Algeria: Constitution

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Algeria has had four constitutions, in 1963, 1976, 1989, and 1996.

Algeria's four constitutions reflect its political development since attaining independence from France in 1962. The first two constitutions illustrated Algeria's commitment to socialism in its state-building. The third constitution responded to the turmoil wrought by the October 1988 riots. The civil war of the 1990s influenced the framing of the fourth and present constitution. Algeria's postcolonial constitutional history has in many ways been an existential projectan effort to define a nation. The four constitutions collectively indicate the evolution of that difficult process.

The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) successfully led the political struggle against France, but it failed to present a complementary postcolonial political, economic, and social program. Roiling intraparty rivalries resulted in civil strife in the summer of 1962. Ahmed Ben Bella, supported by Houari Boumédienne, the commander of the external Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN), seized power from the wartime Gouvernement Provisioire de la République Algérienne (GPRA). Ben Bella was selected prime minister by the Assemblée Nationale, whose chief authority was constituentthe crafting of a constitution. But Ben Bella and his FLN supporters ignored the Assemblée, drafted a constitution themselves, and forced its acceptance.

The Constitution of 1963 expressed the fervor of Algerian revolutionary nationalism and the authoritarianism of the Ben Bella government, the FLN, and the ALN. Taking into account the FLN's Tripoli Programme of June 1962, the constitution defined Algeria as a socialist state committed to the anti-imperialist struggle internally and externally. It extolled autogestion the spontaneous takeover by self-management committees of properties abandoned by colonial settlers (pieds-noirs) as the model and means to assert socialism and egalitarianism. The FLN, described as "the revolutionary force of
the nation" in the preamble, acquired a political monopoly as the only permissible legal party. The military was also to be politically engaged. The executive branch received great power at the expense of the legislative, as the Assemblée Nationale was reduced to a subordinate ratifying body. The constitution proclaimed Islam as the official religion and Arabic as the official language. After a national referendum approved the document, Ben Bella was elected Algeria's first president.

The rival ambitions of Ben Bella and Boumédienne produced political and personal hostility. In June 1965 Boumédienne successfully deposed Ben Bella's government in June 1965 and suspended the constitution in favor of a Conseil de la Révolution. Boumédienne was a fervent socialist who favored strong leadership and direction in state-building. He pursued state plans along with simultaneous industrial, agrarian, and cultural revolutions. In 1975 Boumédienne declared the need to assess the country's development. This resulted in remarkable public discussions that produced a National Charter, which also framed Algeria's second constitution.

The Constitution of 1976 introduced a 261-member Assemblée Populaire Nationale (APN). Its representatives were nominated and slated by the FLN, which retained its predominant constitutional privileges. The APN served as a ratifying body for legislation proposed by the FLN political bureau and central committee. Mirroring Boumédienne's domination, the constitution enormously empowered the executive branch. The president was commander in chief of the armed forces and secretary-general of the FLN. When the APN was not in session, the president could rule by decree. The cabinet was also responsible to the president rather than to the APN. Civil and political freedomsincluding rights for womenwere stipulated but not in fact exercised. The constitution reaffirmed the official roles of socialism, Arabic, and Islam. The constitution also vested Boumédienne with a mantle of legitimacy after a decade of authoritarian rule. Ironically, it soon played an important role in ensuring a smooth transition after his untimely death in 1978.

Algeria underwent substantial changes during the presidency of Chadli Bendjedid. State-planning shifted greater attention to the first sector. The FLN also became increasingly inert and corrupt. A minor, though significant, Islamist insurgency also occurred. The Family Code of 1984 reinforced the shariʿa and contradicted the Constitution of 1976 regarding gender equality. The plunge in petroleum prices in the mid-1980s severely affected the economy and exacerbated chronic unemployment. These conditions deepened the distress of the educated but disillusioned youth. In October 1988 riots broke out throughout Algeria, destabilizing the government. After suppressing the violent protests, Bend-jedid shifted some of his power to the prime minister and promised reform. This was the historical context for the Constitution of 1989.

The new constitution redefined the Algerian republic as "democratic and popular," but not "socialist." The FLN also lost its hegemonic position, as the constitution stipulated the freedom "to form associations of a political nature" (Article 40), thereby projecting a multiparty political system. Human and civil rightsincluding "freedom of expression, of association and of assembly" (Article 39)were guaranteed, though women's rights were not specifically stated as in the Constitution of 1976. Significantly, the army's role was relegated to non-political responsibilities. Though the president still had predominant powerincluding rule by decreethe end of the FLN's political monopoly promised substantial reform and a greater role for the APN. The president could still select his prime minister and cabinet, but the APN had to approve his choices. Islam and Arabic retained their official status.

Subsequent legislation in July 1989 secured the right to organize political parties. By early 1990 Algeria was experiencing remarkable liberalization and freedom. Regional and local elections held in June 1990 astonished observers, as the recently organized Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) won most of the contests. Scheduled parliamentary elections in June 1991 had to be postponed after violent confrontations between the FIS and the government. After the FIS decisively won the first round of the rescheduled elections in December, alarmed military and civilian elites forced President Bendjedid's resignation in January 1992, suspended the constitution, and canceled the elections. A Haut Comité d'Etat (HCE) took control of the government. These events provoked the civil war chiefly between the government and alienated Islamists that resulted in an estimated 150,000 deaths. A cautious reinstitutionalization began in January 1994 when the HCE dissolved itself after announcing the appointment of Liamine Zeroual as president. In presidential elections that were remarkably free (though the officially disbanded FIS was not allowed to participate) Zeroual was elected to a full term in November 1995.

The Constitution of 1996 symbolized Algeria's deliberate "redemocratization." Approved by referendum that many considered rigged, the constitution prohibited parties based on religion, regionalism, gender, and language. This was meant to neutralize the political potential of Berbers (primarily Kabyles) and Islamists. The president was limited to two terms but preserved the power to dissolve parliament, choose a prime minister and cabinet, and rule by decree. The constitution inaugurated a bicameral legislature. It regenerated the APN as a lower house and introduced the Conseil de la Nation (CN) as an upper house. The president received the privilege of appointing one-third of the membership of the CN. Subsequent elections continued Algeria's redemocratization. Parliamentary and local elections in 2002 were marked by the remarkable renascence of the FLN. Concurrently, roiling events in Kabylia resulted in the recognition of the Berbers' Tamazight as an official national language in 2002. The question of whether the constitution needs to be amended to include Tamazight with Arabic remains controversial.

Algeria's constitutional history illustrates a country defining and redefining itself. That existential quest continues today as Algeria exercises an albeit limited democratic process. Most observers believe that for Algeria to have an authentic democracy, the military must withdraw from political affairs. In addition, accountability and transparency must be institutionalized. If pursued, this will probably mean more constitutional revision or reform.

see also algeria: political parties in; algerian war of independence; armÉe de libÉration nationale (aln); ben bella, ahmed; bendjedid, chadli; berber; boumÉdienne, houari; front de libÉration nationale (fln); front islamique du salut (fis); zeroual, liamine.


Quandt, William B. Between Ballots and Bullets: Algeria's Transition from Authoritarianism. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute Press, 1998.

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Phillip C. Naylor