said_lakenizaa.jpgAZDINE, Morocco (AP) — One of Said Lakenizaa's two remaining cows fell sick and died last year as he led it down the steep dirt track from his village in Morocco's Atlas mountains to the rest of the world.

It was the second time he'd lost a cow because the lack of paved roads hampered access to health care — for animals and humans. But, now, after enduring their lot for years, the 40 Berber families in Azdine have started protesting for better services. They demonstrated in front of local government offices four times in the past year.

The Arab Spring has galvanized the Berbers, North Africa's original inhabitants, to push for their own political and cultural rights, with some success: They have secured official recognition for their language in Morocco. But the new political openness has also brought to power their implacable enemies, the Islamists, possibly setting the stage for a new conflict in an already volatile region.

Berber dreams go beyond the basics.

They long for northwestern Africa to be a unique region with its own Berber heritage and culture, not just a lesser populated extension of the Arab heartland of Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. And they say it would be a good deal more liberal and tolerant than the rest of the Arab Middle East.

While most Berbers are Muslim, they pride themselves on secular traditions at odds with some of the Islamist movements gaining ground in the region.

As the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East last year, Berbers in every country in North Africa took advantage of the new climate of freedom to push forward their own long-simmering demands.

There are no official figures for the number of Berbers in North Africa but estimates for those who speak one of the many Berber languages are around 25 million to 30 million, mainly concentrated in Morocco and Algeria.

In Morocco, where they make up 50 percent of the population, they became an integral part of the pro-democracy movement. And when King Mohammed VI presented a raft of reforms to defuse the protests shaking the country last year, he included a constitutional amendment to make the Berber language, Tamazight, an official language alongside Arabic.

In Tunisia, the small Berber community has formed its first cultural associations and is once again speaking its forbidden language. In Libya, the Berbers were a key part of the rebel force that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi. In Mali, the Tuareg, another Berber people, have armed themselves and are declaring a homeland in large swatches of the north.

Yet the same Arab Spring has also brought to power Islamist parties that traditionally have seen the Amazigh, as the Berbers call themselves, as a threat.

Islamist movements, which have come to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco and are poised for strong showings in upcoming elections in Libya and Algeria, are strong champions of Arab identity and Islam.

Berber activists in Morocco fear the Islamists now controlling the government may try to roll back the progress they have made since the Arab Spring. Several Berber villages in the northern Rif mountains rioted in March after a local activist was arrested, blocking highways and clashing with police for days.

Even though the new Moroccan constitution now recognizes Tamazight as an official language, its actual implementation in schools and the bureaucracy awaits a law that has to be written by Benkirane's government — which Berbers fear will fall short of their goals.

In response, the Berbers have been mobilizing. And, this year, for the first time, they are holding their own demonstrations outside of the broader pro-democracy movement.

Youth activists have united in a movement born of the countless small local Amazigh associations scattered around remote parts of the country. It has held demonstrations in recent months in the capital Rabat and the commercial capital of Casablanca.

Modern history plays a part in the plight of the Berbers.

When the French colonized the region, they pitted the Berbers against the Arabs, trotting out anthropologists to categorize the Amazigh as an enlightened “European” race as opposed to the “backward” Arabs.

The result was an anti-Berber backlash when North Africa gained its independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Berbers pushing for their cultural and linguistic rights were seen as subversive and pro-European.