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Historical background

Early and colonial history

The original inhabitants of Algeria were Imazighen (singular, Amazigh), the preferred self-description of Berbers. The ethnic make-up of modern Algeria has its origins in the westward movement of Arabic people across North Africa in the eighth century. The Imazighen subsequently converted to Islam, and their society gradually merged with Arabic society except in more remote or inaccessible areas, where traditional Amazigh social structures still survive. In Algeria there are four significant Amazigh groups: the Kabyles, originally from the Atlas Mountains close to the capital; the Chaouia from the Aures Mountains; the Mzab from the south; and the Touareg from the Sahara in the far south of the country.

The foundations of Algeria's political system were laid during the period of Ottoman rule from 1525 to 1830. In 1830 France took control of the coastal areas and gradually extended its influence through an active settlement policy, which gathered pace from 1872 onwards. France did not administer Algeria as a colonial territory but, uniquely in the French empire, as an integral part of France. The intensity of the relationship between France and Algeria has had a lasting effect on both countries. The Algerian independence movement originated in France, in 1926, away from the stricter controls on the Muslim population in Algeria itself (Stora 1992). The movement evolved through various coalitions and disputes to form a united Front de Liberation National (FLN) which organised the war against France and later formed the machinery of the Algerian state.

Algeria gained independence on 5 July 1962, following the brutal 1954-62 war in which a million people are considered to have lost their lives (Horne 1996). The intensity of this war can best be explained by the status of Algeria within the French consciousness. It was not simply a war to eject a colonising power (though it is often called the 'Algerian war of independence' in English), but a struggle between two groups for recognition and ownership of a country to which they believed they had an equal right. In Algeria it is simply called 'the revolution', and the continued significance of this event can be seen from the fact that Algeria's national holiday is not 5 July, the date on which independence was achieved in 1962, but 1 November, when the first shots of the war were fired in 1954. Even today, though the vast majority of the population was not even born when independence was achieved, the legitimacy of political leaders and parties continues to draw directly on the extent of their participation in the revolution. Commentators, such as Martinez (1998) have looked to the almost ritualised significance of violent struggle in Algerian history, particularly the revolution, for an explanation of the continued violence in Algeria today.

Post-independence Algeria

Independence left Algeria in turmoil. Much of the European population, known as the pieds noirs, had been resident in the country for three or even four generations (Stora 1991). The huge majority of pieds noirs left the country in the months surrounding independence. Algerian state bureaucracy and the most profitable companies and agricultural estates were all run by pieds noirs, and their hasty departure left Algeria without anywhere near the necessary personnel to operate the state machinery or support economic development. Algerians who had fought for the French army, known as harkis, were severely persecuted by the rest of the population. As many as 100,000 harkis were killed, and those who could joined the pieds noirs in fleeing the country. More than a million people, mainly pieds noirs, left Algeria during 1962. In 1961, a small faction of pieds noirs and French military personnel formed the extremist right-wing Secret Armed Organisation (OAS). The OAS carried out violent attacks against both French and Algerian targets with the aim of destabilising Algeria, and operated a scorched-earth policy to ensure that the new country was left with as few resources as possible (Kauffer 2002). In addition to the severity of these problems, the newly independent Algeria had also been exhausted by eight years of war, more than 70 per cent of the population were unemployed, and disease and poverty caused widespread suffering. On independence, the FLN effectively formed the state. Algeria's first president, Ahmed Ben-Bella, was formerly elected in 1963, the year following independence. The situation remained unstable during 1963, and several significant leaders of the 1954-62 war mounted challenges to Ben-Bella's leadership, including Hocine Ait Ahmed (who led an armed rebellion of his Front des Forces Socialists [FFS]), and Mohammed Boudiaf. Both of these leaders went into exile, from where Ait Ahmed continued his political opposition through the FFS.

Ben-Bella's increasingly dictatorial style provoked widespread popular resentment. He was deposed in a bloodless coup in June 1965 by Houari Boumediène. Ben-Bella was initially imprisoned and then went into exile, where he too organised an anti-government opposition party from his French home, continuing the tradition of powerful expatriate groups operating from France which had begun with the independence movement itself. Boumediène is really the only Algerian head of state to have been fully in charge, rather than under the significant control of powerful figures in the army. He cancelled the 1963 constitution, and until 1976 he ruled through the Council of the Revolution. In 1976 he introduced a new constitution and was elected president. His unexpected death in 1978 left his socialist projects unfinished, and these were largely abandoned by his successor, Chadli Bendjedid, who was elected in 1979.

The Chadli regime saw popular unrest by the Kabyle minority. In 1980, the cancellation of a cultural lecture in Tizi Ouzou, the most significant town in Kabylia, provoked rioting that was brutally repressed by the gendarmerie. The Kabyle minority has celebrated this event annually ever since as the 'Berber Spring'. Agitation by radical Islamists provoked more widespread unrest throughout the early 1980s. In 1984 the government passed the controversial Family Code in an attempt to placate Islamist opinion. This legislation formalises gender inequality in matters of private law. It remains in force, and its abrogation is demanded by many civil society groups. In the early 1980s the Chadli government also introduced a number of measures to liberalise the economy, which resulted in significant price rises on basic foodstuffs. By 1988 popular discontent at the corruption and ineffectiveness of the regime spilled over, and in October, riots in Algiers lasted several days and spread to other cities. They were violently suppressed by the army, and unofficial figures estimate the death toll to have been 500. In 1989 Chadli introduced a new constitution, which legalised political parties, downgraded the role of the army, and introduced significant new freedoms.

For a short time the new constitution seemed to herald a more positive era, and Algeria was viewed as a model of success of freedom and democracy (Entelis 1992; Willis 1996). Greater freedom of the press encouraged the establishment of new independent newspapers and magazines. More than 150 were launched between 1990 and 1994 (Merril 1995, quoted in Lloyd 2003:30). Civil society flourished, new groups were established, and those that had been operating for some time were allowed a greater degree of freedom, particularly affecting women's organisations that had developed in opposition to the Family Code, and human rights organisations such as the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADH). Trades unions also developed as the monopoly of the FLN-sponsored General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) was relaxed. More than sixty political parties were legalised, including a loose federation of diverse Islam-based groups, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), which quickly attained a massive base of support. The FIS won the 1990 local elections extremely convincingly and, although their leaders were imprisoned and the following general elections delayed, they also dominated the first round of the general elections finally held in December 1991 and looked certain to achieve a huge majority in the second round. In January 1992 the army cancelled the second round, forced Chadli to resign, and set up a High State Committee (HCE) to take over his functions. This is considered by most observers to mark the beginning of the conflict, and on his election in 1999 President Bouteflika declared the army's actions to be the first 'violence' that had been committed.

The current conflict

Reliable information, and therefore real analysis, of the current conflict is unusual. There is not even any significant consensus amongst commentators over the fundamental causes of the conflict or how it should be characterised. The unrest stems from the army's decision to cancel the elections in an effort to prevent the certain victory the FIS. Although many commentators agree that the political situation in Algeria had been growing increasingly delicate throughout the 1980s, the cancellation of the elections created the climate of instability that allowed the crisis to deepen further (Volpi 2003). The army violently suppressed any further activity by FIS activists and supporters, imprisoning thousands in specially constructed internment camps in the Sahara. Since the FIS represented such a diverse range of opinions, the various currents soon began to diverge. Some of their members fled the country in an effort to escape or continue a politically based combat; others began organising an armed guerrilla struggle against the army and, increasingly, the civilian population. In July 1992 Mohammed Boudiaf, who had been brought back from exile by the army to head the HCE, was assassinated. This event really confirmed the severity of the crisis.

The nature of the armed groups is also very diverse, and there have been at least seven identifiably different groups involved in the fighting (Khelassi 1998). Some, such as the armed wing of the FIS, the AIS, targeted only members of the armed forces and declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1997. More extreme factions, such as the diverse Groupe Islamique Armée ( Al Jama'a Al Islamia Al Musallah) (GIA) undertook a far more vicious campaign against the civilian population. From 1993 onwards, prominent intellectuals were assassinated in attacks generally claimed in the name of the GIA. By 1993, armed groups were the de facto authority in significant parts of the country, including the suburbs of Algiers. They administered justice, maintained prisons, and operated freely.

A significant amount of international aid began to arrive in 1994, most notably from France (Esprit 1995). This included considerable amounts of military hardware, which permitted the army to gradually reassert their position, though the violence escalated considerably towards the end of the year. In November 1995, presidential elections confirmed Liamine Zeroual, the former defence minister, as the new head of state, and in 1996 he issued a revised constitution which was confirmed by a significant majority of the population in elections in November.

In 1994 and 1995, armed groups attempted to involve France directly in the conflict. In December 1994, an Air France plane was hijacked at Algiers airport, and over the summer of 1995 there were a number of explosions in Paris, in which twenty-six people were killed. All were claimed by the GIA. France responded severely, and initiated a dramatic security clamp-down, stopping and searching thousands of individuals of North African origin. The French government openly criticised other European states who did not respond similarly, particularly the UK and Germany, where it was thought that radical Islamists were allowed a greater degree of freedom for organisation and fundraising activities. In 1995 a group of eight opposition parties, including the FIS, agreed a joint platform for a peaceful solution to the crisis at the community of St Egidio in Rome. This was considered by some observers as the best opportunity for resolving the crisis at the time, but it was rejected by the Algerian government.

During 1997, massacres of the civilian population became increasingly serious. In August and September, and again in January 1998, hundreds of individuals were slaughtered in villages and towns of the Mitidja, an area lying between Algiers and the Atlas Mountains to the South. These events increased pressure for an international enquiry into events in Algeria from international NGOs such as Amnesty International, as well as significant personalities amongst the Algerian community in Europe. The Algerian government resisted this pressure, but did permit visits of the European Union troika, a European Parliament delegation and a UN Panel of Eminent Persons. All three reported only moderate criticisms of the Algerian government.

In April 1999 Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected as head of state, though the elections were widely criticised as fraudulent and the six other candidates withdrew in protest. Bouteflika presented a far more open style of government, which was initially greeted optimistically. He introduced a law on 'civil concord', which was put to national referendum in September. The centrepiece of this legislation was an amnesty for members of armed groups who had not committed serious violent crimes. This met with some success, but when the amnesty expired in January 2000, the GIA and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) continued their guerrilla strategy, and the army resumed operations against them. The Algerian strategy for tackling these groups focuses on eliminating them with only peripheral concern for human rights abuses and civilian casualties. In the international environment that has prevailed since 11 September 2001, this strategy has met with increased international approval, and in December 2002 Algeria signed a significant new arms deal with the US government.

April 2001 marked the twenty-first anniversary of the 'Berber Spring'. Police responded to disturbances in Kabylia with excessive force, and an estimated eighty people were killed over the next few months in an event that has become known as the 'Black Spring' (see Disturbances in Kabylia). Two official enquiries were especially critical of the police and the government's response. The violence in the region has eased, but tensions remain extremely high, and there were further deaths in April 2002.

UNHCR/ACCORD European Country of Origin Reports: Algeria (M. François Burgat 2001)
Library of Congress Country Studies: Algeria
Text of St Egidio Platform of 13 January 1995 (in French)


Independent Algeria has had four constitutions introducing varying degrees of democracy, though in practice, the rights guaranteed in these constitutions have been fairly superficial and the army has maintained real power virtually from independence. The first constitution received popular assent in 1963. It established the FLN as the source of legitimacy of state power, and the party of the FLN as the only party. In 1965 Boumedienne effectively cancelled this system, and until 1976 Algeria was ruled by the Council of the Revolution. During this time there was no constitution. The constitution of 1976 instigated the Second Algerian Republic and established the National Popular Assembly (APN). There were regular elections to the APN, but all candidates were selected from a single list and approved by the FLN council.

President Chadli modified this constitution in 1986 to water down the commitment to socialist principles. Following the riots of October 1988, he produced a new constitution that was approved in 1989. This ended the one-party system and the dominance of the FLN. The repercussions of the end of FLN rule were very significant, and the removal of controls permitted the growth of a vibrant new civil society (see The current conflict). The 1989 constitution specified that parties based on religious, ethnic, or regional identity would not be recognised, but nonetheless the FIS was approved, in addition to a number of Berber parties such as the FFS. On the eve of the country's first multiparty elections, the local elections of 1990, almost sixty parties had received official approval. A number of commentators have suggested that the FIS was only recognised to act as a counterbalance to the FLN, since several members of the FLN council had been extremely unhappy with the constitution. In the end, the FIS dominated the elections. They went on to win a huge majority in the first round of general elections of December 1991. Algeria was again without a constitution from the cancellation of the second round of these elections to the introduction of the country's fourth constitution in 1996.

The executive has always been the dominant section of government, and in the early history of Algeria this power was concentrated in the hands of the president. Ever since Chadli was forced to resign in 1992, the army has exerted a tremendous influence on the president, and the office of the president has become much weaker. The president appoints members of the judiciary, and although the APN is nominally democratically elected and some elections have been commended by international observers, few people outside the government would claim that the make-up of the APN bears much relationship to votes cast.

Political parties represent three main tendencies: pro-regime parties, such as the FLN or the RND; Berber parties, the FFS and the RCD, both of which are rooted in Kabylia; and Islamist parties (though the FIS remains illegal, several have received approval, including MSP and the recently successful MRN). The fortunes of the parties have varied considerably over time. Some observers claim that they represent very little (Willis 2002), others see them as a reflection of the factional struggle that goes on behind the scenes (Roberts 2003). The 1996 constitution introduced eight deputies to represent the emigrant community, who are voted for directly by emigrants in different sections of the world. The distribution of these deputies reflects the distribution of the Algerian emigrant community as a whole: four represent France; there is one for the rest of Europe; one for the Middle East and the rest of Africa; one for the Americas; and one for Asia and Australasia.

Current (1996) constitution
National People's Assembly: first chamber
National Council: second legislative chamber (in French and Arabic)


Approximately 80 per cent of the Algerian population are Arab, and the remaining 20 per cent Amazigh. The 1966 census was the last to specifically investigate this distinction, and it has always been very fluid, so this is only a rough estimate, but one that is widely quoted and accepted. The largest Amazigh group is the Kabyles from the Atlas Mountains very close to the capital. They make up approximately 15 per cent of the population. Chaouia, mainly from the Aures region, are also significant at 3-4 per cent of the population. Finally there are two much smaller groups: the Mzab ( Mouzabite in French) from the south, and the Touareg from the far southern Sahara. About a million European colons left in the months following independence. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s significant numbers of Europeans remained, often working in education, but during the current conflict their numbers have dwindled, particularly following a general threat against foreigners from the GIA in 1993, and only a very small number are still resident.

The official language of Algeria is Modern Standard Arabic, though this is rarely spoken outside official situations. The huge majority of the population speak the Algerian dialect of Arabic, which is similar to Moroccan and Tunisian Arabic but very different from the Arabic dialects of the Mashrek. The Amazigh population speak Tamazight. Each of the four groups speaks a different dialect of this language, but they are more or less mutually comprehensible. The official recognition of this language is one of the main demands of Berber civil society groups such as the Berber Cultural Movement (MCB) as well as the two Berber political parties, the FFS and RCD. In 2002, President Bouteflika did recognise Tamazight as a national language, but this falls somewhat short of the recognition as an official language that has always been demanded. French is very widely spoken. Since the mid 1970s Arabic has gradually taken over as the main language of instruction in schools and universities, but it continues to be the language of business, and a significant proportion of Algerians speaks it very well or fluently.

European influences are visible at many levels of Algerian society and culture (Lloyd 2003). This results from the continued effects of 132 years of colonial rule, the significant influence of migrants living in Europe, and contemporary cultural influences, particularly satellite television, but also advertising, and increasingly the Internet. These influences are not imposed directly or taken up unquestioningly, but filtered and reinterpreted into a cultural form that is clearly distinct from both Western Europe and the Mashrek. Algerian media is diverse and very widely consumed, and produces an outlet for political commentary on Algerian and international issues (Ghezali 1999). Significant cultural figures in music (Schade-Poulsen 1999) and literature (Bon 1985) have developed uniquely Algerian styles, which have in turn influenced cultural production in Europe, particularly France, and gained tremendous popularity across the Mashrek. Algerian culture was celebrated in France during the high-profile 'Year of Algeria' in 2003. This raised considerable controversy and emphasised both the political nature of cultural celebration and the enduring political divisions in Algeria ( Le Monde, 6 February 2003).

Some 98 per cent of Algerians are officially Sunni Muslims of the Malekite judicial school. Throughout North Africa, strict Islamic practice is traditionally combined with veneration of local saints, particularly in the countryside. The Mzab belong to a minority sect of Islam. Most Algerian Jews left either for Israel in 1948 or for France in 1962. The tiny European minority consists of mostly Catholics, and there is a cathedral in Algiers.

General Amazight web portal (in Tamazight, French, and English)
Guide to current Algerian cultural production (in French)
Official 'Year of Algeria' site (in French, Arabic, and Tamazight)

Geography, society and economy

Algeria is the second-largest country in Africa (after Sudan), approximately 2.4 million square kilometres. Much of this is desert, and more than 90 per cent of the population live in a relatively narrow strip within 50 kilometres of the sea. This northern coastal zone suffers from regular earthquakes, most recently in May 2003 (see Disaster-induced displacement). The population continues to grow rapidly, though the rate of increase is beginning to fall. The population at the last census in 1998 was 29,398,235. In 2001 it was estimated to have reached 30.5 million. Seventy-five per cent of the population is aged under 30, and 50 per cent is under 25. The official unemployment rate is 30 per cent, but as many as 70 per cent of people under 30 cannot find adequate employment (US Department of State 2003).

Algeria is highly dependent on oil revenues, which account for 95 per cent of foreign export earnings, 60 per cent of government revenue, and 30 per cent of GDP (Aïssaoui 2001). The hydrocarbon sector has been relatively unaffected by the conflict, and growing oil revenues have enabled the government to begin to pay off Algeria's international debt burden, which has been slowly shrinking in recent years. The national hydrocarbon company, Sonatrach, is the largest company in Africa. Steady income from oil and gas has sheltered Algeria from the need to confront urgent social and economic problems, such as unemployment. Sustained income from petrochemicals has not been translated into improved living conditions for the majority of Algerians (ICG 2001). In contrast to the highly internationalised petrochemicals sector, domestic industry has collapsed, and per capita income has fallen from US$2,800 in 1988 (Ghiles 1998) to US$1,600 in 2000 (US Department of State 2001). The effect of falling salaries has been exacerbated by rising prices of basic foodstuffs, caused by the removal of subsidies demanded in IMF-sponsored reforms. As the number of poor has risen, so the support structures of public services have closed. More than 200,000 public service workers lost their jobs between 1995 and 2000 ( Africa Research Bulletin 37(2) 2000).

There is also a serious housing crisis provoked by the rapidly growing population. In 1998 there were an average of seven people per household (ONS 2000). In 1994 a third of all households lived in three rooms, and a fifth in only a single room (Lalami-Fates 1995). The lack of housing means that most young people now live with their parents much longer than had been the case previously. Almost 90 per cent of 6- to 15-year-olds attend school, though class sizes are often very large. University is also well attended, and in 1998 there were more than 370,000 students enrolled, the majority of them women.

Office National des Statistiques (in French and Arabic)
Sonatrach national oil and gas company (in English and French)
Last updated Aug 17, 2011