Algeria: Overview

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Arab republic situated in North Africa.

The second largest country in Africa, the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria comprises an area of some 920,000 square miles in the Maghreb (North Africa). It is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the north, Morocco on the west, Western Sahara and Mauritania on the southwest, Niger and Mali on the south, and Libya and Tunisia on the east. Its population at the end of 2002 totaled about 32 million. Major cities include the capital Algiers, Oran, Constantine, and Annaba.

Algeria is divided into the relatively moist and mountainous north, which is part of the Atlas Mountain system, and the Saharan south, which makes up roughly five-sixths of the country. The north consists of three major regions: the Tell Mountains near the sea, the steppe-like high plateaus to their south, and the Saharan Atlas farther down that abuts the desert. The Sahara, stretching south for 990 miles, is interrupted by several plateaus and in the farthest south by the great massif of the Ahaggar Mountains, whose highest point is about 10,000 feet and whose crystalline and volcanic peaks extend southwestward into Mali.


Northern Algeria, whose mountains are interspersed with agriculturally productive coastal plains and valleys, is subject to a Mediterranean subtropical climate. Most precipitation occurs between fall and spring; winter temperatures are cool. Summers are generally dry and can be subject to extremely hot winds from the south known as chehili. Some of the higher mountain areas to the center and east can receive annual rainfall of more than 39 inches, though averages in the north range between about 16 and 32 inches. Rainfall can vary greatly from year to year, however. A year of average and well-timed precipitation can be followed by one of extreme drought, which in turn can be succeeded by a winter of deluges, floods, and mudslides.

Average annual precipitation in most of the Sahara is less than 5 inches, and in some parts it is less than a half inch. Temperatures on many summer days can rise as high as 50°C and on some winter nights they can fall below freezing. Although rain-watered and irrigated agriculture are impossible in Saharan Algeria, the desert is sprinkled with a number of extremely productive oases. The region also contains most of the country's hydrocarbon reserves.

People and Culture

The 2003 Algerian population was estimated to contain 103 men for every 100 women. The fertility rate per woman was 2.79 and this, coupled with rapidly declining mortality rates, caused the population to grow at about 1.82 percent annually. In 2003 the percentage of Algerians under 15 years of age was 34.8, and the percentage over 65 was 4.1. Life expectancy for men was 68.7 years and for women, 71.8. Although the native population was overwhelmingly rural in the mid-twentieth century, by the beginning of the twenty-first it was slightly more than 60 percent urban. There was also a significant Algerian population living overseas, particularly in France, the former colonial power.

Arabs constitute the majority of Algeria's population, but Berbers are a significant minority. Since official censuses do not count ethnicity (the question has been politically charged since Algeria's independence), accurate determination of the percentages of each group is very difficult. Most estimates place the Arabic-speaking population at between 80 percent and 81 percent and Berber speakers at 19 percent to 20 percent. The majority of Berbers live in the mountainous Kabylia region east of Algiers and speak a variety of Berber known as Tamazight. Many of these Kabyles have moved to the cities over the decades, however, especially to Algiers, where they constitute a significant percentage of the capital's population. Other Berber speakers are Chaouias in the Aurès Mountains, Mzabis in the northern Sahara, and Twaregs in the far south.

The sole official language of Algeria after it gained independence in 1962 was Arabic, but a range of distinct Arabic dialects was and is spoken. In 2002, after decades of dissension, Tamazight, the Berber language of the Kabyles, was accepted as the second official language. Large numbers of Algerians, especially the better educated and the Kabyles, still speak, read, and write French, the official language of the colonial era.

Religiously, the overwhelming majority of Algerians are of Sunni Muslim heritage, though considerable numbers are nonobservant or only partially observant. A small number of Muslims are Ibadiyya, offshoots of the Kharijis, Islam's first splinter sect. Some rural Muslims still adhere to certain Maraboutic, populist, mystical traditions. There are also a few small Christian communities left from the colonial era.

Since independence, the Algerian state has greatly emphasized the importance of education. Adult literacy rates, which for native Algerians were calculated at about 10 percent at the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence in 1954 had risen to 66.7 percent by 2002. While twelve years of education for boys and ten years for girls are compulsory, rates of compliance are difficult to assess. Access to schools can be difficult in some rural areas and in cities many schools are greatly overcrowded, detracting from the quality of the experience. Fearing attacks from Islamist insurgents during the 1990s, many parents in dangerous regions decided to keep their children home. Algeria has established a significant number of universities and technical institutes and it is estimated that 11 percent of the relative age group currently access postsecondary education at some level.


In the sixteenth century Ottoman Turks began establishing the political entity stretching along the coast from Morocco to Tunisia which came to be known until the French conquest as the Regency of Algiers. That regency was technically a part of the Ottoman Empire, but from the late seventeenth century it was effectively an independent state in which actual power was held by local Turkish military dominated by the elite Janissaries whose leaders were the deep. Beyond the Algiers region (Dar al Sultan), the country was divided into three beyliks, or provinces, centered respectively on Constantine, Oran, and Médéa. Beys (governors), who were usually Turks, controlled provinces. The deys and beys ruled directly in cities and in productive agricultural areas close to them. In much of the country, however, they depended on tribes. These extended family networks were the predominant sociopolitical formations of the indigenous Berber and Arab inhabitants, whether settled farmers, transhumants, or nomads. The regency would enlist some tribes as makhzan allies, whose role was to maintain control and extract taxes from other tribes known as rayat (subjects), a divide and conquer strategy. In more distant plains mountain tribes were largely independent, though control over some could be gained through periodic alliances.

In 1830 France, motivated by a complex mix of strategic, commercial, and domestic political concerns, invaded Algeria. The Turkish Janissaries were defeated and deported within weeks of the French landing, and France quickly occupied major coastal cities. As the occupation expanded into the interior, resistance devolved upon provincial Turks and especially upon Arab and Berber coalitions, the most prominent of which was led by the Amir Abdelkadir in the 1830s and 1840s. It was not until 1871 that the major wars of conquest in the north ended. Subsequently, due primarily to the late-nineteenth-century European scramble for Africa, France expanded its occupation to include what is now the Algerian Sahara.

During the first decades of colonial rule Algeria remained essentially under control of the French military, and during the 1848 revolution it was formally annexed to France, with the major administrative subdivisions of Constantine, Algiers, and Oran becoming départements of the French Republic. As French business interests invested increasingly in the Algerian economy and its infrastructure, and as others acquired through expropriation and other means more and more of the most productive farmland, tensions grew between them and the military,
who often felt compelled to make concessions to native Algerians in order to reduce the levels of resistance soldiers had to handle. With the collapse of the French military during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Paris inaugurated a process that effectively ceded power to the settlers. Although they were never more than one-ninth of the total population, the colons (settlers) created political, administrative, and judicial institutions that protected and enhanced their control over the means of production while assuring the subordination of native Algerians. Algerians were not citizens of the French Republic, but they were its subjects. A small minority of them were allowed to vote for members of local councils, the central délégations financières, effectively the Algerian parliament, but they were entitled to between one-fourth and one-third of the seats on the councils and twenty-one of sixty-nine in the central body. These arrangements assured the political dominance of the settlers and also their control of tax revenues, the largest proportion of which always came from the native Algerians. The judicial system was totally European except in certain areas of religious and family law. With the imposition of such institutions, the tribal and clan systems, which had once determined access to land and the major means of production, and mediated internal and external disputes, lost their relevance. Algerian society was progressively proletarianized, with more and more peasants working on French-owned farms, gradually moving into services in French-controlled cities, and, toward the turn of the twentieth century, beginning a slow but accelerating process of emigration to France. At the same time, the traditional colonial establishment had dismantled most of the traditional Arab/Islamic educational system and created a secular system in which the language of education was French. Due to financial considerations and colon fears of the challenges an educated native elite might present, Muslim access to education was severely limited. The result was that by 1954 only 397,000 (12.75%) of elementary-age Muslim children were enrolled in schools. Only 5,308 Muslims were enrolled in secondary schools, and 686 attended the University of Algiers.

Resistance to colonial rule in the first decades of the twentieth century came from two sources: the small French-educated elite who began demanding the rights of citizens, and a smaller group, mainly clerics, who were educated in Arabic and refused to accept the imposition of French culture. Between the two world wars various strains of Algerian nationalism began to emerge. One was an Islamic reformist movement that expressed its demands in mainly religious terms; another was a liberal movement headed by French-educated elites that, after failing to persuade the colon government to grant them the rights of Frenchmen, began pressing for an independent Algeria based upon secular democratic principles. A third movement, with roots amongst the working-class expatriates in France, was essentially Marxist. But within each of the major strains there always remained significant ideological, tactical, and personal differences. With the establishment's continuing refusal to allow major reform, elements of these opposition movements fused into the National Liberation Front (FLN), which launched the War of Independence on 1 November 1954. The war, which lasted until 1962, was extremely violent and bloody, eventually taking the lives of more than 500,000, causing the displacement of as many as 3,000,000 rural Algerians, and wreaking havoc upon the economy. Although the Evian Accords of March 1962, which led to Algeria's independence on 5 July, guaranteed the personal and property rights of French Algerians, at least 90 percent of them chose to leave the country before the end of that year. In anger, departing settlers methodically destroyed libraries, hospitals, government buildings, factories, machinery, communications facilities, and other valuable infrastructure. Their departure also deprived Algeria of the largest part of its professional, technical, and managerial expertise, and accelerated the flight of private capital that had begun several years earlier.

In addition to major economic challenges, independent Algeria faced challenges of national identity. The motto of the new state was "Islam is our religion, Arabic is our language, and Algeria is our nation." Yet the exact role of religion was (and has continued to be) a major source of debate, as was the question of language. The operative language of independent Algeria was French, but a range of Arab dialects was spoken in a majority of homes and Tamzight was spoken by the largest Berber minority. Regional, clan, and personal divisions among elites also divided the emerging nation.

Ahmed Ben Bella, one of the FLN's historic leaders who spent the last years of the war in French prisons, became the country's first president. He led the way to the drafting of the country's first constitution, which declared Algeria to be a socialist state, transformed the FLN into the sole legal political party, and created a strong executive in which Ben Bella was both head of state and head of government. Many opponents of Ben Bella's rule were imprisoned or forced into exile. He was overthrown in June 1965 in a military coup led by Colonel Houari Boumédienne, who sought to preserve the position of the military but also inaugurated a period of collegial leadership which, at least rhetorically, reached out more broadly to the Algerian masses. Under him Arabization of the educational system moved forward, and he sought to give the Algerian economy greater independence through a program of industrialization based on core industries that were state enterprises funded by rapidly increasing income from the petroleum and natural gas sectors. At the same time, neglect or mismanagement of the agricultural sector caused Algeria, which had been agriculturally self-sufficient at independence, to import 65 percent of its foods by 1978. A second constitution, approved in 1976, sought to give the system a more populist image, but it is clear that the country was run by a coalition of technocrats and military, and that the gap between these elites and the masses was growing both economically and culturally.

When Boumédienne died in 1978, he was succeeded by Colonel Chadli Bendjedid, who promised Algerians "a better life" and brought about a small degree of economic decentralization. But a plunge in global oil prices made Bendjedid's task much more difficult. During the 1980s, protest against
the regime took on a more and more Islamic character, with major demonstrations and even some guerrilla activity in the countryside. Acceleration of Arabization policies was one of Bendjedid's responses to this problem, but this approach generated increasing opposition from the Kabyles, who felt more excluded than ever. Major strikes that led to riots broke out in Algeria's biggest cities in October 1988, and the army and other forces repressed them with great violence. In the wake of the riots, President Bendjedid announced a series of liberalizing reforms that led to the adoption in 1989 of Algeria's third constitution, which formally ended Algeria's socialist single party system. Civic organizations proliferated, Algeria's press became arguably the freest in the Arab world, and, by 1991, thirty-three political parties had been formally recognized. The overwhelming majority of parties were secular, but the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS, or Islamic Salvation Front), a coalition of Islamists headed by Abassi al-Madani, a Muslim sociologist and educator, and Ali Belhadj, a popular preacher, became the most popular and far-reaching of them. In local and provincial elections held in June 1990, the FIS won 54 percent of the popular vote and gained control of 850 of 1,500 municipal councils. After much delay and contention, including the arrests of al-Madani and Belhadj, national parliamentary elections were held on 26 December 1991. FIS candidates won majorities in 188 of 430 electoral districts. It was clear that in runoffs for the remaining districts, which were scheduled for 16 January, FIS
would win an absolute majority of parliamentary seats.

On 11 January the military, most of whom had opposed the elections, forced Bendjedid to resign the presidency. It then canceled the second round of elections and created a collective interim presidency, the Haut Comité d'Etat (HCS, or High State Council) to fill out the remainder of his term to 1994. The FIS was banned and more of its leaders were imprisoned. In response to this military takeover, many dedicated Islamists began moving toward violent opposition. Initial targets were security forces, bureaucrats, and government facilities, but as time went on, more and more ordinary civilians were targeted, including intellectuals, cultural figures, individuals noted for their secular views, foreigners, and ultimately anyone who refused to support the Islamist insurrection. The most violent fighters came together as the Groupes Islamiques Armées (GIA, or Armed Islamic Groups), and a group closer to the FIS leadership, the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS, or Islamic Salvation Army) fought in a somewhat more targeted way. The Algerian security forces used brutal measures in fighting the insurrection, including mass executions, torture, killing of prisoners, and encouragement of fights between local villagers and clans. By the end of the twentieth century, as violence began to taper off, estimates of the number of Algerians killed in the civil war ranged between 100,000 and 200,000. Surveys showed, however, that the overwhelming majority of Algerians, even those who had originally supported the FIS, opposed the tactics of the guerrillas, and also that secular liberals and Berbers would support the repressive military to whatever extent was necessary to suppress the violent fundamentalists.

The minister of defense, General Liamine Zeroual, was appointed to the presidency of the republic in January 1994, and was subsequently elected to that office by 61 percent of the vote in multiparty elections the next year. It was Zeroual's government that drafted and submitted to a referendum Algeria's fourth constitution, which was accepted by the voters in November 1996.


Algeria's current government is based upon the constitution of 1996 which, in the Algerian tradition, establishes a strong presidency and provides for a considerably less powerful prime minister. Presidents are elected to five-year terms and are limited to two terms. Although the constitution provides for a multiparty political system, it prohibits parties based on religion, ethnicity, or regionalism. There are two houses of parliament. The lower house, or National Assembly, is elected by proportional representation (as opposed to the district system of the 1989 constitution), and this is the primary legislative body. In the upper house, or Council of the Nation, two-thirds of the seats are filled by indirect election and one-third are appointed by the president. To become law, bills must be approved by three-fourths of the members of the upper house, thus assuring veto power for the executive branch.

Algeria's central government is augmented by subnational units at the wilaya (provincial) level, of which there are presently forty-eight, and at the local level by communes, of which there are 1,540. Each has executive and legislative assemblies. In addition, an intermediate unit, the daira, facilitates a number of administrative and legal issues that neither the wilaya nor the commune engages.

The most important political parties in Algeria are the Rassemblement National Démocratique (RND, or National Democratic Rally), which was created by the government; the FLN, whose strength faded in the 1990s but which outplaced the RND in the 2002 elections; the Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (MSP, or Movement of Society for Peace) and the Mouvement National pour la Réforme (MNR, or National Movement for Reform), both of which are have Islamic roots; the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS, or Socialist Forces Front) and the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie (RCD, or Rally for Culture and Democracy), both of which are based primarily on Kabyle populations. There are also several smaller parties.

President Zeroual stepped down before the end of his five-year term, reportedly because of disputes with more hard-line generals. He was succeeded in 1999 by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a long-time supporter of Boumédienne, and the first nonmilitary man to hold the office since the overthrow of Ben Bella. Fearing that the military who had nominated Bouteflika were going to rig the elections, most of his opponents withdrew days before the 1999 elections took place. Consistent with a campaign pledge to try to end the violence afflicting the country, Bouteflika put forth a Civil Concord policy that called for amnesty for most who would lay down their arms. The amnesty was approved in a popular referendum in September 2000. As Algeria moved closer to a functioning democracy in the first decade of the new century, many believed that a group of generals and retired military known popularly as le pouvoir still maintained ultimate control of the system. Some also believed that President Bouteflika had fallen out with the military and that the presidential elections of 2004 might prove to be a major political turning point for the country.


With a gross domestic product (GDP) of $54.6 billion in 2001, Algeria is one of the richest countries in Africa. Industry constitutes 47.7 percent of GDP, of which manufacturing represents 4.3 percent. Services contribute 40.6 percent to GDP and agriculture, 11.7 percent. The most important portion of the manufacturing sector is petroleum and natural gas. Although Algeria exports some consumer products to neighboring North African countries, the majority of exports are from the hydrocarbon sector, which uses tankers for oil and a trans-Mediterranean pipeline and LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) for exporting gas. Money transfers from expatriates also contribute significantly to income. Algeria imports many important consumer products, including about two-thirds of its foods and many household items. Its most important trading partners continue to be France and other countries of the European Union.

Beginning in the 1980s, with balance of payments worsening and foreign debt rising, the international community put Algeria under increasing pressure to restructure and privatize its economy. Important manufacturing sectors were privatized during the 1990s, but the government, led by the military, kept majority control of the hydrocarbon sector. During several of the tumultuous years of the 1990s annual growth of the economy was negative, but it had rebounded to 1.6 percent by 1999 to 2000. This growth rate is still lower than the rate of population increase, however. Roughly 25 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture, 26 percent in industry, and 49 percent in services. The unemployment rate in 1997 had risen to 28 percent, and in 2000 GDP per capita was $1,750, with very large distributional inequities. As violence subsided in the first years of the new decade, domestic and foreign investment increased somewhat, raising hopes for accelerated economic growth.

see also algerian family code (1984); algerian war of independence; algiers; algiers, battle of (19561957); annaba; belhadj, ali; ben bella, ahmed; bendjedid, chadli; berber; boumÉdienne, houari; bouteflika, abdelaziz; constantine; evian accords (1962); front islamique du salut (fis); gia (armed islamic groups); ibadiyya; islamic salvation army (ais); kabylia; madani, abassi al-; mzab; oran; parti du peuple algÉrien (ppa); rassemblement national dÉmocratique (rnd); rassemblement pour la culture et la dÉmocratie (rcd); twareg; zeroual, liamine.


Martinez, Luis. The Algerian Civil War, 19901998. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

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

Roberts, Hugh. The Battlefield: Algeria 19882002, Studies in a Broken Polity. London: Verso, 2003.

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

Stora, Benjamin. Algeria, 18302000: A Short History, translated by Jane Marie Todd. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

John Ruedy