The History of Algeria
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Algeria is a large, predominantly Muslim country in North Africa. From the Mediterranean coast, along which most of its people live, Algeria extends southward deep into the heart of the Sahara, a forbidding desert where Earth’s hottest surface temperatures have been recorded and which constitutes more than four-fifths of the country’s area. The Sahara and its extreme climate dominate the country. The contemporary Algerian novelist Assia Djebar has highlighted the environs, calling her country “a dream of sand.”


Algeria is rich in prehistoric memorials of human occupation, especially in megalithic remains, of which nearly every known kind has been found in the country. Numerous flints of paleolithic type have been discovered, notably at Tlemcen and Kolea. Near Djelfa, in the Great Atlas, and at Mechra-Sfa ("ford of the flat stones"), a peninsula in the valley of the river Mina not far from Tiaret, are vast numbers of megalithic monuments. Notable among the prehistoric cultures of the area is the Capsian culture, whose shell mounds are found throughout the north.

Algeria has been inhabited by Berbers or Imazighen since at least 10,000 B.C.E. From 1,000 B.C.E. onward, the Carthaginians became an influence on these peoples, establishing settlements along the coast. Berber kingdoms began to emerge, most notably Numidia. They seized the opportunity offered by the Punic Wars to become independent of Carthage only to be taken over soon after by the Roman Republic in 200 B.C.E. As the western Roman Empire collapsed, the Berbers became independent again in much of the area. The Vandals overtook parts of the area until later expelled by the generals of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. The Byzantine Empire then retained a precarious grip on the east of the country until the coming of the Arabs in the eighth century.

History, language, customs, and an Islamic heritage make Algeria an integral part of the Maghreb and the larger Arab world, but the country also has a sizable Amazigh (Berber) population, with links to that cultural tradition. Once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, the territory now comprising Algeria was ruled by various Arab-Amazigh dynasties from the 8th through the 16th century, when it became part of the Ottoman Empire. The decline of the Ottomans was followed by a brief period of independence that ended when France launched a war of conquest in 1830.

By 1847 the French had largely suppressed Algerian resistance to the invasion and the following year made Algeria a département of France. French colonists modernized Algeria’s agricultural and commercial economy but lived apart from the Algerian majority, enjoying social and economic privileges extended to a few non-Europeans. Ethnic resentment, fueled by revolutionary politics introduced by Algerians who had lived and studied in France, led to a widespread nationalist movement in the mid-20th century. A war of independence ensued (1954–62) that was so fierce that the revolutionary Frantz Fanon noted,

Negotiations ended the conflict and led to Algerian independence, and most Europeans left the country. Although the influence of the French language and culture in Algeria remained strong, since independence the country consistently has sought to regain its Arab and Islamic heritage. At the same time, the development of oil natural gas, and other mineral deposits in the Algerian interior brought new wealth to the country and prompted a modest rise in the standard of living. In the early 21st century Algeria’s economy was among the largest in Africa.

The capital is Algiers, a crowded bustling seaside metropolis whose historic core, or medina, is ringed by tall skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Algeria’s second city is Oran, a port on the Mediterranean Sea near the border with Morocco. Less hectic than Algiers, Oran has emerged as an important center of music, art, and education.

Algeria was brought into the Ottoman Empire by Khair ad-Din and his brother Aruj. They established Algeria's modern boundaries in the north and made its coast a base for the corsairs. Acts of piracy committed upon American vessels in the Mediterranean resulted in the First Barbary War and the Second Barbary War with the United States.

On the pretext of a slight to their consul, the French invaded Algiers in 1830. The intense resistance made for a slow conquest of Algeria, which was not technically completed until the early 1900s when the last Tuareg were conquered.

Meanwhile, however, the French made Algeria a colony of France, declaring it French Algeria in 1860. Tens of thousands of settlers from France, Italy, Spain, and Malta moved in to farm the Algerian coastal plain and occupy the most prized parts of Algeria's cities. They benefited from the French government's confiscation of communally held land, and the application of modern agriculture techniques that increased the amount of arable land. Beginning towards the end of the nineteenth century, people of European descent in Algeria (the so-called pied-noir), as well as the native Algerian Jews (typically Sephardic in origin), became full French citizens; by contrast, the vast majority of Muslim Algerians, even veterans of the French army, received neither French citizenship nor the right to vote.


Algeria is bounded to the east by Tunisia and Libya; to the south by Niger, Mali, and Mauritania; to the west by Morocco and Western Sahara (which has been virtually incorporated by the former); and to the north by the Mediterranean Sea. It is a vast country—the largest in Africa and the 10th largest in the world—that may be divided into two distinct geographic regions. The northernmost, generally known as the Tell, is subject to the moderating influences of the Mediterranean and consists largely of the Atlas Mountains, which separate the coastal plains from the second region in the south. This southern region, almost entirely desert, forms the majority of the country’s territory and is situated in the western portion of the Sahara, which stretches across North Africa.

The War of Independence

The Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), brutal and long, was the most recent major turning point in the country's history. Although often fratricidal, it ultimately united Algerians and seared the value of independence and the philosophy of anticolonialism into the national consciousness. Abusive tactics of the French Army remain a controversial subject in France to this day.

In the early morning hours of November 1, 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched attacks throughout Algeria in the opening salvo of a war of independence. An important watershed in this war was the massacre of civilians by the FLN near the town of Philippeville in August 1955. The government claimed it killed 1,273 guerrillas in retaliation; according to the FLN, 12,000 Muslims perished in an orgy of bloodletting by the armed forces and police, as well as colon gangs. After Philippeville, an all-out war began in Algeria.

After nearly a decade of urban and rural warfare, the leader of the French forces, Gen. Charles De Gaulle, initiated a referendum in which the Algerian people could decide their fate. In July 1962 the Algerians voted for independence. The Evian Accords also provided for continuing economic, financial, technical, and cultural relations, along with interim administrative arrangements until a referendum on self-determination could be held. The Evian Accords guaranteed the religious and property rights of French settlers, but the perception that they would not be respected led to the exodus of one million (about ten percent of the population) pieds-noirs and harkis.

Between one and two million Algerians are estimated to have died during the war, and an additional two or three million, out of a total Muslim population of nine or ten million, became refugees or forcibly relocated into government-controlled camps. Much of the countryside and agriculture were devastated, along with the modern economy, which had been dominated by urban European settlers (the pied-noirs). These nearly one million people of mostly French descent were forced to flee the country at independence due to the unbridgeable rifts opened by the civil war and threats from units of the victorious FLN; along with them fled Algerians of Jewish descent and those Muslim Algerians who had supported a French Algeria. Post-war infighting, armed chaos, and lynch trials of supposed traitors contributed to tens of thousands of deaths after the pullback of French troops, until the new Algerian government, led by Ben Bella, was able to secure control.


Algeria's first President, the FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella, was overthrown by his former ally and defense minister, Houari Boumédiènne in 1965. Under Ben Bella, the government had already become increasingly socialist and dictatorial, and this trend continued throughout Boumedienne's government; however, Boumedienne relied much more heavily on the army and reduced the sole legal party to a merely symbolic role. Agriculture was collectivized, and a massive industrialization drive was launched. Oil extraction facilities were nationalized, increasing the state's wealth, especially after the 1973 oil crisis. The Algerian economy became increasingly dependent on oil, bringing hardship when the price collapsed in the 1980s.

In foreign policy, Algeria was a member and leader of the 'non-aligned' nations. Dissent was rarely tolerated, and the state's control over the media and the outlawing of political parties other than the FLN was cemented in the repressive constitution of 1976. President Boumédienne died in 1978, but the rule of his successor, Chadli Bendjedid, was only slightly more open. The state took on a strongly bureaucratic character and corruption was widespread.

The modernization drive brought considerable demographic changes to Algeria. Village traditions underwent significant change as urbanization increased, new industries emerged, agriculture was substantially reduced, and education, a rarity in colonial times, was extended nationwide, raising the literacy rate from less than 10 percent to over 60 percent. Improvements in healthcare led to a dramatic increase in the birthrate (7-8 children per mother) which had two consequences: a very youthful population, and a housing crisis. The new generation struggled to relate to the cultural obsession with the war years and two conflicting protest movements developed: left-wingers, including Berber identity movements, and Islamic 'intégristes'. Both protested against one-party rule but also clashed with each other in universities and on the streets during the 1980s. Mass protests from both camps in the autumn of 1988 forced Benjedid to concede the end of one-party rule, and elections were announced for 1991.

Algerian Civil War

The Algerian Civil War was an armed conflict between the Algerian government and various Islamist rebel groups that began in 1991. It is estimated to have cost between 150,000 and 200,000 lives. The conflict effectively ended with a government victory, following the surrender of the Islamic Salvation Army and the 2002 defeat of the Armed Islamic Group. However, low-level fighting continues in some areas.

The conflict began in December 1991, when the government canceled the Algerian National Assembly elections, after the first round results had shown that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party would win, citing fears that the FIS would end democracy. After the FIS was banned and thousands of its members arrested, Islamist guerrillas rapidly emerged and began an armed campaign against the government and its supporters.

Many of the thousands killed were often in unprovoked massacres of civilians. The question of who was responsible for these massacres remains controversial among academic observers; many were claimed by the Armed Islamic Group. After 1998, the war waned, and by 2002 the main guerrilla groups had either been destroyed or had surrendered. Even though amnesty was an option, sporadic fighting continued in some areas. Elections resumed in 1995, and on April 27, 1999, after a series of short-term leaders representing the military, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president.

The issue of Berber language and identity increased in significance, particularly after the extensive Kabyle protests of 2001. The near-total boycott of local elections in Kabylie caused the government to respond with concessions, including naming Tamazight (Berber) as a national language and teaching it in schools.


Algeria is a leading military power in North Africa and has its force oriented toward its western Morocco and eastern Libya borders. Its primary military supplier has been the former Soviet Union, which has sold various types of sophisticated equipment under military trade agreements, and the People's Republic of China. Algeria has attempted, in recent years, to diversify its sources of military material.


Algeria's official languages are Arabic and Berber or Tamazight. French is the lingua franca. The most widely spoken language is a dialect called "Darja" (Algerian Arabic), which is spoken by some 80 percent of the population.

The language issue is politically sensitive, particularly for the Berber minority, which was disadvantaged by state-sanctioned Arabization. Language, politics, and Arabization were partly a reaction to the fact that 130 years of French colonization left both the state bureaucracy and much of the educated upper class completely Francophone. There has also been an influence of Arab nationalism which was promoted by successive Algerian governments.

French is still the most widely studied and spoken foreign language. English is also spoken but not commonly. Since independence, the government has pursued a policy of linguistic Arabization of both its education and bureaucracy, with some success. Many university courses continue to be taught in French.



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