two languages: one is Arabic, the other is Tifinagh, the ancient script of North Africa’s Berbers, or Imazighen (the Berbers prefer to be called Imazighen, noting that Berber originally meant “barbarian”). Before last year’s uprising, anyone who spoke Berber in public could be arrested.

During his 42 years in power, Gaddafi persecuted the country’s minority Berber or Amazigh community, arresting its leaders, banishing its language from schools, and having protesters beaten. His vision for Libya was as a mono-Arab state. Gaddafi insisted the “traitorous” Imazighen were an ethnolinguistic fiction, even though they make up about 600,000 of Libya’s 6 million population.

Nearly a year after Gaddafi was turfed out of power, and days before the country’s first democratic election this Saturday, Amazigh culture is enjoying a revival. Zuwara’s secret police headquarters has been transformed into an Amazigh radio station. A beach mansion belonging to a Gaddafi loyalist is home to an artists’ workshop and a recording studio where banned Tifinagh songs and poems are heard again. Amazigh activists are busy relearning their forgotten, 2,000-year-old Punic alphabet.

But there are darker rumblings too. In March, 17 people were killed after fighting erupted between Amazigh Zuwara and the neighbouring Arab towns of Riqdaleen and Al-Jamail. The two sides lobbed mortars at each other. The ethnic clashes were triggered by fresh tensions over who did what during last year’s revolution – with Zuwara accusing its neighbours of siding with Gaddafi – as well as smouldering disputes over land and smuggling routes.

This isn’t post-revolutionary Libya’s only conflict. In the absence of a strong central authority, ethnic quarrels have broken out in several parts of the country, most notably in the south-eastern desert town of Kufra. Here, more than 150 people have been killed in fighting between black Toubou tribesmen and their Arab Zuwayy neighbours, leading some to wonder whether the country is already beginning to fall apart. [Continue reading…]

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