ZUWARAH — Proudly dressed in his military uniform, Ali Abou Soud looks out toward the sea as cargo ships sail around in circles off the coast of this Libyan town. “That one," he points out, "is sailing under the Sierra Leone flag.”
The 26-year-old dentist explains why he has stopped working for the past two weeks, and donned a soldier's uniform. “These boats came here to collect the gas and its derivatives but they can’t dock, we’re stopping them from doing so,” he says.
The objective is to block the access to Millitah, a gigantic gas complex jointly owned by the Italian energy group ENI and the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) outside of Zuwarah, 120 kilometers west of the capital Tripoli.
The site’s port is occupied by men equipped with a tent, weapons and, planted in the ground, a flag. A Berber flag.
Started at the end of October, the siege was only lifted on Nov. 15 — reluctantly and, they say here, “temporarily.” To the south, on the other hand, next to Nalut, nothing has changed. Since Sept. 29, other Berbers have continued to block one of the pipelines supplying Zuwarah.
Drawn from the reserves of Ghadames, at the crossroads of the Libyan, Algerian and Tunisian borders, the gas passes through the Nafusa Mountains, a region mostly inhabited by the minority Berber ethnic group, before arriving here on the Mediterranean coast where it is meant to be shipped off to Italy.
“After the revolution, we started with a sit-in, then we demonstrated, set up an international meeting. But Tripoli continues ignoring us,” says Ayoub Soufiane, member of the Council of Libyan Amazigh, a Berber representative organization. “The Congress received us, but only to talk to us about the Koran for 25 minutes!”
Mistrust of Islamists
The Berbers of the Nafusa Mountains, who rapidly took a leading role in the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalist troops, demand that their language and culture be recognized in Libya's future Constitution. They want the articles concerning the cultural specifics of the minorities to be adopted, by the Constitutional Committee, by consensus, and not according to the two-thirds plus one rule.
The stakes grow higher with each passing day. “If Congress rejects our demands and builds a Constitution without us, I don’t know what the next steps will be,” Ayoub Sofiane says. “Independence, autonomy … All options are on the table.”
The Libyan Berbers — mostly Ibadi, a puritan branch of Islam, distinct from the Sunni — were marginalized during Gaddafi’s long reign. Now, they demand justice. A Berber radio broadcasts several hours per day from Zuwarah, while a small Amazigh language learning book has been distributed in local schools.
And the flag, shared with all the other North-African Amazigh, is everywhere — recognizable from a distance with its blue (for the sea), green (for the mountains) and yellow (for the Saharan sand) stripes, marked in the middle with a red ideogram.
Contacts have been established in neighboring North African countries, especially with the Moroccan Berbers, who obtained the recognition of their culture in that country's 2011 Constitution.
Some of the Berbers in Libya, whose total number remains undefined for lack of a reliable census, do not approve of the more radical methods advocated by the youth leaders. Still, in substance, the demands are widely shared.
Perched on the mountainside, Yafran — the great Berber city that was bombed by Gaddafi's troops during the conflict — comes alive every weekend with the return of its residents who work during the week in Tripoli, 120 kilometers further north. Here, people greet each other with enthusiastic “Ozoul!” (“Hello”, in Berber) and share a common abhorrence for Islamists. “The government isn’t doing anything and the Muslim Brotherhood will take over power,” Sifaou Touawa, a property developer, predicts gloomily. “We’re Muslim but we don’t want some Muslim state imported from the east.”