Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation

By Noakes, Greg | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1994 | Go to article overview
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Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation

Noakes, Greg, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation

By John Ruedy. Indiana University Press, 1992, 290 pp. List: $16.95; AET: $12.95 for one, $16.95 for two.

Reviewed by Greg Noakes

For the last century and a half, Algeria has been a trendsetter in the Arab world. Many of the political, ideological, economic and cultural currents in 19th and 20th century Arab history have found their most extreme expression in this North African country.

When much of the Middle East fell under the imperialist yoke, suffering was greatest in Algeria, which underwent 132 years of intensive French settler colonialism and the near-total suppression of indigenous Algerian society. With the era of Arab independence, Algerians waged one of the longest, and certainly the bloodiest, struggle for freedom in the region. The Algerian war of independence continued for nearly eight years and claimed over a million victims.

Independent Algeria has been an international leader in non-aligned politics, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian and other national liberation struggles, a principal architect of the Arab oil embargo after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, a leading proponent of the state capitalist economic system adopted by a number of Arab countries, and a key interlocutor between the Middle East and the West. Algeria was also one of the first Arab countries to institute a multiparty democratic system with truly free elections. Presently it is the scene of violent conflict between the secular Arab order and the rising tide of Islamism, and thus the subject of considerable international attention.

In addition to being continually on the cutting edge, Algeria's size makes it important. The second largest country in Africa in terms of land mass, its roughly 28 million population also makes it one of the Arab world's most populous nations. Its massive oil and gas reserves make it an important player in the international petroleum market, while its geographical proximity to Europe gives Algeria considerable geopolitical significance.

All of this makes Algeria worthy of attention from observers and students of the Arab world. To some degree, the country provides a microcosm of the region, and is an excellent Middle Eastern case study for disciplines as diverse as political science, economic development, linguistic anthropology and women's studies.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of academic work on Algeria has been conducted in French, since the histories of France and Algeria have been intertwined for nearly two centuries. Over the last two decades, however, a number of excellent English-language books on various periods of Algerian history have appeared, among them British historian Alistair Horne's chronicle of the Algerian revolution, A Savage War of Peace; a series of excellent studies of independent Algeria by Fordham University's John Entelis; and several works in translation published by the University of Texas at Austin. What has been lacking up to this point, however, has been a serious singlevolume English-language work on Algerian history as a whole.

John Ruedy's Modern Algeria fills that void admirably. A professor at Georgetown University, Ruedy has drawn on a vast body of literature, as well as decades of his own research, to assemble an informative and entertaining narrative of historical events and an overview of important issues in Algerian historiography. As Ruedy himself writes, he has "not attempted a major recasting of Algerian history," but rather a solid introduction to Algeria and its past.

The challenge presented by such an effort should not be underestimated, since Algerian history is seldom neat and rarely simple. Pre-colonial Algeria was a pastiche of Ottoman suzerains, regional chieftains, local religious leaders and rival mystical brotherhoods, while the European conquest of the entire country lasted nearly a century. France's colonial "civilizing mission" assumed a variety of forms in different parts of the country, and ranged from annihilating the native inhabitants to trying to assimilate them.

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