Algerian History


Algeria (ăljēr´ēə), Arab. Al Djazair, Fr. Algérie, officially People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, republic (2005 est. pop. 32,532,000), 919,590 sq mi (2,381,741 sq km), NW Africa, bordering on Mauritania, Western Sahara, and Morocco in the west, on the Mediterranean Sea in the north, on Tunisia and Libya in the east, and on Niger and Mali in the south. It is the largest country in Africa. Algiers is the capital and largest city.

Land and People

Algeria falls into two main geographical areas, the northern region and the much larger Saharan or southern region. The northern region, which is part of the Maghreb, is made up of four parallel east-west zones: a narrow lowland strip (interspersed with mountains) along the country's 600-mi (970-km) Mediterranean coastline; the Tell Atlas Mts. (highest point: c.7,570 ft/2,310 m), which have a Mediterranean climate and abundant fertile soil; the sparsely populated, semiarid Plateau of the Chotts (average elevation c.3,500 ft/1,070 m), containing a number of shallow salt lakes (chotts) and supporting mainly sheep and goat herders; and the Saharan Atlas Mts., a broken series of mountain ranges and massifs (highest point: 7,638 ft/2,330 m), also a semiarid area and used chiefly for pasturing livestock. The Chéliff River, which flows into the Mediterranean, is the largest of the country's few permanent streams. N Algeria is subject to earthquakes, which, as in 1954, 1980, and 2003, may be devastating, killing and injuring thousands.

The arid and very sparsely populated Saharan region has an average elevation of c.1,500 ft (460 m), but reaches greater heights in the Ahaggar Mts. in the south, where Algeria's loftiest point, Mt. Tahat (9,850 ft/3,002 m), is located. Most of the region is covered with gravel or rocks, with little vegetation; there are also large areas of sand dunes in the north (the Great Western Erg) and east (the Great Eastern Erg). Important oases include Touggourt, Biskra, Chenachane, In Zize, and Tin Rerhoh.

In addition to the capital, major cities include Annaba, Blida, Constantine, Mostaganem, Oran, Sétif, Sidi-bel-Abbès, Skikda, and Tlemcen. Berbers once constituted the chief ethnic group in Algeria, but have been largely assimilated into Arab culture. The Berbers, beginning in the late 7th cent. AD, adopted the Arabic language and Islam from the small number of Arabs who settled in the country. Today those of Arab-Berber descent make up some 99% of the population. Arabic is the main language, although about 15% of the population still speaks a Berber language. These inhabitants live mostly in the mountainous regions of the north, but also include the nomadic Tuareg of the Sahara. Relations between Arabic-speaking and Berber-speaking Algerians have long been marked by tension. Arabic was made the sole national language in 1980, but that policy was reversed in 2002, when Tamazight, a Berber tongue, was also recognized as a national language. French is widely spoken, and about 1% of the Algerian population is of European descent (before independence Europeans accounted for some 10%). Almost all Algerians are adherents of the Sunni Muslim faith, the state religion.


About 15% of Algeria's workers are engaged in farming; agriculture contributes less to the country's GDP than either mining or manufacturing. The state plays a leading role in planning the economy and owns many important industrial concerns, including the mining and financial sectors. Since the late 1990s, there has been some privatization and openness to foreign investment.

Farming is concentrated in the fertile valleys and basins of the north and in the oases of the Sahara. The principal crops are wheat, barley, oats, wine grapes, olives, citrus, figs, and dates. Algeria is also an important producer of cork. Large numbers of sheep, poultry, goats, and cattle are raised, and there is a small fishing industry.

Petroleum and natural gas, found principally in the E Sahara, are Algeria's most important mineral resources and its leading exports. Production was decreased in the 1980s in order to delay the depletion of resources but rose again in the late 1990s. There are oil pipelines to the seaports of Arzew and Bejaïa in Algeria and As Sukhayrah in Tunisia. In 1993, a gas pipeline was laid between Hassi R'Mel (Algeria's main gas producing field) and Seville, Spain. Other minerals extracted in significant quantities include iron ore, phosphates, uranium, lead, and zinc. The country's leading industries include food and beverage processing, (notably olive oil and wine), petrochemicals, and light manufacturing. Algeria's limited rail and road networks serve mainly the northern region.

In recent years the annual earnings from Algeria's exports have been substantially higher than the cost of its imports. The chief imports are machinery, food and beverages, and consumer goods. The principal exports besides petroleum and natural gas are wine and agricultural goods (especially fruit). Algeria's main trade partners are France, the United States, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Since independence, there has been large-scale emigration to France by Algerian job seekers, who contribute substantial cash remittances to the country's economy.


Algeria is governed under the constitution of 1976 as amended. The executive branch is headed by the president, who is popularly elected for a five-year term and may be reelected. The bicameral parliament consists of the 362-seat National People's Assembly, whose members are elected by popular vote to five-year terms, and the 144-seat Council of Nations, whose members are appointed by the president (one third) or elected by indirect vote and serve six-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into 48 provinces.


To the Early Nineteenth Century

The earliest recorded inhabitants of Algeria were Berber-speaking peoples who by the 2d millennium BC were living in small village-based political units. In the 9th cent. BC, Carthage was founded in modern-day Tunisia, and Carthaginians eventually established trading posts at Annaba, Skikda, and Algiers. Coastal Algeria was known as Numidia and was usually divided into two kingdoms, both of which were strongly influenced by Carthage. The kingdoms of Numidia were united by King Masinissa (c.238–149 BC).

In 146 BC, Rome destroyed Carthage, and by 106 BC, after defeating King Jugurtha of Numidia, it held coastal Algeria. The Romans also gained control of the Tell Atlas region and part of the Plateau of the Chotts; the rest of present-day Algeria remained under Berber rulers and was outside Roman rule. Under Rome, the cities were built up and impressive public works (including roads and aqueducts) were constructed. Much grain was shipped from Algeria to Rome. By the Christian era, Algeria (divided into Numidia and Mauritania Caesariensis) was an integral, albeit relatively unimportant, part of the Roman Empire. One of its most famous citizens was St. Augustine (354–430), who was bishop of Hippo (now Annaba) and a leading opponent of Donatism (which was in part a Berber protest against Roman rule).

By the 5th cent. Roman civilization in Algeria had been eroded by incursions of Berbers, and the destruction wreaked by the Vandals (who passed through Algeria on their way to Tunisia) in 430–431 marked the end of effective Roman control. Algeria again came under the control of numerous small indigenous political units. In the early 6th cent. a temporary veneer of unity and order was forged by the Byzantine Empire, which conquered parts of the North African coast including the region E of Algiers. In the late 7th and early 8th cent. Muslim Arabs conquered Algeria and ousted the Byzantines. Although few Arabs settled in the region, they had a profound influence as most of the Berbers quickly became Muslims and gradually absorbed the Arabic language and culture. In addition, the Arabs intermarried with the Berbers.

A number of small Muslim states rose and fell in Algeria, but generally the eastern part of the country came under the influence of dynasties centered in Tunisia (notably the Aghlabid of Kairouan) and the western part was controlled by states centered in Morocco (notably the Almoravids and Almohads). Also, in the 8th and 9th cent. Tlemcen was the center of the Muslim Kharajite sect, and in the early 10th cent. the Fatimid dynasty began its major rise from a base in NE Algeria. In the late 15th cent. Spain expelled the Muslims from its soil and soon thereafter captured the coastal cities of Algeria. Algerians appealed to Turkish pirates (especially the Barbarossa brothers) for help, and, with the aid of the Ottoman Empire, they ended Spanish control by the mid-16th cent. Algeria then came under Ottoman rule.

The country was at first governed by officials sent from Constantinople, but in 1671 the dey (ruler) of Algiers, chosen by local civilian, military, and pirate leaders to govern for life and virtually independent of the Ottoman Empire, became head of Algeria. The country was divided into three provinces (Constantine, Titteri, and Mascara), each governed by a bey. The power of the Ottomans, and later of the deys, did not extend much beyond the Tell Atlas. The coast was a stronghold of pirates (see Barbary States) who preyed on Mediterranean shipping. Privateering reached a high point in the 16th and 17th cent. and declined thereafter; there was a temporary increase during the Napoleonic Wars (early 19th cent.). A large percentage of the dey's revenues came from pirates. Considerable trade with Europe also was conducted from Algerian ports; the chief exports were wheat, fruit, and woven goods. The country was in addition a center of the slave trade, most of the slaves being persons captured by pirates.

Algeria in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In an effort to discourage privateering from Algerian ports, a British fleet bombarded Algiers in 1816. By this time the dey's power was greatly circumscribed by the three beys and by independent-minded Berber groups, and he effectively controlled only a small part of the coastal region. In the 1820s a minor dispute with the French resulted in Charles X of France imposing a naval blockade of Algeria and then, in June, 1830, invading the country. The dey capitulated in July, 1830, but most of the country resisted.

In 1834 the French renewed their drive to occupy Algeria and in 1837 they took Constantine, the last major city to retain its independence. However, the Berber leader Abd al-Kader, whose power was centered in the hinterland of Oran, held out against the French until 1847, when Gen. T. R. Bugeaud de la Piconnerie led a major military campaign against him. Colonization by Europeans (half of whom were French and the rest mainly Spanish, Italian, and Maltese) began c.1840 and accelerated after 1848, when Algeria was declared French territory. By 1880 persons of European descent numbered about 375,000, and they controlled most of the better farmland. However, France continued to face isolated (but occasionally fierce) resistance, mainly in Kabylia (see Kabyles) and the Sahara region, until 1910.

In 1900 the country was given administrative and financial autonomy and placed under a governor-general, whose advisers were mainly European. By this time the colonists had started large-scale agricultural and industrial enterprises (introducing, among other things, wine and tobacco production) and had built roads, railroads, schools, and hospitals. The cities in particular were modernized. These improvements were intended for the Europeans' own use, and the Muslims benefited little from them, being left with scant political or economic power and with few legal rights. Although the official French policy in Algeria was to encourage the Muslims to adapt to European ways as preparation for full citizenship, very little was done to implement this policy, and there was virtually no mixing between the European and Muslim populations.

After World War I two types of protest groups were started by the Muslims. One movement called for a fully independent, Muslim-controlled Algeria; an early exponent was Messali Hadj, who in 1924 founded the Star of North Africa movement (later called, successively, the Party of the Algerian People and the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties, or MTLD). The other faction sought assimilation with France and the equality of Muslims and Europeans in Algeria; its chief exponent was Ferhat Abbas, who, however, after several rebuffs by the French, was calling for Algerian autonomy by the mid-1940s and advocated complete independence by the early 1950s.

In World War II, Algeria at first came under the Vichy regime but later became (1942) Allied headquarters in North Africa; it also served for a time as the seat of Charles de Gaulle's Free French government. In 1945, a spontaneous nationalist uprising in Sétif resulted in the killing of more than 100 Europeans; the French responded by a sweeping crackdown during which at least 1,500 Muslims (estimates have run as high as 45,000) were killed. In 1947 the French national assembly passed the Statute of Algeria, under which the Muslims were to be given some additional political power. Most of the statute's provisions were not implemented, however, and the colonists (in partnership with the French government) continued to control Algerian affairs.

A radical group of Muslims seceded in 1954 from Messali's MTLD, formed the National Liberation Front (FLN; its military arm was called the National Liberation Army or ALN), and attacked police posts and other government offices in the Batna-Constantine region. In the following months the revolt gradually spread to other parts of the country. The MTLD was reorganized into the Algerian Nationalist Movement, which, led by Messali, unsuccessfully competed with—and at times fought against—the FLN.

In 1955, the FLN carried out more extensive attacks on the colonists (especially in the Skikda area), and the French responded with severe reprisals. By 1956 the FLN had the support of virtually all Algerian nationalists except Messali, controlled much of the countryside, and was organizing frequent attacks in the cities (especially Algiers). In 1957 the French successfully put down the resistance, and the FLN was forced to concentrate on guerrilla activities in the rural areas; the French also constructed electrified barriers along Algeria's borders with Morocco and Tunisia in order to reduce the infiltration of men and matériel. By this time, about 500,000 French troops were stationed in Algeria.

In 1958 there were demonstrations in Algeria by colonists and elements of the French army who feared that the government in France might negotiate a settlement with the Muslims that would undermine the Europeans' position; an ensuing political crisis in France resulted in the return to power of de Gaulle and the establishment of the Fifth French Republic. Fighting continued, and in 1959 the FLN established at Tunis the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), with Ferhat Abbas as prime minister.

By 1960, de Gaulle had come to recognize the inevitability of some form of Algerian independence; the main problem concerned the future status of the almost one million European colonists, many of whom had been born in Algeria. Sensing the direction of French policy, the colonists and army (both of whom aimed for the full integration of Algeria with France) staged major protests in 1960 and 1961, but both were put down by de Gaulle. In mid-1961, Ferhat Abbas resigned as prime minister of the GPRA and was replaced by Ben Yusuf Ben Khedda. Shortly thereafter, negotiations with the French government began, and in Mar., 1962, an agreement was signed. The accord provided for an end to the fighting and for Algerian independence after a transition period.

The people of France overwhelmingly approved the agreement in a referendum held in early Apr., 1962, but members of the French army in Algeria, banded together in the Secret Army Organization (OAS), launched an armed campaign against Muslims in an attempt to prevent the implementation of the accord. In late April, however, their leader, Gen. Raoul Salan, was captured, and by late June the army revolt had been ended. Already in April colonists had begun to leave Algeria in large numbers; by October only about 250,000 remained, and most of them soon left as well. As a result of the more than seven years' fighting at least 100,000 Muslim and 10,000 French soldiers had been killed; in addition, many thousands of Muslim civilians and a much smaller number of colonists lost their lives.

Algeria after Independence

On July 1, 1962, the people of Algeria voted almost unanimously for independence in a referendum, and on July 3, France recognized Algeria's sovereignty. As a result of the fighting and of the exodus of colonists, the Algerian economy lay in ruins. Ben Khedda, the moderate leader of the GPRA, formed the initial Algerian government, but in Sept., 1962, he was replaced as prime minister by Ahmed Ben Bella, a leftist radical who had the support of the ALN (led by Houari Boumedienne). A constituent assembly chosen in late 1962 established a strong presidential government, and in Sept., 1963, Ben Bella was elected president. Ben Bella, who increasingly concentrated power in his hands, followed a left-wing domestic policy that included the confiscation of European-held farms and the nationalization of various parts of the economy. From 1963 to 1965 the Socialist Forces Front, a Berber group that had fought against French rule, mounted a rebellion against the new Arab-dominated Algerian government.

In 1965, Ben Bella was deposed in a bloodless coup by Boumedienne, his defense minister, who suspended the constitution and established a ruling revolutionary council, of which he became president. At first Boumedienne faced resistance from students and regional groups, but by the end of 1968 he had a secure hold on power. Algeria gave strong vocal support to the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 and also contributed soldiers and matériel. After an initial slowdown Boumedienne increased the pace of state involvement in the economy. In 1971 he nationalized (with compensation) French oil and natural gas companies in Algeria, and by 1972 output had reached record levels. Price rises for petroleum and natural gas in 1973–74 resulted in considerably higher export earnings.

Boumedienne died in 1978 and was succeeded as head of the republic by FLN leader Colonel Chadli Bendjedid. Berbers rioted in 1980 over legislation making Arabic the only official language, and in the same year a massive earthquake struck NW Algeria, killing an estimated 4,500 people. The 1986 collapse of world oil prices plunged the country into a severe recession. Riots in 1988 led to a series of constitutional reforms in 1989 that legalized opposition parties and guaranteed workers the right to strike; at the same time, government control was established over the media.

Civil unrest resulting from a rise in Islamic fundamentalism led to the postponement of national elections set for June, 1991. When first-round elections were held in December, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) took a commanding lead and was poised to win power. But in early 1992, Bendjedid resigned under pressure, and the military canceled the second round of elections and imposed a state of emergency. FIS activists were arrested and jailed, and their party banned. Islamic militants responded with a campaign of violence. An interim military council took power, with former independence leader Mohammed Boudiaf as president; he was assassinated in June, 1992, and succeeded by Ali Kalfa.

In Jan., 1994, Gen. Liamine Zéroual was appointed president. Under Zéroual, limited efforts at negotiations with the Islamic opposition were followed by a renewed crackdown. Zéroual won the Nov., 1995, presidential elections, which were boycotted by Islamic militants. Fighting continued, and he resigned early in 1999. Presidential elections held in Apr., 1999, were won by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the candidate of the military oligarchy; all the opposition candidates had withdrawn before the vote, claiming ballot-rigging.

The Islamic Salvation Army, the armed wing of the outlawed FIS, renounced its armed struggle in June, 1999; its members were to be granted amnesty (approved in a referendum in September) and invited to join government forces in fighting other radical guerrillas still waging war against the state. In Jan., 2000, President Bouteflika granted a blanket pardon to the Islamic Salvation Army forces, and the government announced that 80% of all the Islamic guerrillas had surrendered under the amnesty. Violence has diminished since then, but attacks do continue to occur. It is estimated that as many as 150,000 people were killed in the violence and repression that began in 1992.

The easing of the fighting has brought such issues as government corruption and widespread poverty and unemployment (estimated at 30%) to the fore. In addition, in 2001 there were large demonstrations and clashes with police by Berbers, who remained deeply unhappy about Arabic's status as the sole national language, a policy that was reversed the following year. Berber protests also sparked demonstrations against the country's stagnant economy by non-Berber Algerians. Parliamentary elections in May, 2002, were boycotted by a number of major opposition parties and many voters, and the FLN won more than half the seats.

French president Jacques Chirac made a state visit to Algeria in Mar., 2003; it was the first such visit since Algerian independence. Two months later a strong earthquake devastated many towns east of the capital, killing more than 2,200 people. The ineffective official response to the disaster led to public outrage and widespread criticism of the government. Late in 2003, tensions between the president and Ali Benflis, the FLN party leader and a former prime minister, led to a split in the government and within the party. Bouteflika was returned to office in Apr., 2004, in an election that observers called Algeria's fairest to date, but the vote for Bouteflika (83%) led Benflis, his main opponent, to accuse the government of massive fraud.

In 2005 the government reached an agreement with Berber leaders that promised economic aid and greater recognition of the Berber language and culture, but many of the details were not finalized. Voters approved a government national reconciliation plan that would provide amnesty for many Islamic insurgents and government security forces and compensate the families of persons killed in the insurgency. The plan, which was criticized by human-rights groups for absolving government forces of their involvement in extrajudicial killings, came into effect in 2006. At the same time, Algeria's remaining Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas, while largely confined to more remote mountain and desert regions, continued to mount attacks against the government and sought to expand their influence through training non-Algerian Islamists and recruiting fighters for non-Algerian conflicts from among Muslims in Europe and elsewhere outside Algeria. The main fundamentalist guerrilla group also officially aligned itself with Al Qaeda, and in Dec., 2007, mounted bombings against government and UN buildings in Algiers. Bombings, some of them significant, and other attacks continued into 2009. By 2012, however, government counterinsurgency efforts largely had confined the group to the rugged Kabylia region, and its attacks were much diminished. Other Islamist guerrillas, associated with a Mali-based group, have launched attacks in the remote Saharan south.

The May, 2007, parliamentary elections were won by the FLN-led governing coalition, whose three parties secured nearly two thirds of the seats. Turnout was light, however, with a little more than a third of the voters going to the polls, and some parties boycotted or were banned from the campaign. In Nov., 2008, parliament ended presidential term limits, enabling Bouteflika to run for a third term in 2009. In Apr., 2009, the president was reelected with 90% of the vote; although the election was boycotted by some opposition parties, the goverment said there was a 74% turnout.

In Jan., 2011, protests overs food prices soon turned into protests demanding political reforms, paralleling those in other Arab nations. They continued in subsequent weeks, but after the government in February ended the state of emergency dated to the military takeover in 1992, the protests dwindled. In April, the president promised to enact democratic constitutional and legal reforms. Elections for the parliament in May, 2012, resulted in a significant majority for the FLN-led government, but opposition parties denounced the result, and turnout appeared to be much lighter than the 42% announced by the government. Bouteflika, despite significant health problems, won a fourth term as president in Apr., 2014; turnout was reported at nearly 52%, with more than 81% voting for the president. Several candidates withdrew from the race after Bouteflika announced he would run; his main opponent, a former ally, alleged the voting was affected by serious irregularities.


See H. D. Nelson, ed., Algeria (4th ed. 1983); M. Bennoune, The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830–1987 (1988); F. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (tr. 1988); J. Ruedy, Modern Algeria (1991); A. Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962 (1977, repr. 2006).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Algerian History: Selected full-text books and articles

Algeria in Turmoil: A History of the Rebellion By Michael K. Clark Frederick A. Praeger, 1959
Algeria: Rebellion and Revolution By Joan Gillespie Frederick A. Praeger, 1960
Algeria: the Realities By Germaine Tillion; Ronald Matthews Knopf, 1958
De Gaulle's Republic By Philip M. Williams; Martin Harrison Longmans, 1965 (2nd edition)
The Struggle for Algeria By Joseph Kraft Doubleday, 1961
Ordeal in Algeria By Richard Brace; Joan Brace Van Nostrand, 1960
The Wretched of the Earth By Frantz Fanon; Constance Farrington Grove Weidenfeld, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of the French Algerian War in multiple chapters
The Question By Henri Alleg G. Braziller, 1958
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of Algerian history in multiple chapters
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