While Amazigh culture cannot be said to embrace anarchy, it accepts a certain amount of chaos as inherent in its structure. No person, whether internally or externally, is generally allowed to gain a preponderance of power. As no person is able to bring complete security, feuds between families, clans, tribes, confederacies, and villages are a constant aspect of life in Amazigh regions. Yet despite not having a strict hierarchy, leadership does exist on every level of society and has often been accorded special functions that keep society operating.
Although Amazigh leadership can only be generalized, in most cases leaders regardless of position arose through a combination of group consensus and religious legitimacy and enforced their responsibilities through persuasion rather than force. The basis of Amazigh leadership is the different levels of the tribe, acting as the figurehead and protector for those lower in the hierarchy. In the leadership gaps where merely tribal allegiances cannot provide, namely in regions where tribes are living in shared environments, geographic leadership plays an important function. Acting within and between these two forms of leadership are religious leaders, who provide an alternate and potentially sacrosanct channel for decisions. With the coming of first the French and then an independent Morocco, external leadership structures have been forced into Amazigh regions, creating parallel but contesting centers of legitimacy.
The tribe could be said to be the glue that holds Amazigh society together, connecting members of the tribe permanently with certain shared interests, and at the forefront of every section of a tribe is the tribal leader, or amghar. Just as a tribe has a different purpose than a confederation, stemming from its size, composition, and organization, the leader of each level of tribal hierarchy is established and exercises his position depending on the level of the structure that he is in charge of. However, the responsibilities of a tribal leader can be generalized before continuing to the specific levels. Internally, the leader should act as a focal point for agreement and as a mediator. The leader is traditionally only a first among equals so his decision only carries weight because of his image—he would not have been chosen for the position if his constituent tribe members did not trust him—and because he is acting in the best interests of the tribe. Thus he needs to build consensus and hold dissenting units together.
Stemming from his position, he also is an important intermediary between disputing parties, trying to leverage his importance to keep feuds from starting or growing and disrupting tribal life. Externally, his role is predominantly that as a figurehead of his group. This can exhibit itself in multiple circumstances: in daily life, when he might interact with passing tribes; in politics, when a sub-tribe leader will represent it in front of the tribe and a tribal leader in front of the confederacy; and in war, where the tribal leader is responsible for initiating, negotiating, and ending war.
Toward the lowest level of the tribal hierarchy is the tigemmi, or tent encampment, which might be composed of one or two dozen families (Venema and Mguild, 107).1 The leader of the tigemmi would most likely be the patriarch of the family and would probably acquire the position due to lineage and reputation. But due to its insignificant size, the encampment leader lacks most power except for guiding the lives of encampment members and acting as the tigemmi representative to the clan.
Sub-tribes, or taqbilt, are made up of extended families and in turn provide the actual human element upon which the larger, outward-facing tribe is based. The chief of the taqbilt, the amghar n-tmazirt, is elected in a rotation by all of the member families (Dunn, 69-70).2 Ideally, leadership would pass equally between each clan so if there were four clans to a taqbilt, then each would provide a leader once every four years to ensure that each is fairly represented and that no group gains unfair control. Elections consisted of the clan representatives, generally the patriarchs or wiser members of the family, going and electing a well-regarded representative from the clan whose turn it was to provide a leader, with the clan itself sitting out of voting to prevent feuds or pressure to vote a particular way. Once elected, the choice is ratified by the tribal leadership to convey authority and legitimacy.
The amghar n-tmazirt is largely responsible for appointing clan leaders and assisting in solving the daily affairs of those under him. He would also presumably help select which members of the taqbilt went on to represent it in tribal gathering. Yet because of his position of authority, between the more authoritative position of leader of the family and the more consequential leader of the tribe—for the taqbilt in itself did not have a noteworthy ability to play a role outside of its own affairs—the amghar n-tmazirt was only as powerful as his clans allowed him to be. At any one time, his family would only compose a fraction of the total taqbilt and thus he could not force his opinion without widespread consensus. Because of the small size of his leadership base, he also could not exercise his power outside of the taqbilt.
The tribal level sees an important change in the leader’s responsibilities. The amghar n-ufilla, or supreme chief, is elected relatively the same way as the taqbilt’s chief, with the position rotating between the sub-tribes to ensure an equal distribution of power (Dunn, 68-9).3 Similarly, just as the amghar n-tmazirt is only as powerful as his clans allowed him to be, so is the amghar n-ufilla. Coming from only one of several groups, the chief never has the sufficient power to cement his reign past the next election and is only retained for as long or short as desired. But a key difference is that the amghar n-ufilla was given broader powers than leaders lower in the tribal hierarchy, even if he was in a position no more powerful than others. His duties include acting as mediator between different portions of the tribe and between disputing parties, being the figurehead of the tribe for relations with other tribes, coordinating the tribe’s migratory patterns, and organizing the tribe during times of war.
However, one point in reference to the latter is that while the amghar n-ufilla would be in charge of preparing the tribe for war that did not necessarily mean he would assume the position of leader during that war. Such a position would probably be specially elected during a meeting in preparation for the fighting and would choose someone, the amghar n-ufilla or not, best seen for his warrior prowess. Such a leader would then immediately lose his power after his objectives have been fulfilled, in part because the warring tribal factions will fall apart, returning to their ordinary lives and looking to a return to a more egalitarian leadership structure.
The basis for this greater range of powers is that the leader is no longer responsible solely for his “flock,” instead having to act as a point of coordination between the many units of the tribe with the units of other tribes to reduce the friction that will inevitably develop by living in close proximity with opposing interests. Additionally, what flock he does have would now be much larger as compared to the other leaders, thus creating more cases that he would have to mediate to prevent the tribe from shattering into feuding factions.
The highest level of the tribal structure, the confederation, is also perhaps the weakest position of leadership. The confederation is predominantly several tribes united under one banner in the name of defense against other Amazigh groups and invaders (Hagopian 1963, 71).4 Action on the part of the leader is utilized in times of war or resistance while the tribal leaders retain their autonomy in times of both war and peace. Any action on the part of the confederation would involve taking the opinions of each of the tribal representative’s views into account so what decisions did occur would have been bulky. Instead, it is likely that tribes continued to function as independent military units during the fighting, instead using the confederation’s leadership as a conduit for coordinating actions to their best effects. Consequently, the confederacy’s leadership, when or if there is any, functions on a very weak basis as a nature of its basic function as a vehicle for defense of common interests and little else.
However, tribes do not live in complete isolation from one another; it would be unrealistic and unsustainable for each clan to live in a different hamlet and each tribe in a different valley. Multiple lineages might share the same valley or live in the same village because of business interests and patterns of migration and immigration, among other things. As a result, if leadership in Amazigh society was based solely on lineage, intertribal relations would be strangled by the need to coordinate everything through the amghar and life would not function smoothly. While hostilities will break out regardless of efforts, due in part to the vengeance nature of Amazigh tradition, geographic forms of leadership came to play an important intermediary role for situations where tribal leadership was not suitable.
At the basis of Amazigh geographic leadership is the jema’a, or council, of a village. The basis for the jema’a extends back to Roman times, when particular villages were permitted to elect councils of elders, seniors, who amongst themselves would pick a chief and handle the affairs of the village (Brett and Fentress, 63).5 The members of a jema’a are elected by men who are of free descent and capable of wielding a weapon (Venema and Mguild, 107-8).6 Once elected, members are primarily concerned with handling local disputes such as arguments over family, land, or business. Its duty, in essence, is to ensure the relative complacency of the village and to make sure that conflicts do not spread out of the village and into situations that cannot be controlled. Because the village as a social unit has no war-making purpose, village leaders are not responsible for organizing it for such, although they could presumably take charge during times the village is under attack. With this in mind, though, the jema’a largely functions as a mediator between the diverse residents of the village and are expected to maintain unity, not take control of events.
Fulfilling the geographic equivalent of the tribal confederation is the leff. By definition, each region can only be composed of two leffs, or agglomerations of villages, of approximately equal capability. The purpose of the leff is to act as an alliance between the disparate units in times of conflict (Hagopian 1964, 48).7 If a dispute arose, the leaders of the leff would dispatch representatives in an attempt to find common ground. In better scenarios, a solution would be found and bloodshed over the matter could be avoided. If not, then the two sides come to war but should theoretically be better balanced to limit the total harm done by the matter.
A clear difference between tribal and geographic leadership is the entity responsible for providing it. In the tribe, the focus is on the individual. Councils come together to elect and guide the leader, but it is still the amghar, patriarch, or war leader who is imbued with the responsibilities for command. But in the case of geographic leadership, the entity involved is often a council or several people who are responsible for the overall leadership of the group—in the village, it’s the jema’a, and in the leff it is a group of representatives.
The basis for this difference rests on who is being led. In the case of the tribe, all of its members are technically related and should share interests by nature of that bond. Thus, one leader is suitable because there should be no significant conflicts of interest or unrepresented views. But there are multiple interests present in a village or collection of villages, so it is not possible for one figure to fairly represent multiple, potentially irreconcilable views. As a result, having a council so that each lineage or each interest group can make its voice heard is necessary to bestow legitimacy upon the leadership. Both types of leadership have similar roles, namely solving disputes and acting as a focal point for interests and communications with other groups. Both also ultimately reserve most power from the leader, assuring that the leadership is still accountable to his or its constituents at all times.
Finally, both taking part in and bridging the gaps between tribal and geographic leadership is the marabout, or igurramen (sing. agurram), as a religious leader. The religious leader is the most versatile of the three types of leaders in that he can fulfill two positions at the same time, using them to reinforce the legitimacy of each other, or can choose to place himself above the fray of politics and take a special role that only a religious leader can fill. The igurramen cannot easily change roles by being neutral one day and a war leader the next; instead, he aligns himself as his predecessors traditionally have done. The ability of the religious leader to assume this multitude of roles stems from his baraka, which gives increased confidence in any decision he hands down to his followers and gives it more weight than the decision of a regular leader would carry.
By residing within another leadership structure, the igurramen can offer what other leaders can—being a figurehead and mediator—with what they cannot—divine authority. In the tribal structure, the agurram could become an amghar or an amghar’s counselor, achieving a prominent position in the tribal hierarchy (Hagopian 1964, 48-50).8 This is possible because some tribes have a maraboutic sub-tribe or clan within them. The agurram would be an ideal leader during war because he could bring God’s will to his faction, hopefully giving it an advantage over the other side.
In geographical leadership, the agurram can become another member of the jema’a, adding weight to its judgments. In both cases, the agurram plays the standard role that the leader would but has an added authority to his decisions. Nevertheless, just like traditional leaders, the agurram is rarely able to accrue enough power to truly control those under his leadership. In some cases, his followers will splinter, leading to the rise of competitors and weakening his base.
However, it is also possible for the agurram to exist on the fringes of socio-political units, acting as a buffer between them. In its original sense, an agurram was someone who had renounced his attachments to society, removing himself from all traditional leadership structures (Brett and Fentress, 143).9 Instead, in the word of Brett and Fentress, it became his duty to maintain “equilibrium” in society using his unique position of not being tied to any particular interests. Like other leaders, the neutral agurram finds his primary responsibility in adjudicating disputes and dispensing advice. But as a source of stability, the agurram does not intervene immediately; instead, he waits until the issue has gone through standard tribal or geographic conciliators and only then, if the issue is brought to him, does he impart his judgment on the given case (Hagopian 1964, 48).10
Additionally, while he can take part in conflicts that would fall within the normal boundaries of dispute resolution leadership, he also plays the special role of helping with issues that strain traditional methods, namely those between tribes or villages. While confederations and leffs do exist to address these issues, the confederation is established more for war-making than for peacekeeping, and the leff could be an unwieldy instrument between two untrustworthy sides.
The agurram brings two aspects to these cases that other leaders cannot. The first is his baraka, which gives added pressure to accept his decision and presents a face-saving way to avoid a feud. The second is that as the agurram is unattached, and often resides on the fringes of societies, he is in a prime place, physically and mentally, to adjudicate between opposing sides. His territory would provide a neutral meeting place under a mediator who does not have a stake in either side.
Elements of Amazigh Leadership
There are three central characteristics that have been touched on during the exploration of these different leadership positions. To differing degrees, each tends to be guided by the Amazigh society’s emphasis on egalitarianism, persuasion, and religious legitimacy. Before continuing on to how traditional leadership structures have been affected by the coming of the French and the modern Moroccan government, it is beneficial to further analyze the effects of these features, which might not be inherent in all leadership positions but which nevertheless form the foundation for many.
Egalitarianism forms one of the bases of Amazigh social relations and such a belief extends up through the ranks of leadership. Egalitarianism manifests itself on leadership through the aversion of having a single strong leader. In the tribal structure, the leader is regularly changed and is guaranteed to represent only a portion of the group, preventing him from remaining beyond the time that he is elected to stay there. The leader is also treated as only the first among equals, restricting the voice and the image of the leader from overtaking those of his followers.
According to one observation on the Aith Waryaghar, “The egalitarianism of individuals and of segments or groups acts as the effective check on the power aspirations of one and all” (Caton, 95).11 Similarly, the geographic hierarchy focuses on elections of multiple people to guarantee that a majority of voices are heard. There are no direct methods of power over the constituents of a jema’a and debate is accepted. The exception to egalitarianism is the agurram, for while baraka can be transferred, doing so often lays in the hands of the agurram himself. Thus, he cannot easily be dismissed or ignored because of the importance of his position in society. At the same time, it is possible for the agurram’s followers to break off and form a new, opposing zawiyya, and it is possible for the baraka of a agurram to be reasoned away for one reason or another, leaving a certain amount of fluidity in following and obeying him.
As a result of the egalitarianism, all three types of leaders are required to rely on their ability to persuade instead of using force. As established before, this is because none of the leadership positions is able to accumulate enough supporters to be able to force his will on others. But as a consequence of the inability to acquire force, Amazigh leadership had to define itself some other way or else it would contribute nothing to society.
As evident from all three types of leadership, such a role was found as being a mediator, whether between individuals or villages, over who owns a cow or which tribe is in the wrong for their actions. The ability to persuade became the power for leaders that force is in many other societies (Caton, 80-1).12 It presents the way for them to influence those lower in the hierarchy while still maintaining the first element of egalitarianism.
The third aspect that is prominent throughout Amazigh leadership structures is the importance of religious legitimacy in establishing authority. Central to this are the igurramen. The benefit from having baraka is evident through the ability of a agurram to potentially fill any of the three types of leadership. Religious legitimacy is an obvious prerequisite for religious leaders and having a tribe with either an agurram as leader or in one of the clans can give the tribe added confidence, but one structure in which religion’s role may not be immediately clear is in the jema’a. An agurram can belong as a member of the jema’a. More to the point, though, by having a combination of lineages present in the jema’a, it gains baraka and becomes a justified source for the village’s social order (Venema and Mguild, 108-9).13 In reality the basis for its actions still rests on consensus, but in the matter of justifying those decisions and accepting the jema’a’s role in daily affairs, religious legitimacy no doubt makes it more palatable to the population and gives it a sustained place in their lives.
Amazigh Leadership and Central Government Authority
Historically, the Sultan of Morocco always attempted to project his influence into the mountainous Amazigh regions, which have been categorized by modern scholars as the bled as-siba, or land of dissidence—as compared to the bled al-makhzan, or land of the government, composed of the rich plains which have sustained royal power for centuries. But while the Sultan was occasionally able to temporarily impose himself upon a region by using massive amounts of force, his power was only in the ability to collect taxes, and even that would disappear when he would inevitably have to withdraw his troops to pacify the next region. As a result, the Amazigh leadership structures have always remained independent, maintaining their traditional powers and roles.
Since the initiation of the French Protectorate in 1912, the traditional leadership structure began to be slowly but surely eroded. The French first worked to pacify the bled as-siba, which it accomplished only after approximately two decades of using superior numbers and weaponry against the Amazigh warriors. However, the very idea of the Protectorate was that Morocco would still largely be responsible for its own governance.
Not wishing to strengthen the Sultan, who served as both a point of legitimacy and opposition to the French Protectorate, the French did not want to bring the newly pacified territories under his command. Doing such, in the view of the first French Resident-General, Marshal Hubert Lyautey, would unbalance the traditional power structure (Bidwell, 51).14
Thus, upon achieving supremacy, the French opted to impose indirect rule on the Amazigh, leaving the traditional structures intact as a vehicle for which to assist their rule. The elected position of the amghar was replaced by that of the French caid, who was nominated by the Sultan, imposing central control next to the traditional (Bidwell, 52).15 The French-appointed leaders retained their traditional tasks but had to have decisions approved by the French (Gellner, 240-2).16 The leaders took on the positions of local representatives of France, carrying out its verdicts and acting as an information source who understood the natives. At the same time, the beginnings of an alternate power structure were evident through French outposts which also acted as mediator, cautionary measure, and a source of force when orders were not obeyed.
To a degree, such measures strengthened the traditional leadership position, giving it the ability to enforce its decisions through force. But it also destroyed the basic elements of Amazigh leadership. Egalitarianism is irrelevant if the French and the Sultan elect notables, persuasion is no longer necessary if weapons can be used instead, and religious legitimacy can be put into question if it is Christian foreigners who are behind the commands. As a result, while the face of leadership was strengthened, the actual institutions began to become irrelevant next to the new hierarchy.
With the independence of Morocco in 1956, the new Moroccan central government took control over the leadership structure that the French had instituted and began to seek to expand control further. At first, the government continued to select the caid from the local population, but the caid’s superiors were always Arab speakers from other regions (Venema and Mguild, 106). 17
By the 1970s, even this had changed where the caid was now appointed from the outside, too, and disagreement between the caid and the locals could result in the intervention of higher authorities (115).18 The caid took on administrative tasks for the government, such as handling government registration (111), while the government sought to make courts rather than leaders the primary location for addressing disputes.
An added complication for the Amazigh leadership is that new generations and outsiders had no respect for the traditional institutions; college educated youths might no longer see a point in supporting the amghar while migrants to a village might see the jema’a as being an unfair form of governance because it would not protect the Arab minority’s rights.
Regardless of whether the Amazigh leadership is tribal, geographical, religious, or some amalgamation in its basis, the pattern of Amazigh leadership is that all three rest on egalitarian ideals, the need to persuade rather than force followers, and the clout of religious legitimacy. Despite the numerous challenges to its existence, the traditional leadership structures do still exist to certain degrees. The Amazigh populace expects for its leadership, in whatever form, to protect its interests and to adjudicate its life. When the old hierarchy does this, it has been retained to the best of the population’s efforts. When it does not, namely in functions not historically filled by the traditional structure, the government has the ability to maneuver into the fold (Venema and Mguild, 104). Perhaps the weakest of the three leadership structures is the tribe: tribes may no longer be as of much importance, especially with the fragmentation of the family unit and migration out of the region, and confederations are largely antiquated because there is no longer a need for families to rely on each other for defense. But geographic and religious leadership are both still essential to Amazigh society. The roles that they once filled, primarily as mediators, advisers, and points of consensus, are still of consequence.
You can follow Professor Mohamed CHTATOU on Twitter: @Ayurinu
- Cf. Venema, Bernhard and A. Mguild. “The Vitality of Local Political Institutions in the Middle Atlas, Morocco.” Ethnology, Vol. 24 No. 2 (Spring, 2002): 103-117. P. 107
- Cf. Dunn, Ross E. Resistance in the Desert: Moroccan Responses to French Imperialism 1881-1912. Pp. 69-70.
- Ibid. Pp 68-69.
- Cf. Hagopian, Elaine C. “Islam and Society-Formation in Morocco Past and Present.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 3 No. 1 (Autumn, 1963): 70-80. P. 70.
- Cf. Brett, Michael and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers: The Peoples of Africa. Blackwell Publishing, 1997. P. 63
- Op. cit. Venema and Mguild. Pp. 107-8
- Cf. Hagopian, Elaine C. “The Status and Role of the Marabout in Pre-Protectorate Morocco.” Ethnology Vol. 3 No. 1 (Jan., 1964): 42-52. P. 48
- Ibid. Pp. 48-50.
- Op. cit. Brett and Fentress, p. 143.
- Op. cit. Hagopian 1964, p. 48.
- Cf. Caton, Steven C. “Power, Persuasion, and Language: A Critique of the Segmentary Model in the Middle East.” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 19 No. 1 (Feb., 1987): 77-101. P. 85
- Op. cit. Caton, pp. 80-1.
- Op; cit. Venema and Mguild. Pp. 108-9.
- Ibid. P. 51
- Ibid. P. 52.
- Op. cit. Gellner, 240-2
- Op. cit. Venema and Mguild, p. 106.
- Op. cit. Venema and Mguild, p. 115.
- Op. cit. Venema and Mguild, p. 111.
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