The Moorish Wanderer

The Amazigh Local Democracy

Posted in Moroccan History & Sociology, Moroccanology, Polfiction, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on November 2, 2010

In a hypothetical genuine democratic Morocco, I would have switched political loyalties to Amazigh regionalist groups. First because I have an irrational antipathy towards the representatives of the Master Race – a mafia-like group of families that just got by before, during and after the protectorate with minimal damage and an increased span of wealth, power and notoriety. And second, because it is high time we ditched the hegemonic pan-Arab ideology that disfigured our national identities (if those were really existing) and exerted a positively dangerous influence over the Moroccan minds, so that even blood-related Amazighs tend to ignore their roots and just get swayed by Western or Arabian alluring culture. And last, because I’d say I took a fancy on my forefathers’ origin, a high-pitched village in the eternal snows of the Atlas chain.

Kasbah-Fortress looking on the High-Atlas Chain (Kasbah du Toubkal)

And I would very much like their culture to be valued and accepted as an autonomous part of Morocco’s heritage.

I have less and less time for reading besides economics, but I occasionally sacrifice to good books. Especially to those that took interest in Moroccan society, and really  looked in depth for its structures and inner mechanisms. One of the most prestigious scholars that studied pre-modern Morocco was Ernest Gellner, who, in his famous -to those that like to discuss politics with pondered minds- book “Saints Of the Atlas” (1969). Ernest Gellner was a Professor of Sociology & Anthoropology at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. His Moroccan studies are marginal compared to other fields he was interested in, but his book about the High-Atlas population is worth reading. (I personally got an ACLS Published-one-Demand book, so it is quite difficult to get a good edition) I will not go as far as reveiwing the whole book, partly because I am in the process of re-reading it, and I still have to catch up with a lot of material mentioned there, and also because I am more interested in hghliting a chapter I am keen to discuss.

It has been a general observation among those foreigners that started discovering Morocco in the late years of the 19th century, at a time when Morocco –Bled Siba and Makhzen alike- was at the center of growing interest from imperialst western powers. Anthropologists like De Foucauld, pointed out that the mountain tribes, those that were most likely to rebel against the Makhzen central authority (and occasionally referred to as Bled Siba) developed ruling mechanisms that were close to western democracies. Maxwell Gavin, in his account, mentioned a more liberal society in the high mountains than in the plains.

E. Gellner 1925-1995

There was much literature about possible European features in these regions and the subsequent more liberal institutions there compared to the despotic and arbitrary Sultan reign. Gellner actually describes these institutions, and they do strike the observer how different they are from the discretionary and Ivan the terrible-like manners in the Imperial court.

Amusingly enough, Gellner starts off by asking a core question: “What is a Berber?” as indeed he needed to define the areas where he should had focused his study, he then goes on defining the characteristics of such population: “From the outside, one can only define a Berber by his speech. Even then, one must exclude the Jewish, Negroid (sic) and the Ibadi Berber-speaker […] This however, leaves the overwhelming majority of Berber-speakers. How they see themselves. They are, without serious exceptions, either tribesmen, or men who are but recently tribalised. […] Hence, basically the Berber-speaker is a tribesman. This provides the crucial clue to his own vision of himself, the concepts available to him for identification with wider groups. He is, of course, a member of the nested series of kin units which constitute his tribe“. [p. 14-15] Why the tedious introduction? (and I have given but a digested excerpts of it) Because there was a need to specify the essential feature of the Amazigh -I shall use the modern word for Berber- is their tie to the tribe, i.e. the small society where they evolve. The fact  individuals are part of a specific tribes also raises the question of the nature of interactions between themselves, namely the question of equality.Before elaborating on that, Gellner goes on about the nature of segmentary societies, i.e. when families regulate their internal affairs either by means of autonomous self-regulated mechanisms or by using tribal arbitrage of tools to deal with different matters. Gellner summons E. Pritchard on tribal systems: “typical of segmentary structures everywhere, [the tribal system] is a system of balanced opposition … and there cannot therefore  be any single authority in a tribe. Authority is distributed at every point of the tribal structure and political leadership is limited to situations in which a tribe or segment acts corporately… There cannot obviously be any absolute authority vested in a single Shaikh of a tribe when the fundamental principle of tribal structure is opposition between segments ” (p. 59) This means that, even though complete equality is not achieved, nor considered as such, tribe segments -usually not individuals- are considered to be effective balancing powers to tribal leadership, and thus provide a relative plurality as well as effective barriers to absolute rules, something that tribes in the plains failed to implement against Makhzen-appointed Caids, Pachas and so on.

These are the starting points of Gellner’s account of the very specific “Mountain Democracy”: a conscious knowledge of space and/or population frame of reference, as well as intrinsic mechanisms preventing power monopoly by means of relative equality.

in Chapter 4: “Holy & Lay”, Gellner mentions the kind nature Igurramen (the Igurram fulfils the state or public duties. The position can only be defined through what it does, or rather, with the task it is given to fulfil) maintain with the ordinary tribesmen. Indeed, the various duties an Igurram is bound to undertake cannot be performed without the support of a substantial part of the tribe they are supposed to manage. It goes even further, on the way elections are held:  “Suppose a tribe to consist of 3 sub-clans, A, B and C. If this year it is the turn of Q to provide the chief for the tribe as a whole, then the electors will be the men of B and C. Next year, the chief will be chosen from B, and it will be A and C who provide the electors; and so on. You can be part of the pool of candidates, or have the vote, but not both. This is complementarity.” This is crucial, as indeed Chiefs-Igurramen are chosen by the tribesmen -on whatever fashion they fancy- and are not imposed by the central authority. In addition, Igurramen position does not carry with it special privileges or any perks of the office as one might say. Indeed, it is more of a status rather than sub-tribal belonging, and cannot therefore derive any further authority than what the tribe allows for. the Chief is therefore constrained by the wishes of the clans.  There is a sense of self-government that is actually very close to local democracy and decentralization of power, as well as a wide-base popular legitimacy. One wouldn’t go as far as boast about primitive democratic settings, but these are certainly and by far more liberal than the traditional institutions of imperial Makhzen. One could almost see a cardinal bifurcation of powers: on the one hand, a bureaucratic, centralizing Makhzen, and on the other, a popular, decentralizing local/tribal democracy. and both had the unfortunate demise of many conflicts throughout the ages, as indeed Makhzen tried with more or less success to establish their control over the mountain tribes (especially by means of enabling Glaoui and Gundafi families to extend their domination in the name of the imperial Sultan over the High Atlas)

I raised the Amazigh question some time before –about the Berber Dahir– and I had some doubts about the kind of relationship between Arabic heritage and Amazigh identities. While I do agree some Amazigh-born Moroccans rose to prominent places as Islamic scholars (such as Mokhtar Soussi) or writers in Arabic, I  cast much concerns about how hegemonic Arabic culture – using Islam as the uncontested shuttlecock to its aims- perverted pre-Islamic Amazigh culture and managed quite successfully to tone it down and effectively, suppressing it. Arabic is now the national language, our official history firmly tied us to the pan-Arab project (whether because of the regime’s stand or that of prominent opposition parties, like the USFP or the PJD) and much is made about or National Identity. Nonetheless, and despite encouraging signs, little is said about a heritage that has been confined to marginal places by a hegemonic part of the Moroccan identities. Morocco had good -albeit traditional and certainly flawed- local democratic institutions that were destroyed through a patient and vengeful process in the name of ‘imarat al mouminine (Commander of the Faithful) and the Islamic obligation to submit to the ruler of the land.

A couple of pleasant instance to point out how resistant my ancestors were to the Arab oppressors: In Tachelhit, Baghough describes the Fox. another way of refering the the animal is Aliou taleb, which is Ali Ibnou Abi Taleb, the well-known nephew of prophet Muhammad. As for the snake, the usual name is Hlima, a reference to the prophet’s wet-nurse. Who said Amazigh people did not have a good sense of humour?

Lake Ifni. Wonderful place to fish and bath in.

4 Responses

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  1. […] The Amazigh Local Democracy « The Moorish Wanderer […]

  2. le raisonnable said, on November 2, 2010 at 16:56

    You nailed the part about the submission (tasleem). Unfortunately, there will be no reclaiming our pagan heritage while Islam rules the land.

  3. Mouka said, on November 7, 2010 at 19:16

    I don’t see anything new here.
    The segmented model has been used extensively by previous researchers that tried to make sense of the Moroccan society.
    I would love to read this book, If you have a copy and are willing to share, I would be very thankful.

    • The Moorish Wanderer said, on November 7, 2010 at 23:48

      I’m not saying it is new. The book was first published in1969, hardly a breakthrough now ;-D

      I wish I could lend you the book, but its paper edition, which will present us with difficulties when one goes offline…


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