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Morocco: Brief history of the Berbers including their origins and geographic location

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 16 November 2000
Citation / Document Symbol MAR35753.E
Reference 1
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Morocco: Brief history of the Berbers including their origins and geographic location, 16 November 2000, MAR35753.E, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

For a brief history and of the Berbers in Morocco and their current treatment by Moroccan authorities, please see below a document prepared by the Minorities at Risk Project, at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management of the University of Maryland:

Berbers in Morocco


The Berbers of Morocco are the descendants of the prehistoric Caspian culture of North Africa. The de-Berberization of North Africa began with Punic settlement and accelerated under Roman, Vandal, Byzantine and Arab rule. The Arab invasion of the seventh century brought about the Arabization and, eventually, the conversion of the Berbers to Sunni Islam. However, the Berbers, as well as many other North African Muslims retain some of their prehistoric observance of saintly cults. (This is known as Maraboutic Islam.)

Despite their conversion to Islam, the Berbers resisted Arab and other foreign rule whenever possible. At various times they were able to maintain autonomous states, the most recent of which was established in the Rif region under French Colonial rule but was not recognized by the Moroccan government when the Kingdom gained independence in 1957. This resulted in two unsuccessful Berber uprisings during the first three years of Moroccan rule. Berber discontent was formalized in 1958 with the establishment of the "Mouvement Populaire," an explicitly Berber political party. The party was a member of the ruling coalition in the Moroccan legislature from 1984 to 1993, at which time the King appointed a non-partisan government, but this is mitigated by the fact that for all practical purposes, the King's authority is generally greater than that of the legislature. There was also a Berber revolt in 1973 in the Atlas and in the 1980s in the Rif. The main cause of these Berber revolts and discontent seems to be economic deprivation and the feeling that the Moroccan government is ignoring their problems.

Most Arab Moroccans would be better described as Arabized Berbers. The process of assimilation began with the seventh century Arab invasion and took place mostly in the cities and costal regions. As is true in other North African countries, the principle determinant of ethnicity in Morocco is language. Berber speakers were forced to retreat to the mountainous regions of Morocco and now live in the Rif, Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti Atlas regions. Even today, assimilation and intermarriage continue to occur.

Moroccan Berbers are divided into several tribes which speak one of three principle dialects of the Berber language which are: Rifi of the Rif; Tamazight of the Middle Atlas, the central High Atlas and the Sahara; and Tashilhit of the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas. The Moroccan Berber tribes are also divided into three regional groups: the Rifians of the North; the Shluh of the southeast; and the Berraber in the center of the country and the Sahara.


February 1991: A U.S. Department of State human rights report noted that "there are some Berber spokesmen who believe that the Berber identity is not adequately maintained because Berber languages are not taught in schools and there are no Berber [language] publications." However this report also noted that "Berbers are well represented in the government and the officer corps of the military ... "

17 June 1991: A new opposition party, the Mouvement National Populaire, was formed under the leadership of veteran Berber politician and former defense minister Mahjoubi Aherdane. This party has a strong Berber element.

25 June 1993: In direct elections for 222 out of 333 seats in the Moroccan Legislature the Mouvement Populaire gained 33 seats and the Mouvement National Populaire won 14 seats. Both Berber parties stood for election as part of the ruling Entente Nationale coalition.

17 September 1993: In indirect elections for the remaining 111 seats in the Moroccan legislature, the Mouvement Populaire gained 18 seats giving it a total of 51 (out of 333) and the Mouvement Nationale Populaire gained 10 seats giving it a total of 24.

November 1993: The King appointed a non-partisan government.

1 May 1994: Following a protest where Berber activists demanded recognition of their language and Berber cultural revival, 28 activists were arrested and on May 27, three of them were convicted and sentenced to two to three years in jail.

1994: The government commenced Berber-language television and radio news broadcasts.

July 1994: A meeting by a Berber cultural association in the southern city of Agadir was banned by orders of the region's governor. Another such conference in Nador was also banned (date unavailable).

July 1994: King Hassan granted amnesty to the 3 Berber activists convicted of disturbing the peace. (see May 1, 1994 for details)

August 20 1994: King Hassan announced that Berber will be taught in primary schools.

Update June 1999

February 28 1996 Berber associations called on Morocco to recognize their language and make its teaching obligatory in schools. In January, a Berber cultural week was banned in Rabat

September 30 1996 The Berber Cultural Society denounced the harassment they are subject to. (BBC)

November 15 1997 The pro-government blocks nearly tied in the legislative elections held for the two-chamber legislature. The opposition attributed their lack of a clear victory to government election fraud. (ABC CLIO)

February 5 1998 The ban on Berber cultural week was denounced by the Human Rights Association of Morocco. (AMDH)

March 16 1998 The King appointed an opposition-dominated cabinet. (ABC CLIO)

July 10 1998 The Communications Minister encouraged the use of the Berber language in advertising (BBC)

17 July 1998 The Moroccan Culture Department announced a plan to preserve Berber heritage with the creation of local museums and the promotion of Berber culture through books, plays, music, and paintings (BBC).

Risk Assessment

Politically, the Berbers in Morocco seem to have and exercise the same rights as other Moroccans and are well represented in the government. Their major grievances are over the official predominance of the Arab culture and language. Despite some concessions on the issue, this is unlikely to change. Protests over this issue have been limited to demands for recognition, no demands for autonomy have been made by any important Berber leaders. Their grievances over economic deprivation can be traced to historical rather than policy sources. In fact, the Moroccan policy seems to be to try to improve their economic well being. For the most part, there have been few organized protests or violence over these grievances in the past two decades and it is unlikely that this will change. Likewise, it is unlikely that the government's position will change either for the better or for the worse (June 1999).

In a press release published on 22 November 1996, the Amazigh World Congress (AWC) mentions the fact that in September 1996, a group of 20 Berber associations in Morocco made a public statement related to the implementation of the new Moroccan Constitution. According to the AWC, these associations expressed their "dismay ... in view of the persisting exclusion and marginalization of Tamazight." Furthermore, the AWC stated the following:

... the new constitution of September 13, 1996 ignores deliberately the Amazigh dimension (history, identity, language) of Morocco and arbitrarily makes the Arabo-Islamic diemension the unique civilazational basis, thus excluding a large majority of Moroccans whose native language (Tamazight) has been spoken in North Africa since antiquity. This discriminatory act is undoubtedly a violation of the rights of the Amazigh populations to take possession and enjoy their history, language, culture, and civilazation -rights based by international laws and charters of which Morocco is supposedly a signatory ... (ibid.).

According to Country Reports for 1999, "Amazighs (Berbers) face cultural marginalization, and continue to press the Government to preserve their language and culture" (2000).

In an article published in the Fall 1994-Winter 1995 issue of the Fourth World Bulletin untitled "The Berber Tamazight Movement in Morocco and Algeria," Amin Kazak, professor of Middle East and Comparative Politics at the University of Colorado at Denver, gives the following account of the situation of the Berbers in Morocco:

The Berber Question in Morocco

In Morocco, Berber nationalist feelings were embodied in 1984 by a large populist party, the Movement Populaire (Popular Movement) and its charismatic leader, Mahjoubi Aherdane.16 The Popular Movement did not identify itself strictly as representative of the Berbers but rather of "Moroccan rural people." Since the overwhelming majority of the Moroccan rural population is in fact Berber, the Popular Movement became understood as a Berber nationalist party. In 1993, Aherdane's party was reformulated as the National Popular Movement.

Berbers in Morocco perceive their identity to be threatened primarily by marginalization and exclusion from access to education and media exposure in the country. On 5 August 1991, in an attempt to reinforce the significance of their ethnic identity, a group of Berber cultural associations, including the Moroccan Research and Cultural Exchange Association (in Rabat), the Agadir Summer University Association (in Agadir), the Aghris Cultural Association (in Goulmina), the New Association for Cultural and Popular Arts (in Rabat), the Ilmas Cultural Association (in Nador), and the Soussi Cultural Association (in Casablanca), met in Agadir, Morocco, where they signed the "Agadir Charter" which outlined Berbers demands for the resurrection of the Institute of Tamazight Studies and Research.

The Institute they proposed would provide the impetus and the framework necessary for any project aiming to promote the Tamazight language and to perform the preliminary tasks of: 1) elaborating a unified alphabetical system to make possible the accurate transcription of the Tamazight language; 2) standardization of the Tamazight grammar; and 3) development of appropriate pedagogical tools for teaching the Tamazight language. The Institute would serve to assist integrating the Tamazight language and culture into various cultural and educational activities, through the insertion of Tamazight language programs at an early stage in the public educational system, and at a later stage, the creation of a department of Tamazight language and culture in every Moroccan university. At the time of the Agadir Conference, 1991, a spate of social turmoil was unfolding throughout Morocco. The issues at stake, besides the Berber question, included the violent invasion and annexation of the Western Sahara, the corruption of the monarchic dictatorship of King Hassan, and the dubious possibility that Morocco might ever become any kind of democracy. After a series of revolts against the regime and several attempts on King Hassan's life, the Moroccan government promised to promulgate a new constitution that would permit a more liberal political process, allow opposition political parties to organize, and remove obstacles to the exercise of fundamental civil and political rights of individuals. The Moroccan regime managed to placate most of the pressure groups confronting it, including Berber nationalists, through these promises.

Despite these changes in the Moroccan constitution that were in fact institutionalized, the government continues to suppress the Tamazight language as a symbol of Berber identity and cultural rights. Although the publication of some newspapers in the Berber language is allowed, editors are often subjected to interrogation by state officials. In March 1994, the Ilmas Cultural Association was prevented from holding a conference on Berber language and writing. Similarly, in April 1994, the Moroccan Association for Research and Cultural Exchange was refused permission to organize a special day for Berber theater in the city of Rabat.

Some Berber activists have been arrested, as well, in a policy that is blatantly discriminatory. Four members from the New Association for Culture and Popular Arts, in Agadir, were put in prison because they published a calendar in the Berber language. On 1 May 1994, Mohamed Hrach Erass, Mbarek Tausse, Ahmed kikche, Ali Aken, Said Jaafer, Omar Darouiche and Omar Ochna were arrested in Er Rachidia after participating in peaceful Labor Day demonstrations. Even though the demonstrations had been authorized by the appropriate officials, and the slogans were familiar to the government, the Berbers were charged with inciting actions threatening law and order and internal state security, chanting slogans attacking the principles of the constitution, and calling for the recognition of the Berber language as an official language. Amnesty International (AI) urged the Moroccan authorities to ensure that the activists' trial would be carried out in full accordance with international standards for fairness. Due in part to AI's involvement, the Berber issue has acquired recognition as a topic of discussion within the international human rights community.

On 3 May 1994, seven secondary school teachers were arrested because they participated in a Mayday demonstration organized by the Democratic Confederation of Workers. They were accused of holding banners in the Berber language and shouting slogans for the recognition of Tamazight in the constitution.26 Such repression demonstrates the vulnerability of the Berber culture and its advocates. It should be no surprise that the campaign to revitalize Berber language and culture has begun to assume stronger forms of resistance.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Amazigh World Congress (AWC), Paris. 22 November 1996. "The New Moroccan Constitution: A Déclaration." [Accessed 10 Nov. 2000]

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999. 2000. United States Department of State. Washington, DC.

html> [Accessed 16 Nov. 2000]

Fourth World Bulletin [Denver]. Fall 1994/Winter 1995. Amin Kazak. "The Berber Tamazight Movement in Morocco and Algeria." [Accessed 17 Nov. 2000] (World Algerian Action Coalition)

University of Maryland, Center for International Development and Conflict Management, Minorities at Risk Project. Fox Jonathan and Assal, Victor. June 1999. "Berbers in Morocco." [Accessed 16 Nov. 2000]

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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