The wave of popular uprisings that has shaken the Middle East and North Africa is popularly seen as an ‘Arab Spring’. A number of alternative terms, deemed more appropriate, or less misleading, have also been proposed, including the ‘Arab Awakenings’, the ‘Arab Intifadas’, the ‘Arab Revolutions’ or the ‘Arab Rebellions’. What seems incontrovertible is that these were ‘Arab’ phenomena. But this obstructs an important reality, particularly in the Maghreb region: many of those involved in organising or participating in the pro-democracy movement in the Maghreb did not identify themselves as ‘Arabs’. Moreover, important segments of these protest movements were explicitly framed as representing the demands and aspirations of the Maghreb’s Berber populations.
As Libyans, Moroccans and Algerians descended into the streets to join the widening protest movement across the region, most international coverage and commentary on the protests portrayed the demonstrations as being, in essence, a further iteration of the ‘Arab Spring’ protest phenomenon – echoing those in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. While the protests in the Maghreb were broadly framed around calls for social justice, individual liberties and human rights, they contained a strong and unmistakable element of Berber rights campaigning, something that was almost entirely overlooked in the international media coverage. The Amazigh awakening had been obscured behind the catch-all term of the ‘Arab Spring’. In fact, even in instances where coverage did allude to issues of cultural identity rights, this was mostly in the intra-Arab context of disenfranchised religious or sectarian groups such as the Copts in Egypt or the Sunnis in Syria. This framing, while valid enough in the Mashreq, struck a dissonant note for many in the Maghreb who saw their quest for the recognition of their Amazigh heritage and culture elbowed out of the mainstream narrative even as it was being written.