• Indigenous peoples in Tunisia

    Indigenous peoples in Tunisia

    The Amazigh peoples are the indigenous peoples of Tunesia. Although Tunesia has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Tunesian government does not recognise the existence of the country’s Amazigh population.

The Indigenous World 2024: Tunisia

As elsewhere in North Africa, the Indigenous population of Tunisia is formed of the Amazighs. There are no official statistics on their number in the country but Amazigh associations estimate there to be around 1 million Tamazight speakers, accounting for some 10% of the total population. Tunisia is the country in which the Amazighs have suffered the greatest forced Arabization. This explains the low proportion of Tamazight speakers in the country.

There are, however, increasing numbers of Tunisians who, despite no longer being able to speak Tamazight, still consider themselves Amazighs rather than Arabs.

The Amazighs of Tunisia are spread throughout all of the country’s regions, from Azemour and Sejnane in the north to Tittawin (Tataouine) in the south, passing through El-Kef, Thala, Siliana, Gafsa, Gabès, Matmata, Tozeur, and Djerba. As elsewhere in North Africa, many of Tunisia’s Amazigh have left their mountains and deserts to seek work in the cities and abroad. There are thus a large number of Amazigh in Tunis, where they live in the city’s different neighbourhoods, particularly the old town (Medina), working primarily in skilled crafts and petty trade. The Indigenous Amazigh population can be distinguished not only by their language but also by their culture (traditional dress, music, cooking and Ibadite religion practised by the Amazigh of Djerba).

Since the 2011 “revolution”, numerous Amazigh cultural associations have emerged with the aim of achieving recognition and use of the Amazigh language and culture. The Tunisian state does not, however, recognize the existence of the country’s Amazigh population. Parliament adopted a new Constitution in 2014 that totally obscures the country’s Amazigh (historical, cultural and linguistic) dimensions. The Constitution refers only to the Tunisians’ sources of “Arab and Muslim identity” and expressly affirms Tunisia’s membership of the “culture and civilization of the Arab and Muslim nation”. It commits the state to working to strengthen “the Maghreb union as a stage towards achieving Arab unity […]”. Article 1 goes on to reaffirm that “Tunisia is a free state, […], Islam is its religion, Arabic its language” while Article 5 confirms that “the Tunisian Republic forms part of the Arab Maghreb”. The new Tunisian Constitution, adopted in July 2022, proclaims that “Tunisia constitutes a part of the Islamic nation” (article 5), that “Tunisia constitutes a part of the Arab nation and that the official language is Arabic” (article 6) and that “the Tunisian Republic constitutes a part of the Greater Arab Maghreb” (article 7). Article 44 stipulates that “the State shall ensure that the younger generations are rooted in their Arab and Islamic identity and their national belonging. It shall ensure the consolidation, promotion and generalization of the Arabic language”. Tunisia makes no reference to its Indigenous Amazigh history, nor does it recognize the country's human, linguistic and cultural diversity.

On an international level, Tunisia has ratified the main international standards and voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. These international texts remain unknown to the vast majority of citizens and legal professionals, however, and are not applied in domestic courts.

Tunisia mired in crisis and unable to meet its people’s expectations

After the political crisis of 2020/2021 and the dissolution of the Tunisian parliament in 2021 by the new president, a new “assembly of people's representatives” was elected in January 2023, on the back of a very low voter turnout (11%).[1] There are no Indigenous representatives in this new parliament.

In December 2023, Tunisia will hold elections for local councils that will then elect “regional councils” which will, in turn, appoint “district councils”. These latter will form the “Supreme Council of Regions and Districts”, which will make up the second chamber of parliament provided for in the 2022 Constitution. The turnout for this election was less than 12%.[2] There is no provision for Indigenous representation in this assembly of the country's regions.

In the midst of a general crisis (institutional, political, economic and social) that has been ongoing since the “revolution” of 2011, Tunisia remains incapable of listening to or meeting the aspirations of the Tunisian people let alone those of the Indigenous community.

Tunisian President makes racist remarks and reaffirms Tunisia's Arab-Islamic identity

At a meeting of the National Security Council on 21 February 2023, Tunisian President Kais Said insisted on “the need to put a rapid end to immigration” on the part of sub-Saharan Africans, which he said was aimed at “creating a solely African country in Tunisia and not one that is a member of the Arab and Islamic nation”. In reality, it is not just sub-Saharan Africans who are being targeted but anyone who does not proclaim to be Arab and Muslim, including the Amazigh. “As long as Amazighs speak Arabic and declare themselves to be of the Islamic faith, they are treated like other Tunisians, but as soon as they want to express themselves in their own language or give Amazigh names to their children, they are considered enemies, dangers to national unity,” says H.S., a member of the Tisuraf Association for Amazigh Rights in Tunisia. He adds: “The Constitution ignores us, we are dispossessed of everything and discriminated against, denied our most basic rights. What can we do?” In fact, even anti-racist and human rights organizations hardly ever mention the Amazigh question in Tunisia.

Follow-up to UN recommendations

Over the past 20 years, the Tunisian government has failed to implement any of the recommendations made by UN treaty bodies concerning Indigenous Peoples. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2009 and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2016, together with the Committee on the Rights of the Child, have all recommended that the State recognize the language and culture of the Amazigh Indigenous people and ensure their protection and promotion. They have also asked the State to collect, on the basis of self-identification, statistics broken down by ethnic and cultural affiliation, to take administrative and legislative measures to ensure the teaching of the Amazigh language at all school levels and encourage a knowledge of Amazigh history and culture, and to facilitate the smooth running of cultural activities organized by Amazigh cultural associations.

In 2022, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process endorsed the recommendations of the treaty bodies, calling in particular for Amazigh children to have access to bilingual education that respects their culture and traditions, notably by including Amazigh as a second language at school, and for measures to be taken – in cooperation with Amazigh cultural associations – to promote and raise awareness of Amazigh cultural practices.[3] To date, none of these recommendations have been acted upon.

Land tenure in Tunisia and Indigenous rights

Almost all studies and research on land issues in Tunisia ignore the land rights of the country's Indigenous Amazigh, as if this territory were untouched by human presence prior to foreign occupation. And yet the long wars waged by Amazigh kings,[4] particularly against the Roman Empire (3rd century BC), clearly demonstrate the existence of an Indigenous Amazigh society in North Africa, and particularly in Tunisia. There is also very little information on the political and social organization of the Indigenous Amazigh of Tunisia.

Throughout Tunisia's history, its land has been subject to foreign legislation, naturally in favour of non-natives and to the detriment of natives.[5]

Until the establishment of the French Protectorate in Tunisia in 1881, the Tunisian land tenure system consisted of individual private property (Melk), collective land belonging to the mainly Indigenous Amazigh tribes (Archs), Muslim religious land (Habous) and State land, which was previously collective land confiscated from the tribes. As in other North African countries, collective lands belong to the Indigenous tribes who use them, without any possibility of transfer or alienation.

As soon as the French Protectorate was established, a decree was published on 1 July 1885 to “enable Europeans to easily acquire land and thus participate in the agricultural colonization of the country”.[6] Other decrees published in 1893, 1896, 1898, 1903 and 1905 meant that settlers owned nearly a million hectares by 1910.[7] With the decree of 1935, the colonial administration established direct State control over collective lands, dispossessing the populations living on these lands of their right of ownership. The application of this legislation also led to the creation of institutions designed to ensure the durability of the new land tenure system, such as the Real Estate Tribunal, which is the competent legal authority in land and real estate matters, the Land Registry Service, which is responsible for registering and archiving property deeds, and the Topography Office, which is responsible for demarcating and drawing up the plans of registered land.

The 1885 land tenure system remained in place until 1956 (date of Tunisia's independence) and is still reflected in Tunisia's current land tenure system. After independence, the Tunisian state reclaimed the land held by French colonialists (law of 12 May 1964)[8] as well as Habous lands but continues to use the French colonial legal arsenal to pursue the expropriation of Amazigh tribes and the partial dismemberment of collective lands with the aim of privatizing them and bringing them into the land transaction market.

Since Tunisia does not recognize the Amazigh as an Indigenous people of the country, it does not recognize them any specific rights of any kind. No Tunisian legal text refers to or recognizes Amazigh rights to their collective ancestral lands. Despite repeated requests from UN treaty bodies since 2003 (CERD/C/62/CO/10), the Tunisian government has never provided any information concerning the country's demographic composition. As a result, the Amazigh people of this country are simply ignored and robbed of their lands, territories and natural resources by the State. The State has sold or conceded part of the Amazigh lands to private investors, and continues to exploit part of these lands itself. This is particularly true of mining areas, which are operated by public or private companies under the aegis of the government-controlled National Mines Office without any benefits being paid to local Indigenous communities. Land policies in Tunisia have always been designed and managed without any consultation with the Indigenous communities, and even to their detriment.

As a result, the Amazigh are among the poorest in the country, which has resulted in their exodus to Tunisian cities, where they take the lowest-paid jobs and are losing their language and culture. In addition, their dislocation from collective land ownership and its privatization has led to a deterioration in values such as mutual aid and community solidarity, and a loss of knowledge and traditional sustainable development practices.



Belkacem Lounes is a doctor of Economics, university teacher (Greno­ble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (2016-2021,) member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2018-2020), author of numerous re­ports and articles on Amazigh and Indigenous rights.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Jeune Afrique. “Législatives tunisiennes, nouvelle abstention record.” 30 January 2023. https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1413289/politique/legislatives-tunisiennes-nouvelle-abstention-record

[2] La Presse. “Résultats du 1er tour des élections des conseils locaux.” 28 December 2023. https://www.lapresse.tn/176260/resultats-du-1er-tour-des-elections-des-conseils-locaux

[3] Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 7-18/11/2022 : https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/upr/tn-index;   also the report submitted to the UPR by the NGO Minority Rights Group, on discrimination against minorities and other marginalized groups in Tunisia, November 2022. https://minorityrights.org/app/uploads/2024/01/upr-tunisia-factsheet-en-mrg.pdf

[4] J Nina Kozlowski. “Quand les royaumes berbères disputaient à Rome le contrôle de la Méditerranée.” Jeune Afrique, 17 February 2023. https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1418625/culture/serie-quand-les-royaumes-berberes-disputaient-a-rome-le-controle-de-la-mediterranee/

[5] Abdallah Ben Saad, Ali Abaab, Alain Bourbouze, Mohammed Elloumi, Anne-Marie Jouve, Mongi Sghaier. “La privatisation des terres collectives dans les régions arides tunisiennes, study conducted within the research component of the project : ‘Appui à l’élaboration des politiques foncières’.” March 2010. https://www.foncier-developpement.fr/wp-content/uploads/tunisie-foncier-FR.pdf

[6] Mohamed Elloumi, “Les terres domaniales en Tunisie”, Etudes rurales, 2013. https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesrurales.9888 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Law No. 64-5 of 12/05/1964 on agricultural property in Tunisia. https://faolex.fao.org/docs/pdf/tun23984.pdf

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, Cultural Integrity , International Processes



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

For media inquiries click here

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

 instagram social icon facebook_social_icon.png   youtuble_logo_icon.png  linkedin_social_icon.png twitter-x-icon.png 

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand