The Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria

POPULATION: 39.93 million (2014)

AREA: 919,595 sq. mi. (2,381,740 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Arabic (official); French, Berber dialects

NATIONAL CURRENCY: Algerian dinar

PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim (Sunni) 99%, Christian and Jewish 1%

CITIESAlgiers (capital), 4,200,000 (1999 est.); Oran, Constantine, Annaba, Batna

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 30 in. (760 mm) along the coast to less than 4 in. (100 mm) in the Sahara

ECONOMY: GDP $214.1 billion (2014)

PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:

  • Agricultural: wheat, barley, oats, citrus fruits, olives, grapes, wine, dates, figs, sheep, cattle
  • Manufacturing: electrical, petrochemical, food processing, light industries
  • Mining: petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, phosphates, uranium, lead, zinc

GOVERNMENT: Independence from France, 1962. Multiparty republic. President elected by universal suffrage. Governing bodies: Assemblée Populaire Nationale (legislative house), prime minister and cabinet of ministers appointed by president.

HEADS OF STATE SINCE INDEPENDENCE:

ARMED FORCES: 122,000

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–15; literacy rate 62%

At the end of the 1900s, the North African republic of Algeria was locked in a civil war between Islamic fundamentalists and the government, which had broad popular support. At the heart of the conflict was a struggle for control over the nation’s future—should Algeria remain a secular state or adopt strict Muslim rule? The war was the most recent chapter in the country’s turbulent history, which has included periods of invasion, foreign rule, and internal division.

THE LAND AND ITS PEOPLE

The second largest nation in Africa, Algeria consists of 920,000 square miles of territory. It is bordered on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, with MOROCCO and MAURITANIA to the west, and TUNISIA and LIBYA to the east. The land has three distinct climate and geographical zones: the Tell, the Highland Plateau, and the Algerian Sahara desert.

The Tell

A region of fertile hills and valleys, the Tell (from the Arabic word for “hill”) runs across the country from Morocco to Tunisia. It has a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and summers and enough rainfall to support crops of grain, citrus fruits, and grapes.

Approximately 90 percent of Algeria’s people live and work in the Tell, mostly in agriculture. In addition, the country’s principal cities, including ALGIERS—the capital, Oran, and Annaba, are in the Tell. These modern cities blend Islamic and European influences. The Algerians who live in the cities tend to be more highly educated, more secular in outlook, and more open to Western culture than those from rural areas.

Algeria

The Highland Plateau

South of the Tell are the Tell Atlas Mountains, which stretch eastward from Morocco. Beyond these mountains is the Highland Plateau. Mostly savanna, the plateau is marked by shallow depressions that fill with water in the rainy season to form salt lakes called chotts. During the dry season, the water in these lakes evaporates, leaving behind salt deposits. Highly prized in ancient times, salt was the original source of Algeria’s wealth. Today, the Highland Plateau is home to nearly 7 percent of Algeria’s population, and most of the inhabitants make a living by keeping herds of sheep, goats, and cattle.

Algerian Sahara Desert

Along the southern edge of the Highland Plateau lie the Saharan Atlas Mountains. Beyond the mountains is the vast Algerian Sahara. At the heart of this desert loom the Ahaggar Mountains, a volcanic chain that includes Mount Tahat, the highest peak in the country (9,573 feet).

Although the desert includes more than 80 percent of the country’s total area, only about 3 percent of the population lives there. Most inhabitants have settled near oases, where deep wells tap into underground springs to provide irrigation for crops of grain and dates. In the desert’s harsh climate, temperatures can soar as high as 120ºF. A hot, dusty wind called the sirocco blows northward across the desert to parch the Highland Plateau (for 40 days each summer) and the Tell (for 20 days) before it meets moister, cooler air over the Mediterranean.

Economy

Algeria’s wealth has always been tied to its minerals. In the heyday of the trade routes that crossed the Sahara, merchants carried salt south of the desert to exchange it for gold. Today, oil and natural gas buried beneath the desert sands provide the basis for the Algerian economy. Oil and gas bring in 95 percent of Algeria’s export earnings and make up a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Reliance on oil exports, however, has made the economy unstable. In 1986 the collapse of worldwide oil prices plunged the nation into a severe economic slowdown from which it has yet to recover. Throughout history, agriculture—largely in the Tell—was the livelihood of most Algerians. Today, many people work in factories, the government, and service industries. Concentrated in and around the cities, these sectors attract rural people seeking work. Overall, there is a shortfall of jobs; in the late 1990s, the unemployment rate was about 30 percent.

HISTORY

From earliest times, Algeria’s location along the shores of the Mediterranean made it a prime attraction for invaders and settlers from the Middle East and Europe. Controlled by the Roman and Ottoman Empires for various periods of its history, Algeria was ruled by the French for more than 100 years before gaining independence in 1962.

Early History

The original inhabitants of Algeria lived in the Ahaggar region as early as 40,000 years ago, before the Sahara became a desert. Rock paintings dating back about 6,000 years show the diverse wildlife once found in the region: elephants, hippopotamuses, and crocodiles. These are gone today, replaced by species that are more suited to the desert climate.

As the Sahara became a desert, the peoples of the region moved away to find better land for their farms and herds. Some made their way to the coast, founding settlements there by 3000 B.C. About 500 years later, the Phoenicians, a seafaring people from the Middle East, established outposts along the North African coast, including what would later become Algiers.

As the Phoenicians expanded their trade throughout the Mediterranean and into Europe, Rome was drawn by their wealth. In the Punic Wars of the 200s and 100s B.C., the two powers fought in North Africa, Spain, and Sicily. Eventually, Rome gained control of the region. The Roman era, which lasted until the early A.D. 400s, was a time of relative peace and prosperity. The Romans built roads and military posts, introduced Christianity, and provided a market for Algerian grain.

But as the Roman Empire declined, its control over Algeria weakened. For a time the members of a Christian group known as the Donatists led an independent state in Algeria. This fledgling state fell to the Vandals, who invaded North Africa from Europe. The Vandals, in turn, were driven out of Algeria by the Byzantine Empire, the eastern part of the former Roman Empire.

Arab Invasion

In the 600s invaders from the Arabian peninsula attacked and conquered Algeria. Arab settlers sent to rule the coastal cities mixed with the indigenous BERBER peoples, producing the Arab-Berber ethnic groups found in the country today. The Arabs also brought Islam, which quickly became the dominant religion of the region, as well as Islamic law and the Arabic language.

In the 1500s, under attack by invaders from Christian Spain, Algeria’s Muslims turned to the Ottoman Empire in Turkey for assistance. The Turkish fleet succeeded in turning back the Spanish, and Algeria came under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

French Colony

The Ottomans ruled Algeria for 300 years. During this time Algeria carried on trade with European countries, particularly France, which was a major importer of Algerian grain. In 1830 France decided to take over Algeria. Using the excuse of a trade dispute, the French attacked Algiers.

The Algerians resisted, but by 1847 France had gained control of the country. To strengthen its hold, France began sending settlers to the region. By 1912 nearly 800,000 had arrived. The French also imposed social and political order on Algeria, replacing Arabic with French as the official language and suppressing Islamic culture. Only French citizens and Algerians who converted to Catholicism enjoyed the rights of citizenship. Most Algerians were excluded from the best land and jobs and denied political rights. It was only a matter of time before the situation exploded into violence.

Independence Movements

The first steps toward an Algerian independence movement occurred in the 1930s, when a group of Algerians demanded that Muslims be granted greater rights. The French colonists, recognizing the threat that this posed to their way of life, strenuously opposed any such action. The situation gradually worsened. Relations between Algerian Muslims and French colonists hardened into mutual hatred, and Muslim leaders began to call for armed revolution.

In 1954 several exiled Algerian Muslim leaders, including Ahmed BEN BELLA, met in Egypt to form the National Liberation Front (FLN). In November of that year they launched an attack on government and military sites throughout the country. A fierce and bloody war followed. In 1958, General Charles de Gaulle of France was called in to resolve the crisis. Recognizing that no military solution was possible, de Gaulle announced a referendum in Algeria on independence and opened the vote to Muslims. The French colonists responded with violence, but they had no hope of success. In the referendum, held in 1962, Algeria’s population voted nearly unanimously for independence and elected Ben Bella as the first president. By the end of the year, most of the French had fled the country.

Post Independence

President Ben Bella had to deal with a devastated economy and a nation exhausted by decades of war. He promptly nationalized the oil and natural gas companies and redistributed lands that had been held by the French colonists. He also sought to build ties with other African nations and with other revolutionary governments—such as Cuba, led by Fidel Castro. However, in 1965 Ben Bella was overthrown by a miliary coup and Colonel Houari BOUMÉDIENNE was installed as president.

When Boumédienne took power, the Algerians were impatient for change. The urban centers were bulging with refugees from the countryside who lacked the skills and the education needed to obtain jobs in the cities. Boumédienne proposed programs to improve services and living conditions for the people. In 1978 he introduced a new constitution, establishing the FLN as the sole legal party. However, Boumédienne died suddenly and was replaced by Colonel Chadli Benjedid in 1979. When Benjedid assumed leadership, many Algerians felt that the promise of independence remained unfulfilled. The FLN lost much of its popular support as people turned to leaders drawn from Islamic fundamentalist groups. After a series of increasingly violent protests in the 1970s and 1980s, a mass demonstration erupted in 1988 calling for multiparty elections. Benjedid was forced to allow free elections in 1991, with more than 20 political parties participating.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a radical fundamentalist party, won the majority of seats in the legislature. The FIS leaders announced their plan to impose rigid Islamic rule, patterned after the government then in power in Iran. This touched off a new round of demonstrations, particularly among the trade unions, professional classes, and women, all calling for the election results to be overturned. The military, with support from France and the United States, suspended the constitution and set up a five-member military council to rule the country. The FIS responded by adopting guerrilla tactics in an effort to regain power.

Civil War

The conflict between educated, westernized Algerians who sought a secular, multiparty state and poorer, more religiously centered citizens touched off a civil war. The FIS targeted leaders who spoke against it, including Mohammad Boudiaf, president of the State Council, who was assassinated in 1992. The government’s response was equally harsh, imprisoning suspected FIS sympathizers without trial, and resorting at times to torture and execution of such prisoners. In 1994 General Liamine Zeroual assumed control of Algeria and made some attempts to resolve the conflict. He called for elections to be held in 1997, but barred political parties that based membership on religion or language from participating. This enraged the FIS and other Islamic parties. The Armed Islamic Groups (GIA) called for a jihad, or holy war, against the government. A new and even bloodier phase of civil war began, as GIA supporters embarked on a campaign of terror and violence against anyone thought to be collaborating with the government. In 1999 new presidential elections were held, and Abdelaziz Bouteflika won. However, charges of fraud accompanied the election. Bouteflika’s presidency has failed to reduce the violence raging throughout the country.

Unable to achieve peace, the government provided arms to villagers to use for self-defense. Local units, called les patriotes, formed to protect their communities. However, many of these groups have used their weapons to launch revenge attacks against neighboring villages. The violence, which continues to escalate, underscores the profound differences dividing Algerian society. (See also Arabs in Africa, Atlas Mountains, Colonialism in Africa, Independence Movements, Islam in Africa, Maghreb, North Africa: Geography and Population, North Africa: History and Cultures, Sahara Desert.)