Algeria: HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Prehistory of Central North Africa: Early inhabitants of the central Maghrib (also seen as Maghreb; designates North Africa west of Egypt) left behind significant remains including remnants of hominid occupation from ca. 200,000 B.C. found near Saïda. Neolithic civilization (marked by animal domestication and subsistence agriculture) developed in the Saharan and Mediterranean Maghrib between 6000 and 2000 B.C. This type of economy, so richly depicted in the Tassili-n-Ajjer cave paintings in southeastern Algeria, predominated in the Maghrib until the classical period. The amalgam of peoples of North Africa coalesced eventually into a distinct native population that came to be called Berbers. Distinguished primarily by cultural and linguistic attributes, the Berbers lacked a written language and hence tended to be overlooked or marginalized in historical accounts.
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North Africa During the Classical Period: Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around 900 B.C. and established Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) around 800 B.C. During the classical period, Berber civilization was already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and political organization supported several states. Trade links between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but territorial expansion also brought about the enslavement or military recruitment of some Berbers and the extraction of tribute from others. The Carthaginian state declined because of successive defeats by the Romans in the Punic Wars, and in 146 B.C. the city of Carthage was destroyed. As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the second century B.C., several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged.
Berber territory was annexed to the Roman Empire in A.D. 24. Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation during Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of Berber society, and Berber opposition to the Roman presence was nearly constant. The prosperity of most towns depended on agriculture, and the region was known as the “granary of the empire.” Christianity arrived in the second century. By the end of the fourth century, the settled areas had become Christianized, and some Berber tribes had converted en masse.
Islam and the Arabs: The first Arab military expeditions into the Maghrib, between 642 and 669, resulted in the spread of Islam. The Umayyads (a Muslim dynasty based in Damascus from 661 to 750) recognized that the strategic necessity of dominating the Mediterranean dictated a concerted military effort on the North African front. By 711 Umayyad forces, helped by Berber converts to Islam, had conquered all of North Africa. In 750 the Abbasids succeeded the Umayyads as Muslim rulers and moved the caliphate to Baghdad. Under the Abbasids, the Rustumid imamate (761–909) actually ruled most of the central Maghrib from Tahirt, southwest of Algiers. The imams gained a reputation for honesty, piety, and justice, and the court of Tahirt was noted for its support of scholarship. The Rustumid imams failed, however, to organize a reliable standing army, which opened the way for Tahirt’s demise under the assault of the Fatimid dynasty. With their interest focused primarily on Egypt and Muslim lands beyond, the Fatimids left the rule of most of Algeria to the Zirids (972–1148), a Berber dynasty that centered significant local power in Algeria for the first time. This period was marked by constant conflict, political instability, and economic decline. Following a large incursion of Arab bedouin from Egypt beginning in the first half of the eleventh century, the use of Arabic spread to the countryside, and sedentary Berbers were gradually Arabized.
The Almoravid (“those who have made a religious retreat”) movement developed early in the eleventh century among the Sanhaja Berbers of the western Sahara. The movement’s initial impetus was religious, an attempt by a tribal leader to impose moral discipline and strict adherence to Islamic principles on followers. But the Almoravid movement shifted to engaging in military conquest after 1054. By 1106 the Almoravids had conquered Morocco, the Maghrib as far east as Algiers, and Spain up to the Ebro River.
Like the Almoravids, the Almohads (“unitarians”) found their inspiration in Islamic reform. The Almohads took control of Morocco by 1146, captured Algiers around 1151, and by 1160 had completed the conquest of the central Maghrib. The zenith of Almohad power occurred between 1163 and 1199. For the first time, the Maghrib was united under a local regime, but the continuing wars in Spain overtaxed the resources of the Almohads, and in the Maghrib their position was compromised by factional strife and a renewal of tribal warfare. In the central Maghrib, the Zayanids founded a dynasty at Tlemcen in Algeria. For more than 300 years, until the region came under Ottoman suzerainty in the sixteenth century, the Zayanids kept a tenuous hold in the central Maghrib. Many coastal cities asserted their autonomy as municipal republics governed by merchant oligarchies, tribal chieftains from the surrounding countryside, or the privateers who operated out of their ports. Nonetheless, Tlemcen, the “pearl of the Maghrib,” prospered as a commercial center.
The final triumph of the 700-year Christian reconquest of Spain was marked by the fall of Granada in 1492. Christian Spain imposed its influence on the Maghrib coast by constructing fortified outposts and collecting tribute. But Spain never sought to extend its North African conquests much beyond a few modest enclaves.
Privateering was an age-old practice in the Mediterranean, and North African rulers engaged in it increasingly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries because it was so lucrative. Algeria became the privateering city-state par excellence, and two privateer brothers were instrumental in extending Ottoman influence in Algeria. At about the time Spain was establishing its presidios in the Maghrib, the Muslim privateer brothers Aruj and Khair ad Din—the latter known to Europeans as Barbarossa, or Red Beard—were operating successfully off Tunisia. In 1516 Aruj moved his base of operations to Algiers but was killed in 1518. Khair ad Din succeeded him as military commander of Algiers, and the Ottoman sultan gave him the title of beylerbey (provincial governor). Under Khair ad Din’s regency, Algiers became the center of Ottoman authority in the Maghrib. Subsequently, with the institution of a regular Ottoman administration, governors with the title of pasha ruled. Turkish was the official language, and Arabs and Berbers were excluded from government posts. In 1671 a new leader assumed power, adopting the title of dey. In 1710 the dey persuaded the sultan to recognize him and his successors as regent, replacing the pasha in that role. Although Algiers remained a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman government ceased to have effective influence there.
European maritime powers paid the tribute exacted by the rulers of the privateering states of North Africa (Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco) to prevent attacks on their shipping. The Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century diverted the attention of the maritime powers from suppressing what they derogatorily called piracy. But when peace was restored to Europe in 1815, Algiers found itself at war with Spain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Denmark, Russia, and Naples. In March of that year, the U.S. Congress also authorized naval action against the so-called Barbary States.
France in Algeria: As a result of what the French considered an insult to the French consul in Algiers by the dey in 1827, France blockaded Algiers for three years. France then used the failure of the blockade as a reason for a military expedition against Algiers in 1830. By 1848 nearly all of northern Algeria was under French control, and the new government of the Second Republic declared the occupied lands an integral part of France. Three "civil territories"—Algiers, Oran, and Constantine—were organized as French départements (local administrative units) under a civilian government.
Colons (colonists), or, more popularly, pieds noirs (literally, black feet) dominated the government and controlled the bulk of Algeria’s wealth. Throughout the colonial era, they continued to block or delay all attempts to implement even the most modest reforms. But from 1933 to 1936, mounting social, political, and economic crises in Algeria induced the indigenous population to engage in numerous acts of political protest. The government responded with more restrictive laws governing public order and security. Algerian Muslims rallied to the French side at the start of World War II as they had done in World War I. But the colons were generally sympathetic to the collaborationist Vichy regime established following France’s defeat by Nazi Germany. After the fall of the Vichy regime in Algeria, the Free French commander in chief in North Africa slowly rescinded repressive Vichy laws, despite opposition by colon extremists.
In March 1943, Muslim leader Ferhat Abbas presented the French administration with the Manifesto of the Algerian People, signed by 56 Algerian nationalist and international leaders. The manifesto demanded an Algerian constitution that would guarantee immediate and effective political participation and legal equality for Muslims. Instead, the French administration in 1944 instituted a reform package based on the 1936 Viollette Plan that granted full French citizenship only to certain categories of "meritorious" Algerian Muslims, who numbered about 60,000. The tensions between the Muslim and colon communities exploded on May 8, 1945, V-E Day. When a Muslim march was met with violence, marchers rampaged. The army and police responded by conducting a prolonged and systematic ratissage (literally, raking over) of suspected centers of dissidence. According to official French figures, 1,500 Muslims died as a result of these countermeasures. Other estimates vary from 6,000 to as high as 45,000 killed.
In August 1947, the French National Assembly approved the government-proposed Organic Statute of Algeria. This law called for the creation of an Algerian Assembly with one house representing Europeans and "meritorious" Muslims and the other representing the remaining 8 million or more Muslims. Muslim and colon deputies alike abstained or voted against the statute but for diametrically opposed reasons: the Muslims because it fell short of their expectations and the colons because it went too far.
War of Independence: In the early morning hours of November 1, 1954, the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale—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, all-out war began in Algeria.
From its origins in 1954 as ragtag maquisards numbering in the hundreds and armed with a motley assortment of weapons, the National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale—ALN), the military wing of the FLN, had evolved by 1957 into a disciplined fighting force of nearly 40,000 that successfully applied hit-and-run guerrilla warfare tactics. By 1956 France had committed more than 400,000 troops to Algeria. In 1958–59 the French army had won military control in Algeria, but political developments had already overtaken the French army's successes. During that period in France, opposition to the conflict was growing, and international pressure was also building on France to grant Algeria independence.
When Charles De Gaulle became premier of France in June 1958, he was given carte blanche to deal with Algeria. De Gaulle appointed a committee to draft a new constitution for France's Fifth Republic, with which Algeria would be associated but of which it would not form an integral part. Muslims, including women, were registered for the first time with Europeans on a common electoral roll to participate in a referendum to be held on the new constitution in September 1958. Despite threats of reprisal by the FLN, 80 percent of the Muslim electorate turned out to vote in September, and of these 96 percent approved the constitution. In February 1959, de Gaulle was elected president of the new Fifth Republic.
Then, in a September 1959 statement, de Gaulle uttered the words "self-determination," which he envisioned as leading to majority rule in an Algeria formally associated with France. Claiming that de Gaulle had betrayed them, the colons, backed by units of the army, staged an insurrection in Algiers in January 1960 that won mass support in Europe. In Paris de Gaulle called on the army to remain loyal and rallied popular support for his Algeria policy in a televised address. Most of the army heeded his call, and French forces defused the insurrection. However, in April 1961 important elements of the French army joined in another unsuccessful insurrection intended to seize control of Algeria as well as topple the de Gaulle regime. This coup marked the turning point in the official attitude toward the Algerian war. De Gaulle was now prepared to abandon the colons, the group that no previous French government could have written off.
Talks with the FLN reopened at Evian in May 1961. In their final form, the Evian Accords allowed the colons equal legal protection with Algerians over a three-year period. At the end of that period, however, Europeans would be obliged to become Algerian citizens or be classified as aliens with the attendant loss of rights. The French electorate approved the Evian Accords by an overwhelming 91 percent vote in a referendum held in June 1962. On July 1, 1962, some 6 million of a total Algerian electorate of 6.5 million cast their ballots in the referendum on independence. The affirmative vote was a nearly unanimous mandate.
Independent Algeria, 1962–present: The creation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria was formally proclaimed on September 25, 1962. The following day, after being named premier, Ahmed Ben Bella formed a cabinet that linked the leadership of the three power bases—the army, the party, and the government. However, Ben Bella's ambitions and authoritarian tendencies ultimately led the triumvirate to unravel and provoked increasing discontent among Algerians.
The war of national liberation and its aftermath had severely disrupted Algeria's society and economy. In addition to the physical destruction, the exodus of the colons deprived the country of most of its managers, civil servants, engineers, teachers, physicians, and skilled workers. The homeless and displaced numbered in the hundreds of thousands, many suffering from illness, and some 70 percent of the work force was unemployed. The months immediately following independence had witnessed the pell-mell rush of Algerians, their government, and its officials to claim the property and jobs left behind by the Europeans. In the 1963 March Decrees, Ben Bella declared that all agricultural, industrial, and commercial properties previously owned and operated by Europeans were vacant, thereby legalizing confiscation by the state.
A new constitution drawn up under close FLN supervision was approved by nationwide referendum in September 1963, and Ben Bella was confirmed as the party's choice to lead the country for a five-year term. Under the new constitution, Ben Bella as president combined the functions of chief of state and head of government with those of supreme commander of the armed forces. He formed his government with no need for legislative approval and was solely responsible for the definition and direction of its policies. Essentially, he had no effective institutional check on his powers.
Opposition leader Hosine Ait-Ahmed quit the National Assembly in 1963 to protest the increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the regime and formed a clandestine resistance movement, the Front of Socialist Forces (Front des Forces Socialistes—FFS) dedicated to overthrowing the Ben Bella regime by force. Late summer 1963 saw sporadic incidents attributed to the FFS. More serious fighting broke out a year later. The army moved quickly and in force to crush the rebellion. As minister of defense, Houari Boumediene had no qualms about sending the army to put down regional uprisings because he felt they posed a threat to the state. However, when Ben Bella attempted to co-opt allies from among some of those regionalists, tensions increased between Boumediene and Ben Bella. On June 19, 1965, Boumediene deposed Ben Bella in a military coup d'état that was both swift and bloodless.
Boumediene immediately dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the 1963 constitution. Political power resided in the Council of the Revolution, a predominantly military body intended to foster cooperation among various factions in the army and the party. Boumediene’s position as head of government and of state was not secure initially, partly because of his lack of a significant power base outside the armed forces. This situation may have accounted for his deference to collegial rule. But following attempted coups and a failed assassination attempt in 1967–68, Boumediene succeeded in consolidating power. Eleven years after he took power and after much public debate, a long-promised new constitution was promulgated in November 1976, and Boumediene was elected president with a 95 percent majority.
Boumediene’s death on December 27, 1978, set off a struggle within the FLN to choose a successor. As a compromise to break a deadlock between two other candidates, Colonel Chadli Bendjedid, a moderate who had collaborated with Boumediene in deposing Ben Bella, was sworn in on February 9, 1979 (and subsequently reelected in 1984 and 1988). In June 1980, he summoned an extraordinary FLN Party Congress to produce a five-year plan to liberalize the economy and break up unwieldy state corporations. However, reform efforts failed to end high unemployment and other economic hardship, all of which fueled Islamist activism. Incidents indicating social unrest increased as the economy foundered from 1985 to 1988. The alienation and anger of the population were fanned by the widespread perception that the government had become corrupt and aloof. The waves of discontent crested in October 1988, when a series of strikes and walkouts by students and workers in Algiers degenerated into rioting. In response, the government declared a state of emergency and used force to quell the unrest.
The stringent measures used to put down the riots of “Black October” engendered a groundswell of outrage. In response, Benjedid conducted a house cleaning of senior officials and drew up a program of political reform. A new constitution, approved overwhelmingly in February 1989, dropped the word socialist from the official description of the country; guaranteed freedoms of expression, association, and meeting; and withdrew the guarantees of women’s rights that had appeared in the 1976 constitution. The FLN was not mentioned in the document at all, and the army was discussed only in the context of national defense. The new laws reinvigorated politics. Newspapers became the liveliest and freest in the Arab world, while political parties of nearly every stripe vied for members and a voice. In February 1989, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut—FIS) was founded.
Algeria’s leaders were stunned in December 1991 when FIS candidates won absolute majorities in 188 of 430 electoral districts, far ahead of the FLN’s 15 seats, in the first round of legislative elections. Faced with the possibility of a complete FIS takeover and under pressure from the military leadership, Benjadid dissolved parliament and then resigned in January 1992. He was succeeded by the five-member High Council of State, which canceled the second round of elections. The FIS, as well as the FLN, clamored for a return of the electoral process, but police and troops countered with massive arrests. In February 1992, violent demonstrations erupted in many cities. The government declared a one-year state of emergency and banned the FIS. The voiding of the 1991 election results led to a period of civil conflict that cost the lives of as many as 150,000 people. Periodic negotiations between the military government and Islamist rebels failed to produce a settlement.
In 1996 a referendum passed that introduced changes to the constitution enhancing presidential powers and banning Islamist parties. Presidential elections were held in April 1999. Although seven candidates qualified for election, all but Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who appeared to have the support of the military as well as the FLN, withdrew on the eve of the election amid charges of electoral fraud. Bouteflika went on to win 70 percent of the votes. Following his election to a five-year term, Bouteflika concentrated on restoring security and stability to the strife-ridden country. As part of his endeavor, he successfully campaigned to grant amnesty to thousands of members of the banned FIS. The so-called Civil Concord was approved in a nationwide referendum in September 2000. The reconciliation by no means ended all violence, but it reduced violence to manageable levels. An estimated 80 percent of those fighting the regime accepted the amnesty offer. The president also formed national commissions to study reforms of the education system, judiciary, and state bureaucracy. President Bouteflika was rewarded for his efforts at stabilizing the country when he was elected to another five-year term in April 2004, in an election contested by six candidates without military interference. In September 2005, another referendum—this one to consider a proposed Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation—passed by an overwhelming margin. The charter coupled another amnesty offer to all but the most violent participants in the Islamist uprising with an implicit pardon for security forces accused of abuses in fighting the rebels.
PUBLISHER / AUTHOR: This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. In addition to being featured in the front matter of published Country Studies, they are now being prepared as stand-alone reference aides for all countries in the series, as well as for a number of additional countries of interest. The profiles offer reasonably current country information independent of the existence of a recently published Country Study and will be updated annually or more frequently as events warrant.
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