Africa looks to us as one continent, with perhaps the most recognizable shape of the lot and only the smallest land connection to Asia. But for all its geographic continuity, Africa contains a continental divide as profound as any ocean, and becomes a very different place on either side. Rather like Asia. And the north side had five wars last year. But what’s going on there?
The Sahara Desert separates North Africa from the rest of Africa, and its edge, the subtropical Sahel, translates as the “coastline of trees,” demarcating the ocean of sand. Where the region south of the Sahel mostly evaded foreign conquest until Rome’s successor empires found it, the north spent much longer under foreign heels. The ocean of sand proved a much more formidable barrier than the Mediterranean Sea.
As in greater Persia, North Africa is a region comprised of many peoples who nearly all speak similar languages. The Afro-Asiatic language family, which also includes Arabic, Hebrew, Samaritan, and Somali, dominates the region. Unlike the Iranian or Romance languages, however, the Afro-Asiatic family is relatively poorly known prior to the prominence of Ancient Egyptian, so it is not at all obvious whether the family has its roots in a single empire like so many others. Indeed, North Africa saw a succession of empires from within and without—Carthage, Egypt, Numidia, Rome, Byzantium, Morocco, Visigoth, Mali, Songhai, Umayyad, Fatimid, Ottoman, French, British—and each left its mark on the region’s people.
One empire stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of its lasting effect on North Africa, persisting long after several others came and went: the Arab Caliphates. The Umayyad Caliphate in particular attempted to Arabize the entire region, seeing Arab culture as another aspect of Islam. By the time the Ottomans conquered the region, what had once been a dense tapestry of Amazigh, Coptic, and other tribes was a continuum of Arab-Amazigh and Arab-Egyptian culture, unique in each region but united under the Arab aegis and by the Arabic language.
And then Europe arrived.
Like the rest of Africa, North Africa was parceled between European powers. France, Italy, and Britain set a mutable series of boundaries throughout the Sahara, splitting related peoples, combining hostile tribes, and otherwise doing their level best to divide and conquer. With the region’s polities now independent, old problems have become new. The unity proffered by ancient Afro-Asiatic heritage and more recent Arab culture, like the Swahili heritage that makes the East African Federation possible, makes North Africa a particularly interesting case.
Understanding the conflicts in North Africa requires understanding the role of the Arab people in the region. Arabs are simultaneously among the conquered, colonized people of North Africa and its most effective colonizers. Much as in Latin America, the Arab invaders of the seventh century intermingled extensively with the native Copts, Amazighen, and others. This new Arab-Amazigh ethnicity was distinct from both the remaining indigenous North Africans and the Arabs who remained in Asia. Arabic became the most common language of the entire region, with each cultural area having its own distinctive dialect separate from the official Standard Arabic. This merger was so thorough that self-identified Amazighen and others persist only as minority indigenous groups amidst a wholesale Arab hegemony. This has persisted through several subsequent colonizations by the Ottoman Turks, French, British, and Italians.
When the various Arab-majority regions of North Africa gained independence from France, Italy, and Britain and finally asserted their own places on the world stage, they did so from within borders imposed on them by these colonial powers. Ottoman control had never extended far into the desert, but European dominion over Africa had been pervasive. In some cases, the borders between regions more-or-less followed local cultural divisions, such as between Morocco and the rest of North Africa or between Egypt and Sudan. In others, however, the boundaries between regions were more administrative constructs than anything, sometimes designed specifically for divide-and-rule politics. Such are the boundaries between Algeria and most of its neighbors. This is most evident where the Sahara meets the Sahel, where virtually every country that straddles this line contains dramatically different cultures on either side.
Arab cultural hegemony in North Africa is so entrenched that it never faced any real threat, unlike the other cultures to be discussed here. In most cases, the conflicts to be discussed are the demands of a minority in the region to separate itself from this Arab-Amazigh majority and assert its own identity against the tide of Arabic nationalism. For the African Arabs themselves, the lines whose shifting has been discussed are not usually the lines that entangle them with non-Arab neighbors, but the lines between the various African Arab states themselves.
The potential unity of the Arab world has not been lost on the region’s leaders. While the overall trajectory of Arab-world politics has more in common with the standard post-colonial narrative of military dictators, wars for democracy, and Cold-War maneuvers between US and Soviet influence, it has also been marked by numerous attempts to merge states. The most notable of these were spearheaded by Muammar Gadhafi of Libya and Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. These leaders, all motivated by then-ascendant pan-Arab nationalism, attempted and occasionally succeeded at merging various Arab states in 1958 (Egypt and Syria), 1969 (Egypt, Libya, Sudan), 1971 (Egypt, Libya, Syria), 1972 (Egypt and Libya within the previous union), 1974 (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria), 1976 (Egypt and Syria within the previous union), 1977 (Egypt, Sudan, Syria). None of these unions lasted more than a few years if they were implemented at all. While Muammar Gadhafi was arguably the loudest proponent of unity between the African Arab states in particular, Egypt’s leaders (in particular Nasser) were the most insistent. Pan-Arabism also found support among Iraq’s political class, within the Ba’athist framework that occupied Iraq, Syria, and Egypt for many years.
Unfortunately for Pan-Arabism, utopian ideals of regional unity consistently fell afoul of cold, practical reality. Weaker partners such as Syria often felt like they were simply being annexed by their larger neighbors, a sentiment that undid several unions with large, powerful Egypt. Each region also developed enough cultural idiosyncrasies that becoming single entities with their neighbors felt like a betrayal of their heritage. Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco increasingly felt that merging with neighbors on the basis of shared Arabic culture would mean neglecting or disavowing their long, storied pre-Arab histories and identities that had emerged locally since then. Other regions, likewise, felt that a pan-Arab union would downplay the aspects of each region’s identity that came from its local, indigenous peoples. In regions where those indigenous peoples remained a large or cohesive fraction of the population, the fear that their identities would be further erased also worked against Arab unity. Many such peoples, such as the Kabyles, Tuaregs, Fur, and Tedda Toubou, already faced policies designed to assimilate them into the Arab mainstream; a larger, explicitly Arab state could only worsen their standing. Widespread apprehension of Gadhafi as a mercurial, quixotic, ultimately untrustworthy figure certainly did not help, nor did Libya’s and Egypt’s different methods of handling Israel. And, of course, the idea of solving all of these problems by permitting these various minorities to seek the independence that many of them desperately desire was beyond the pale.
The Sahrawi people are the people of Western Sahara, administered as the southernmost provinces of Morocco. As a nomadic, tribal subset of the Arab-Amazighs, they resisted outside control even by the local Mauritanian emirates, and proved just as intractable for the Caliphates, the Moroccan dynasties, and the French and Spanish colonizers. When Spain finally established firm control, it laid internal borders all across the traditional tribal territories and interfered with the trans-Saharan caravan trade that was the Sahrawis’ primary economic activity. The Sahrawis secured Spanish withdrawal from their territory via a war for independence spearheaded by the Polisario Front with Algerian backing, but their Moroccan and Mauritanian neighbors claimed the territory as well. The United Nations ruled in favor of Sahrawi self-determination, but the territory remains occupied by Morocco. Further agitations during the Arab Spring revolts did not bring about a change in status.
The Tuaregs constitute the largest Amazigh group in Africa, outside of the Arab-Amazighen. They are also, perhaps, the group whose situation most resembles that of the Kurds in Asia. The Tuaregs are famous for their indigo robes, which have earned them the moniker “blue people,” and for their instrumental role in the trans-Saharan salt trade prior to colonization. Tuaregs claim a vast swath of the southern Sahara, stretching from Mauritania to Chad, but their territory is segmented between the former French colonies of Mali, Algeria, and Niger, with a smaller presence in southwestern Libya. Thanks to this split, they are a minority in all of the countries where they are found, despite being sizable majorities in most of the regions they inhabit. In the past, some of their territory was controlled by other empires in the region, such as the Mali and Songhai.
They are also increasingly known for how well-armed they are. Tuareg militants were involved in the recent Libyan civil war, and the weapons they brought home with them helped them reorganize as the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and temporarily gain control over the northern two-thirds of Mali with help of local Islamist groups. This would have become a new, Tuareg-majority state known as Azawad, which might eventually have grown to encompass the Tuareg-majority areas in neighboring states. The secular, local MNLA received no diplomatic recognition before their Islamist, often foreign allies turned on them, seizing control of Azawad’s large cities, imposing harsh Sharia law, and destroying local religious sites that did not comply with their version of Islam. This led to the MNLA abandoning its demand for independence and asking for African Union and French troops to expel the Islamists. For now, Azawad has been returned to Malian control with negotiations ongoing for regional Tuareg autonomy, but nationalistic sentiments are likely to bubble over again somewhere in greater Azawad before long.
The other particularly notable Amazigh group is the Kabyles. The Kabyles’ coastal territory in what is now Algeria evaded effective Ottoman control due to its mountainous inaccessibility, and was one of the last parts of modern Algeria to fall under French control. Like the Tuaregs, the Kabyles retained their Amazigh identity where most of Algeria’s people became Arabized. That identity was threatened during the early post-independence period in Algeria, when the government attempted to unify its people under a single Arab Islamic identity. Schools were required to teach Arabic and French and exclude other languages, resulting in Kabyle children who could speak their native tongue but could not read or write it. The religious instruction that came with this program also irked the more secular Amazighen, in an echo of the more recent Tuareg conflict further south. An uprising known as the Berber Spring led to the reinstatement of Amazigh language education and to the affirmation of Algeria as both an Arab and an Amazigh nation. This has not stopped the political parties of Kabylie from asserting their demand for regional autonomy, potentially culminating in independence. Depending on how Algeria’s identity continues to develop in future generations, the Kabyles may yet find themselves disappearing into a broader Algerian people, or forced to assert themselves more forcefully.