Algeria - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Algeria: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Algeria, country in northwestern Africa that borders the Mediterranean Sea, officially known as the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria. Algeria is the second largest country on the African continent. Only Sudan covers more area. The Sahara, a vast desert, spreads over nine-tenths of the country. Coastal plains lie near the Mediterranean, separated by mountains from the Sahara. The overwhelming majority of Algeria’s people live in the northern part of the country, near the coast. Algiers, along the Mediterranean coast, is the country’s capital and largest city. Algeria’s name in Arabic, al-Jazā’ir (“the islands”), refers to small islands lying off the coast near the capital.

Most of Algeria’s people are of Arab, Berber, or mixed Arab and Berber ancestry. The Berbers were the first people known to have inhabited northwestern Africa. At the end of the 7th century AD, Muslim Arabs appeared in North Africa, conquered the area and introduced the religion of Islam and the Arabic language. Today, the overwhelming majority of Algerians are Muslims and speak the Arabic language. The Berber minority accepts Islam but preserves its language and customs. French is also widely spoken in Algeria.

Algeria was a colony of France from the mid-19th century until it won independence in 1962 in one of the bloodiest independence struggles in history. The eight-year war for independence caused enormous destruction and led to the departure of many of Algeria’s European settlers. See also Algerian War of Independence.

Algeria’s economy was underdeveloped and based largely on agriculture at the time of independence, and the government soon began efforts to modernize it. Today, Algeria is one of the wealthier countries in Africa, largely because of its petroleum reserves. In the early 1990s fighting between the military and Islamist fundamentalists plunged the country into civil war. Although outbursts of violence continue, government efforts at conciliation quieted the turmoil by the early 2000s.


Algeria has little fertile land; most of the country is desert. Large deposits of petroleum constitute its principal resource. Algeria is bounded on the east by Tunisia and Libya; on the south by Niger, Mali, and Mauritania; and on the west by Morocco.

Algeria has four main geographic regions, which extend east to west across the country in parallel zones. In the north, a narrow plain spreads along the Mediterranean coast. The mountains of the Tell Atlas, a range of the Atlas Mountains, rise behind the plain, parallel and close to the sea. Numerous valleys in this region contain most of Algeria’s arable land. The country’s principal river, the Chelif, rises in the Tell Atlas and flows to the Mediterranean Sea; no permanent streams are found south of the Tell.

South of the Tell Atlas is the High Plateau, a highland region of level terrain. Several basins here collect water during rainy periods, forming large, shallow lakes. As these dry they become salt flats, called chotts, or shatts. Sheep and goats graze on grass and scrub in better-watered areas of the High Plateau. Grain is also grown here.

South of the High Plateau lies the third region, the a part of the Atlas Mountain system known as the Saharan Atlas. The Saharan Atlas rises above the plateau and then descends to the Sahara. The Saharan Atlas receives more rain than the High Plateau and is well-suited for grazing.

The fourth region is a great expanse of desert. The Algerian portion of the Sahara makes up more than 90 percent of the country’s total area. Much of the terrain has a surface of gravel or bare rock. Chains of sand dunes, called ergs, cover about a quarter of the area. The Grand Erg Oriental (Great Eastern Erg) and the Grand Erg Occidental (Great Western Erg) are vast expanses of sand dunes. In the south, rising above the desert, are the Ahaggar Mountains, which culminate in Mount Tahat, the highest peak in Algeria.

Climate in Algeria

The coastal plain and Tell Atlas in the north have a typical Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. This is the most humid area of Algeria. During the summer an exceedingly hot, dry wind, the sirocco (known locally as the Chehili), blows north from the Sahara.

To the south the climate becomes increasingly dry. The Sahara is a region of daily temperature extremes, wind, and great aridity. Less than 130 mm (5 in) of rain falls here each year.

Natural Resources of Algeria

Most of the natural wealth of Algeria lies in its sizable mineral deposits, notably crude petroleum, natural gas, phosphates (see Phosphoric Acid), and iron ore. Other minerals include lead and zinc. Arable land comprises only about 3 percent of the total area. This farmland is located mainly in the valleys and plains of the coastal region.

Rich soils are rare in Algeria. The most fertile lands, nearest the coast, are relatively poor in humus and suffer from overcultivation. The plains have considerable alluvial deposits, but the uplands have poorer soils and can support only grasses suitable for grazing.

Plants and Animals in Algeria

The northern sections of Algeria have suffered from centuries of deforestation and overgrazing. Remnants of forests exist in a few areas of the higher Tell Atlas and Saharan Atlas. Trees include pines, Atlas cedar, and various oaks, including cork oak. Lower slopes are bare or covered with a scrub vegetation of juniper and other shrubs. Much of the High Plateau is barren, but tracts of steppe vegetation containing esparto grass and brushwood are present. Plant life in the Sahara is widely scattered and consists of drought-resistant grasses, acacia, and jujube trees.

The relatively sparse vegetation of the country can support only a limited wildlife population. Animal life includes fennec fox, jerboa, ibex, boar, jackal, hare, antelope, and reptiles such as monitor lizards. Servals—small, spotted cats—are rare. The endangered scimitar oryx and dama gazelle disappeared from Algeria in the 1990s.

Environmental Issues in Algeria

Algeria is more advanced in nature conservation than its neighbors in Africa. It has a comprehensive environmental law that includes nature conservation, a system of protected areas, and universities and institutions with specialized training in conservation. The government manages national parks, nature preserves, and special hunting areas. Other protected areas include special forest areas and private holdings. No marine parks exist, but the government has the authority to close maritime areas to fishing. National parks, including the giant Tassili N’Ajjer National Park in the eastern corner of the country, comprise a large proportion of the protected area.

The effects of Algeria’s human population on the fragile landscape have been severe. The greatest ecological threats are deforestation and burning of scrub vegetation, conversion of steppe habitat to arable land, and soil erosion due to overgrazing and poor farming practices. Pollution of Mediterranean coastal waters is pervasive. Wetlands are in particular danger of destruction. In addition, desertification caused by the encroaching Sahara poses a constant ecological and environmental menace.


The population consists almost entirely of Berbers, Arabs, and people of mixed Arab and Berber ancestry. Until 1962 about 1 million European settlers, mainly French, and an indigenous population of 150,000 Jews lived in Algeria. More than 90 percent of this group, however, emigrated after Algeria became independent in 1962. Most of Algeria’s urban dwellers live along the coast. The rural population lives in villages and on small farms. A few thousand Tuareg live in the south, in Algeria’s part of the Sahara, speaking a Berber language and maintaining their tribal traditions.

The population of Algeria (2009 estimate) is about 34,178,188. Approximately 90 percent of the population is concentrated in the coastal region. The population is young: About 25 percent of Algerians are under 15 years old. The population growth rate was 1.2 percent in 2001, down from rates as high as 3 percent in the 1980s. During the 1970s and 1980s Algeria’s birth rates ranked among the highest in the world. In recent decades many Algerians have emigrated from their homeland to other countries. Approximately 1 million Algerians live in France.

Principal Cities of Algeria

Algiers is the capital, chief seaport, and largest city. Other important cities are Oran, a port and a trading and industrial center; Annaba, a port and shipping center as well as an industrial center; Arzew and Skikda, both centers for petroleum refining; and Constantine, the hub of a livestock- and wheat-producing region.

In 1970 nearly 60 percent of the Algerian people lived in rural areas. The ratio of urban to rural dwellers had been nearly reversed by the year 2000. Today, 58 percent of Algeria’s population is urban. Urbanization has occurred both because of population growth, which has turned villages into towns and cities, and because rural Algerians have moved to cities in search of work.

Language and Religion in Algeria

Arabic is the official language of Algeria. The Berber population speaks Berber dialects, such as Kabyle, Chaouia, Chenoua, and Tamazight. French is still widely read and spoken by many Algerians. Islam is the official religion and is professed by the vast majority of the population; almost all are Sunni Muslims.

Education in Algeria

Primary education is free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 16. The Algerian educational system, long patterned after the French, was changed by a program of Arabization shortly after independence. The government introduced new teaching methods and began training Algerian teachers and bringing in Arabic-speaking teachers from other countries. At the time of independence in 1962, 10 percent of the population was literate. Today, 75 percent of the total population can read. This improvement is one of Algeria’s greatest achievements since independence. Improvement in the education of women has helped raise the age at marriage and lower the country’s once-high birth rate.

Algeria has ten universities, including two universities of science and technology, and a number of technical colleges. The University of Algiers (1879) has faculties of law, medicine, science, and liberal arts. Seven of the country’s universities and nearly all of its 20 or so specialized colleges have been founded since independence. The government also maintains vocational and teacher-training schools.

Culture of Algeria

Cultural life in Algeria is increasingly vital, especially in urban areas, where intellectuals attempt to combine Western, Islamic, and socialist ideas. French tradition long dominated the cultural life of the country. Since independence, culture has been a divisive issue. The government emphasis on Arab culture and language has alienated Algeria’s Berber minority, who cherish their own traditions and dialects. Even before independence, there was a growing movement among Algerian artists and intellectuals to revive national interest in Arab-Berber origins, a movement that has gained official support. In response to Berber demands, in 2001 the government recognized Tamazight as a national language. Berbers would like it made an official language.

Rai is a music style that developed in Algerian cities in the 1970s. It is popular among young people who seek to modernize the country’s traditional values. Berber music traditions have survived in the mountains and valleys of Algeria. Village generally have their own singers and songs. Soloist and chorus alternate in chanting rhythms to drum accompaniment.

Libraries and Museums

Foremost among Algerian libraries is the National Library (1835) in Algiers, which has about 1 million volumes, including important works on African subjects. Collections are maintained by the University of Algiers, and by the Municipal Library in Constantine.

The Prehistory and Ethnographic Museum (1928), the National Museum of Antiquities (1897), and the National Museum of Fine Arts of Algiers (1930) are located in Algiers, the cultural capital as well as the political capital of Algeria. The Museum of Cirta (1853) in Constantine contains art and archaeological collections.


Algerian writers have created important works both in Arabic and in French. Arabic writers were among the first to promote Algerian historical studies, while French-language Algerian writers were particularly prominent figures during the war of independence. Contemporary Algerian literature draws on the riches of the Arabic language as well as on the country’s double cultural heritage—French and Arab. Many of the writings echo the hopes and contradictions of a divided society.

Noted French-language Algerian writers of the 20th century include poet and novelist Mohammad Dib, novelist Mouloud Feraoun, novelist Mouloud Mammeri, poet Malek Haddad, novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar, novelist Rachid Mimouni, and novelist and journalist Tahar Djaout. Ahmed Tewfiq al-Madani and Tahar Wattar are prominent Arabic prose writers. Abdelkader Alloula, Algeria’s most renowned playwright, directed theater productions in Arabic. Kateb Yacine and Rachid Boudjedra wrote novels in French and Arabic. French novelist Albert Camus and French poet Jean Sénac were both born and educated in Algeria.

Leading Berber intellectuals, such as the novelist Mouloud Mammeri, devoted themselves to the preservation of the oral poetry of Kabylia and the development of a written script for Tamazight. A movement for Berber cultural rights emerged in Algeria during the 1980s. However, this movement ran counter to the ideas of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, whose militants have assassinated Berber politicians and intellectuals.


Algeria’s economy is based mainly on mineral production. Agriculture plays a declining but still important role. Algeria has rich mineral resources, especially petroleum and natural gas. The economy is mixed, with some public and some private ownership. Algeria’s economic growth slowed after independence in 1962, because of the disruption of the war for independence. Before independence, Algeria had an underdeveloped economy geared toward supplying raw materials to France and buying French manufactured goods. After independence, the government instituted industrialization programs. During the late 1960s and 1970s Algeria increased its output of petroleum and natural gas. Rising world oil prices after 1973 stimulated economic growth.

A drop in oil in prices starting in 1986 provoked an economic crisis that revealed the weakness of Algeria’s centrally planned economy and the failure of its efforts to introduce heavy industries. In 1989 the government launched a comprehensive program, supported by the International Monetary Fund, to achieve economic stability and introduce free-market reforms. However, the civil war, which embroiled the country in the 1990s, stalled reform efforts. Expansion of the oil and gas industries, increased economic diversification, and tight control of government spending have helped the economy recover since the mid-1990s. Unemployment remains a major problem.

Mineral, especially hydrocarbon, production accounts for the largest part of the gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the total value of goods and services produced. While Algeria remains one of the wealthier nations of Africa, its economic growth is highly influenced by oil and natural gas prices.

Labor in Algeria

Unemployment is an acute problem in Algeria. In 2004, 20 percent of the workers were unemployed, and it is estimated that unemployment among workers under the age of 30 is as high as 50 percent. Of the economically active population, 53 percent was employed in government or other service industries, 26 percent worked in industry, and 21 percent engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing.

Agriculture of Algeria

After independence in 1962, most farmland in Algeria came under state control. In the early 1970s the state farming sector was dissolved and state-owned farmland was distributed to socialist cooperatives. Unsatisfactory crop production led to privatization in the late 1970s, and today most farms are privately owned. Farming accounts for a small share of Algeria’s GDP. Productivity is low and Algeria must import a large amount of its food needs. The principal food crops include cereals such as wheat and barley; vegetables and melons; fruits such as grapes, dates, and olives; and roots and tubers such as potatoes. Tobacco is also an important crop. Sheep, goats, and cattle are among the livestock raised. In the 1990s the government replanted many old vineyards in order to encourage the resurrection of winemaking, a traditional Algerian industry.

Forestry and Fishing in Algeria

Forests, which contain much brushwood, cover an extremely small part of Algeria’s land. Lumber is used principally for heating and industrial needs. Bark is cut for tanning and cork for commercial purposes. Charcoal, made from charred wood, is also used for fuel.

Despite Algeria’s Mediterranean coast, fishing remains a relatively minor industry. Sardines account for about half the catch. Other fish include anchovies, sprats, tuna, and shellfish.

Mining and Manufacturing in Algeria

The chief mineral products are hydrocarbons—crude petroleum and natural gas—from the Sahara. Algeria possesses some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world, and is one of the world’s top natural gas exporters. Pipelines transport natural gas from Algeria to Spain and Italy. Hydrocarbons account for a substantial share of Algeria’s GDP. Almost all of Algeria’s export revenues are derived from hydrocarbon sales.

Other major mineral products are iron ore and pyrites, zinc, lead, mercury, gypsum, and barite. Large deposits of phosphates are thought to exist in hilly regions of Djebel Onk in the north. Nearly all mining and industrial activity is state-controlled. In the late 1990s, however, the government privatized some industries and began to allow foreign investment in the hydrocarbon sector.

Among Algeria’s major manufactures are food products, beverages, and tobacco, including olive oil, soft drinks, and wine; iron and steel; transportation and farm equipment, including trucks and tractors; plastics; wood and paper products; and carpets and textiles. Much of Algeria’s manufacturing industry is located in or near the cities of Algiers, Annaba, and Oran.

Currency and Banking of Algeria

The monetary unit of Algeria is the dinar. In the mid-1960s the government nationalized all foreign and private banks. In 1986 the state-run Bank of Algeria began to liberalize the banking sector and allow the establishment of private banks. Aided by agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and lenders from abroad, Algerian foreign debt has fallen in recent years. An association agreement with the European Union (EU), Algeria’s principal trading partner, was expected to make overseas investment in Algeria easier.

Commerce and Trade in Algeria

The principal Algerian exports are natural gas and petroleum. In addition to hydrocarbons the country exports phosphates, iron ore, hides, cork, wine, tobacco, and fruits and vegetables. Major imports are foods, consumer goods, and machinery. Algeria’s major trading partners are the European Union and the United States. Algeria’s trade volume and balance depend heavily on petroleum prices.

Transportation in Algeria

Algeria’s rail and road systems mainly serve the northern third of the country. Railroad lines run to the northern edge of the Sahara, and roads link the Sahara oil fields to the coast. Algeria’s segment of a trans-Saharan highway, extending from the Mediterranean coast past Tamanrasset, an oasis in the Sahara, to the Niger border, was completed in 1985. The state-owned Air Algérie and the privately owned Khalifa Airways provide domestic and international air service. The country’s principal ports are Algiers, Oran, and Annaba.

Communications in Algeria

Numerous daily and weekly newspapers are published in French, Arabic, or both languages. Algeria’s press is relatively free, but the government does practice censorship and occasionally seizes newspapers outright. Despite government monitoring and interference, the print and broadcast media in general is freer than it was during the authoritarian decades immediately after independence. The state operated the nation’s telecommunications system and national television station until the year 2000, when legislation gave the government only a supervisory role. With the state monopoly removed, the way was opened for competition in telecommunications. Radio stations broadcast in Arabic, French, and Kabyle.


Under the constitution adopted in 1976, Algeria became a socialist republic. The constitution declared the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) as the sole legitimate political party. A revised constitution in 1989 abandoned the commitment to socialism and allowed the formation of other political parties. After it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS), an Islamist party, would gain a legislative majority in the country’s first multiparty parliamentary elections in 1992, the elections were annulled and the country’s unicameral legislature, the National People’s Assembly, was suspended. Algeria was ruled by a High Council of State from 1992 until 1994, when the council appointed a president as head of state. After a constitutional referendum, the constitution was again revised in 1996, most significantly to ban political parties based solely on ethnicity, religion, or another separatist feature, and to create a new, bicameral legislature.

Executive and Legislature of Algeria

A president is head of state of Algeria. The president is popularly elected to a five-year term. The president appoints a prime minister as head of government. The prime minister in turn appoints a council of ministers to help carry out the functions of government.

Algeria has a bicameral legislature consisting of a 144-member Council of the Nation as the upper house and a 389-member National People’s Assembly as the lower house. One-third of the Council of the Nation members are appointed by the president; the other two-thirds are chosen by municipal councils. All members serve six-year terms. Members of the National People’s Assembly are popularly elected to four-year terms.

Judiciary in Algeria

The highest court of Algeria is the Supreme Court, which functions as the high court of appeal. Three Algerian courts of appeal and special criminal courts (for economic and political crimes against the state) are located in Algiers, Oran, and Constantine. Numerous justices of the peace and commercial courts complete the judicial system.

Local Government of Algeria

Algeria is divided into 48 provinces (wilayat). These are subdivided into nearly 700 local communes. Each province (wilaya) is headed by a governor appointed by the federal government. Elected councils govern the wilayat and communes.

Political Parties of Algeria

The National Liberation Front (FLN) and allied parties dominated Algerian politics from 1962, when independence was achieved, until 1992 when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won a majority in the country’s first multiparty parliamentary elections. After the 1992 elections were annulled, the FIS, which sought to install an Islamic government, was banned; a 1996 constitutional amendment banned political parties based solely on religion or ethnicity.

In the 2002 parliamentary elections the FLN won slightly more than half the seats in the National People’s Assembly, far more than any other party. The National Democratic Rally (Rassemblement National Démocratique, RND), a pro-government and pro-business party closely allied with the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, came in second. Two moderate Islamic-oriented parties, the Reform Movement and the Islamist Movement for Peaceful Society, won more than 80 seats combined. Other notable political parties include the Workers’ Party, the Algerian National Front, the Renaissance Movement, the Socialist Forces Front, and the Rally for Culture and Democracy. Since the 2002 elections the FLN, the RND, and the Islamist Movement for Peaceful Society have constituted the political alliance loyal to the Algerian president.

In the 2007 parliamentary elections—the country’s third multiparty elections—the FLN won the most seats, 136, but not enough to form a majority by itself. Two other parties in the ruling coalition, however—the pro-business National Democratic Rally and the Islamist Movement for Peaceful Society—won 113 seats. By allying with other minor parties, Bouteflika maintained his majority coalition in the parliament. The FIS remained a banned party in the 2007 elections.

Health and Welfare in Algeria

The government sponsors social welfare programs providing allowances for the aged, needy, and disabled; benefits for nonagrarian workers; agrarian reform; public works; and accelerated public-housing programs.

Since 1974 medical care has been provided free to all Algerian citizens. Public health officials are engaged in an effort to eliminate epidemic diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Other health problems are widespread malnutrition and eye ailments such as trachoma. Cholera has been brought under control.

Defense of Algeria

The president is commander in chief of the military forces, which numbered 137,500 in 2006. The nucleus of the 120,000-troop army was provided by the liberation forces after Algerian independence was secured. A 10,000-member air force is equipped with Soviet- and French-built jet planes and helicopters. About 7,500 people make up the naval forces.


The earliest inhabitants of what is now Algeria were Berbers, tribal peoples of unknown origin. Cave paintings in the Ahaggar Mountains region, dating between 6500 and 1200 BC, depict a people who raised cattle and hunted game in the area.

Ancient Times

About 800 BC, the Phoenicians, a seafaring people from the eastern Mediterranean, founded a North African state at Carthage in what is now Tunisia. During the Punic Wars (3rd-2nd centuries BC) between Carthage and Rome, Masinissa (reigned 202-148 BC), a Berber chief allied with Rome, established the first Algerian kingdom, Numidia. His grandson, Jugurtha, was subjugated by Rome in 106 BC.

Numidia prospered under Roman rule. Large estates produced so much grain and olive oil that the region became known as the granary of Rome. A system of military roads and garrisoned towns protected the inhabitants from nomadic tribes. In time, these towns, such as Timgad and Tipasa, grew into miniature Roman cities.

The decline of Rome brought many changes. Roman legions were withdrawn to defend other frontiers, and in the 3rd century AD regional independence was briefly expressed in the heretical Donatist movement, a North African Christian sect persecuted by the Roman authorities. Saint Augustine, a native Algerian of the 4th and 5th centuries, particularly denounced Donatism in his prolific writings. The Vandals, a Germanic tribe, invaded the region in the 5th century and stayed on to establish their own kingdom. Barely a century later these warriors were themselves overthrown by an army of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, whose dream was to restore the glory of the Roman Empire.

Medieval Islamic Dynasties

Justinian’s dream was short-lived. In the 7th century the Arabs invaded North Africa, bringing with them a new religion, Islam. In Algeria they were resisted by the Berber leaders Kusayla and Kahina, a supposed prophetess of a tribe that some scholars believe had been converted to Judaism. Eventually, however, the Berbers submitted to Islam and Arab authority, and Algeria became a province of the Umayyad caliphate. The Arabs, however, remained largely an urban elite.

The Abbasids seized the caliphate from the Umayyads in the 8th century. In the ensuing disorder, Algerian Berbers, many of them members of the Kharijite sect of Islam, founded their own autonomous Islamic kingdoms. One of the most prominent was that of the Rustamids at Tahert in central Algeria. Tahert prospered in the 8th and 9th centuries. In the early 10th century Tahert was captured by the Fatimids, who adhered to the Shia branch of Islam. Between the 11th and 13th centuries two successive Berber dynasties, the Almoravids and the Almohads, brought northwest Africa and southern Spain under a single central authority. Tlemcen became a city of fine mosques and schools of Islamic learning, as well as a handicrafts center. Algerian seaports such as Bejaïa, Annaba, and the growing town of Algiers carried on a brisk trade with European cities, supplying the famed Barbary horses, wax, fine leather, and fabrics to European markets.

Ottoman Rule

The Almohad dynasty collapsed in 1269 and was succeeded by the 300-year-long rule of the Abd al-Wadid (or Zayyanid) dynasty, centered in Tlemcen. The period was marked by fierce trade competition among rival Mediterranean seaports, both Christian and Muslim. To gain advantage, city governments began to hire corsairs—pirates who seized merchant ships and held crews and cargo for ransom. Algiers became a primary center of corsair activities.

In the 16th century the Christian Spaniards occupied various North African ports. Algiers was blockaded and forced to pay tribute. Other ports were captured outright. The desperate Muslims called for help from the Ottoman sultan, then the caliph of all Islam. Two corsair brothers, the Barbarossas (“Redbeards”), persuaded the sultan to send them with a fleet to North Africa. They drove the Spaniards out of most of their new possessions, and in 1518 the younger Barbarossa, Khayr ad-Din, was appointed beylerbey, the sultan’s representative in Algeria.

Because of its distance from the Ottoman capital at Constantinople (present-day İstanbul), Algiers was governed as an autonomous province. Externally, the effectiveness of its corsair fleet made Algiers a power in its own right—Algerian pirates dominated the Mediterranean. European states paid tribute regularly to ensure protection for their ships, and prisoner ransom brought a rich income to the province. Internal security was maintained by Ottoman janissary (from Turkish, yeniçeri, “new special troops”) garrisons.

In the late 18th century, as the Ottoman Empire was in decline, improved firepower and ship construction enabled the Europeans to challenge corsair domination. International agreements to outlaw piracy made collective action against Algiers possible. In 1815 the United States sent a naval squadron against the city. The following year an Anglo-Dutch fleet nearly destroyed its defenses, and in 1830 Algiers was captured by a French army.

French Colonization

France annexed Algiers and the surrounding territory in 1834 and began occupying other coastal and inland areas. The new regime, led by a French governor-general, aroused fierce resistance from tribes accustomed to indirect Ottoman rule. Military leader Abd al-Qadir, the head of the Sufi Islamic brotherhood known as the Qadiriyya, used hit-and-run tactics that were highly effective against the French forces. A hero to Algerian nationalists to this day, al-Qadir was not completely subdued until 1847. Berber forces continued to resist the French in the 1850s, and in 1871 Kabyle Berbers staged a fierce rebellion in Kabylia, in eastern Algeria. French colonial forces finally put the revolt down in 1872, and subsequently confiscated large amounts of land from the Berbers.

With these insurrections out of the way, France began to colonize Algeria in earnest, and European settlers poured into the country. To encourage settlement, the French confiscated or purchased lands at low prices from Muslim owners. Algeria was divided into three overseas departments of France, controlled for all practical purposes by the European settlers. The settlers formed a privileged elite. With the help of large infusions of capital, they developed a modern economy, with industries, banks, schools, shops, and services similar to those at home. The settlers developed Algerian agriculture, gearing it to support the French economy. Large estates produced wines and citrus fruit for export to France, just as North Africa once produced grain for Rome. Some Europeans made vast fortunes, but the majority were small farmers, tradespeople, shopkeepers, and factory workers. All, however, shared a passionate belief in Algérie Française—a French Algeria.

The displaced and deprived Muslim population remained a disadvantaged majority, subject to many restrictions. By French law they could not hold public meetings, carry firearms, or leave their homes or villages without permission. Legally, they were French subjects, but to become French citizens, with full rights, they had to renounce Islam. Few did so. Beginning in the late 19th century, thousands emigrated to France to find work.

The Muslim population grew steadily; by 1930, it numbered 5 million. A small minority, educated in French schools, adopted French culture, although they were not accepted as equals by the settlers. From this group came the initial impetus for Algerian nationalism.

Rise of Algerian Nationalism

Algerian nationalism developed after World War I (1914-1918) among groups of Muslims who at first wanted only equality with the Europeans. Ferhat Abbas, Ahmed Messali Hadj, and Shaykh Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis were among the most prominent Algerian leaders in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1936 the French government devised a plan providing full equality for Muslim war veterans and professionals, but it was scuttled by colonial deputies in the French National Assembly. Frustrated by the settlers’ stubborn resistance to reform, Abbas joined forces with Messali during World War II (1939-1945) to organize a militant anti-French party, the Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty. After the war the Algerian Organic Statute (1947) set up Algeria’s first parliamentary assembly. The bicameral (two-chambered) body had separate houses (“colleges”) for settlers (and a few select Algerians) and indigenous Algerians. The political power of the assembly, along with that of the governor-general, was weighted in favor of settler interests. The system satisfied neither Algerians nor settlers and proved ineffective. The more militant, younger nationalists were by then beginning to favor armed revolt. In the early 1950s many went into hiding or exile.

War of Independence

In March 1954 Algerian nationalists formed the Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action, out of which developed the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN). On October 31 and November 1 the FLN launched its bid for Algerian independence with coordinated attacks on public buildings, military and police posts, and communications installations.

A steady rise in guerrilla action over the next two years forced the French to bring in reinforcements; eventually, 400,000 French troops were stationed in Algeria. The FLN’s National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale, ALN) combined Abd al-Qadir’s guerrilla tactics with the deliberate use of terrorism. The guerrilla tactics effectively immobilized superior French forces, while killings and kidnappings of Europeans and Muslims who did not actively support the FLN created a climate of fear throughout the country. This in turn brought counterterrorism, as settlers and French army units raided villages and urban neighborhoods, killing Muslims. Certain villages suspected of aiding guerrillas were subjected to collective punishment in the form of massacres, bombings, or forced relocation of the population.

In 1956 the war spread to the cities. In Algiers, cafés, schools, and shops became targets, as the nationalists sought to weaken French morale and draw international attention to their cause. This so-called Battle of Algiers was ruthlessly put down, but it publicized the Algerian struggle to the world. Elsewhere, the French gradually gained the upper hand by using new tactics, such as using aircraft to bomb suspected ALN centers. The French also forced Algerians into relocation centers to prevent them from aiding the ALN. Electrified fences along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders effectively cut off ALN soldiers outside Algeria from units inside the country.

Despite their military superiority, the French were unable to find a political solution satisfactory to both the settlers and the FLN. International criticism of France increased in forums such as the United Nations (UN), and France’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) worried about the commitment of French forces to an unpopular war.

In May 1958 settlers and French army officers joined forces in Algiers to overthrow the French government, charging it with vacillation. A Committee of Public Safety demanded the return to office of General Charles de Gaulle, the wartime leader of the Free French, as the only one who could settle the war and preserve French Algeria. De Gaulle, however, was a realist, and once in power he recognized that the war was unwinnable. In 1959 he announced his intention of allowing Algerians a measure of self-determination.

The plan struck the settlers like a thunderbolt. Outraged, they staged an unsuccessful revolt against de Gaulle in early 1960, and in 1961 a group of army generals again tried to overthrow the government. Both times, however, the bulk of the army remained loyal to the government. Associated with the generals’ plot was a group of military and settler extremists, called the Secret Army Organization, which at the same time carried on a brutal campaign of counterterrorism against both the FLN and French authorities.

In March 1962 a cease-fire was finally arranged between government and FLN representatives at Evian, France. In the long-awaited referendum, held the following July, Algeria voted overwhelmingly for independence. The settlers began a mass evacuation; before the end of the year most of them had left the country.

The material and human costs of the war were staggering. Approximately 500,000 people perished in the conflict, the vast majority of them Algerians. The fighting was so chaotic—besides combat casualties, tens of thousands of pro-French Algerians were killed by other Algerians, numerous settlers were abducted and disappeared, and rival ALN units fought each other for power—that a precise number of casualties is impossible to calculate. See Algerian War of Independence.


The Evian agreements provided for immediate independence for Algeria, with special aid from France—referred to as “cooperation”—to help the country recover from eight years of devastation. On its side, the FLN guaranteed protection and full civil rights for the remaining settlers. After a three-year period they would choose between Algerian and French citizenship. The Evian agreements also allowed the French to continue to exploit the Saharan oil and gas fields they had discovered and developed during the war.

The departure of the majority of Europeans deprived Algeria of nearly all its skilled labor force. To make matters worse, factional rivalries within the FLN, kept in the background during the war, now became visible. At a meeting in Tripoli, Libya, FLN leaders approved a program that specified Algeria as a socialist state, with the FLN as the only legal political organization. The leaders were able to agree on little else, and open warfare soon broke out between factions. Colonel Houari Boumedienne, chief of staff of the Army of National Liberation, threw his support to Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the founders of the FLN, who in September 1962 was elected the first premier of independent Algeria.

Ben Bella started putting the country back on its feet. The first constitution was approved by voters in 1963, providing a presidential form of government. Ben Bella was then elected president. The only check on the president’s power would be censure by two-thirds of the National Assembly. With such unrestricted authority, Ben Bella became totally absorbed in his personal power and prestige, more and more preoccupied with international leadership, and at the same time more autocratic at home. By mid-1965 Boumedienne, then minister of defense, felt Ben Bella had gone too far; he had Ben Bella arrested in a bloodless coup and assumed supreme power.

Boumedienne’s Rule

Under Boumedienne Algeria finally began to capitalize on its vast resources. The army—rather than the FLN—became the dominant force. Boumedienne formed a 26-member Council of the Revolution as supreme authority; its members were army commanders and his close civilian associates. Factionalism and personal rule were strictly prohibited. Although Boumedienne remained first among equals—he was simultaneously president, prime minister, and minister of defense—the principle of collegial leadership was maintained. Nevertheless, Algeria’s political system remained autocratic and undemocratic.

Boumedienne pursued a socialist state-building strategy for Algeria. By 1966 all of the land abandoned by emigrating settlers, amounting to most of the farmland in the country, was appropriated by the government and incorporated into state-run farms. Boumedienne also inaugurated state plans to develop industry, particularly the hydrocarbon sector. One of his great accomplishments was the nationalization of the French-controlled oil fields in February 1971. In the early 1970s Boumedienne distributed state-owned farmland to peasant cooperatives in an unsuccessful attempt to boost productivity. He also promoted the use of the Arabic language and the study of Arabic culture, an action that was resented and resisted by the Berber population.

In 1976 a national charter and subsequent new constitution reaffirmed Algeria as a socialist state under solely FLN leadership. Boumedienne was legally elected president. When he died in 1978, Colonel Chadli Benjedid was selected by the army to succeed Boumedienne. An election officially placed Benjedid in the presidency. Benjedid initially continued his predecessor’s policies but relaxed some of Boumedienne’s strict political controls; he released and pardoned former president Ben Bella in 1980. He also began to reorient and liberalize the economy. His state plans gave greater attention to agriculture, and farmland was privatized. Benjedid was reelected in 1984, running unopposed.

Unrest and Civil War

Declining oil prices in the mid-1980s had severe economic consequences for Algeria. In 1988 frustrated youthful protestors clashed with government troops throughout the country. After a severe suppression of the rioters, Benjedid initiated reforms and was reelected to a third five-year term. A revised constitution and legislation in 1989 allowed for a multiparty democratic system. Political parties were legalized; one of the new parties to be formed was an Islamist one—the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS).

Conflict between the Islamist FIS and the military-backed FLN dominated the 1990s. In 1990 provincial and municipal elections, the FIS defeated the FLN by an overwhelming margin. Following violent FIS demonstrations, parliamentary elections scheduled for 1991 were suspended and rescheduled, and the FIS’s chief leaders—Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj—were arrested. Parliamentary elections were canceled in 1992, after a first round of balloting made it likely that the Islamists would win control of parliament, and Benjedid was forced to resign. Military and civilian officials established an executive High Council of State (HCS) with Mohammed Boudiaff, an exiled FLN hero of the war of independence, as president. Violence erupted and the FIS was officially outlawed. Boudiaff was assassinated in 1992, and fighting escalated between government forces and Islamist militants. Although the FIS had lost its legal status, it quickly mobilized its military wing. An even more extremist Islamic group emerged and began a campaign of assassinations and bombings.

Defense minister Liamine Zeroual, a former diplomat and career soldier, was named president in early 1994. The following year he won election in Algeria’s first successful multiparty presidential elections since independence. Zeroual began to gain international support. International lenders rescheduled the country’s foreign debt, a move that helped the beleaguered Algerian government.

Another revised constitution came into effect in 1996. Most notably, this constitution banned political parties based exclusively on religion, language, race, gender, or region. In addition, the constitution created a new, bicameral legislature, composed of the National People’s Assembly and the Council of the Nation. The widespread victory of the National Democratic Rally (Rassemblement National Démocratique, RND), a newly formed pro-government party, in parliamentary elections in 1997 prompted allegations of election fraud among opposition parties and sparked protests in Algiers. In late 1998 Zeroual announced that he would step down. Just before the presidential elections were held in 1999, six of the seven candidates withdrew. They cited election fraud that made the victory of the remaining candidate, whom they claimed had the backing of the military establishment, a foregone conclusion. The remaining candidate, former foreign minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika, won the uncontested election. Later in 1999 Bouteflika presented a “Civil Concord” calling for national reconciliation. It was enthusiastically endorsed in a referendum. Bouteflika offered amnesty to militant Muslims, and thousands of them laid down their arms. One group that did not was reportedly supported by al-Qaeda, the international terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.

Algeria suffered greatly from its civil war. The widespread violence since the suppression of the 1992 elections claimed more than 100,000 lives, and assaults by Islamist groups in this war-weary country still occur. In their efforts to undermine the government, Islamist militants and extremists have attacked members of the military and government as well as individuals expressing secular or non-Muslim views, including journalists, teachers, writers, intellectuals, foreigners, and both Muslim and Christian clerics. Extremists also resorted to indiscriminate car bombings. Algeria reeled from savage atrocities in the second half of the 1990s, especially from mid-1997 to early 1998. Retaliation by government security forces and civilian militias trained and armed by the government was brutal in kind.

Although the Algerian government routinely blamed violence on Islamist guerrillas, human rights organizations began to question whether the government was doing enough to protect civilians and if government forces were involved in atrocities themselves. A UN panel was allowed to conduct a limited investigation into the violence in late 1998. The panel blamed the Islamist groups for most of the violence but also urged the Algerian government to make improvements in the areas of human rights and democracy.

Recent Developments

At the start of the 21st century, human rights and democracy had not made substantial progress in Algeria. However, Bouteflika attempted to polish Algeria’s tarnished international image and strengthen Algeria’s relationship with the United States and the European Union (EU). Reelected in 2004, Bouteflika brought relative stability to Algeria by releasing imprisoned opposition leaders and granting amnesty to Islamist rebels. In 2005 Algerians voted their approval of the president’s Charter on Peace and National Reconciliation, which was meant to close the chapter on a decade of violence. It pardoned Islamist militants so long as they renounced violence, but it also protected the army and security forces from bearing responsibility for the thousands of Algerians who “disappeared” after arrest.

Although most political observers believed that real power in Algeria belonged to the president, the army, and the security services, Algeria conducted its third multiparty parliamentary elections in 2007. The parliamentary coalition loyal to Bouteflika, consisting of the FLN, the pro-business National Democratic Rally, and the moderate Islamist Movement for a Peaceful Society, won the largest bloc of seats, 249, in the 389-member National People’s Assembly. The Islamic Salvation Front remained a banned party. Political observers were struck by the relative lack of violence leading up to and during the elections.

In preparation for the next presidential elections, Bouteflika announced in early 2008 that he would try to amend Algeria’s constitution to permit him to seek a third term in office. In November the parliament overwhelmingly approved a constitutional change ending term limits on the presidency. Bouteflika was elected to a third term in April 2009. He faced minimal opposition.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld