The earliest known inhabitants of certain areas
of Algeria were cattleherds and hunters living in the Al
Hajjar region between 8,000 and 2,000BC. These may have been
tribal Berbers. Phoenicians settled some of the coastal
areas of Algeria from their north-African state of Carthage
which was in modern day Tunisia.
The first Algerian kingdom was established by
the Berber chieftain Massinissa during the Punic Wars
between Rome and Carthage which took place between the 3rd
and 2nd centuries BC. Massinissa reigned over his kingdom of
Numidia from 202-148BC and his dynasty lasted until 106BC
when his grandson Jugurtha became a Roman client. As part of
the Roman Empire Numidia flourished, becoming known as the
'granary of Rome'. A road system and a series of Roman
garrisons which became small Roman cities were built during
the Roman period.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, Roman
armies were withdrawn from Algeria and in the 3rd century
AD, the Donatists, a North African Christian sect which had
been suppressed by the Romans, declared a short-lived
independent state. Algeria was invaded by the Vandals in the
5th century who occupied the country for a hundred years
before being driven out by the Emperor Justinian's Byzantine
It was Justinian's aim to restore the Holy Roman
Empire but the spread of Islam and the Arab conquest of
North Africa during the 7th century thwarted the expansion
of Byzantium and permanently changed the character of North
The Arab invasion was not without resistance.
The Berbers, led by a tribal high priestess named Kahina who
claimed conversion to Judaism, fought the invaders but
eventually surrendered to the Umayyad Khalif. The Berbers
quickly embraced Islam and, in the 8th century, formed their
own Islamic government. Several tribes embraced Shi'ism and
founded Shi'a tribal kingdoms, the most powerful of which
was the Rustamid Kingdom at Tahert in central Algeria which
flourished during the 8th and 9th centuries.
Algeria became part of the powerful Berber
empires of the Almoravids and Almohads which dominated the
Magreb and Andalusia. Tlemcen became the eastern capital of
the Almohads and flourished as a centre of Islam. During
this period Algerian seaports like Algiers, Annaba and
Bijaya thrived on trade with European markets.
The rise and fall of piracy (1400-1830)
The demise of the Almohad empire created a power
vacuum which led to the rise of piracy along what became
known as the Barbary Coast. Coastal cities hired corsairs to
seize merchant vessels and gain an advantage in the fierce
competition for trade on the high seas.
North African piracy compelled the Spanish to
occupy and blockade several ports known to be pirate
enclaves, including Algiers which was forced to pay tribute.
This Christian occupation of North African ports forced
Muslims to seek help from the Ottoman Khalif. The
Barbarossas, two sibling pirates, petitioned the Ottoman
Sultan for aid against the infidels. In response the Khalif
sent a naval fleet which drove the Spanish out of most of
the North African ports they were occupying.
In 1518 Khayrad'din Barbarossa became the
sultan's official representative in Algeria and Algerian
corsairs dominated the Mediterranean with Ottoman protection
for centuries. It was not until late in the 18th century
that Europeans were able to challenge the Barbary pirates of
Algeria with superior naval power and artillery. In 1815 a
US naval squadron under Captain Stephen Decatur attacked
Algiers and forced its governor to sign a treaty banning
piracy against US ships.
Persistent attacks on European shipping caused the
British and Dutch to combine their forces against the
Algerians and almost totally destroy their fleet in 1816.
This was the beginning of the end. In 1830 the French army
invaded Algiers and the French occupation of Algeria
continued for 132 years.
French colonisation (1830-1962)
Algeria was annexed to France despite intense
popular resistance. Resettlement programmes were implemented
by the French government using land-owning incentives to
draw French citizens to the new colony. The French
introduced a wide variety of measures to 'modernize'
Algeria, imposing European-style culture, infrastructure,
economics, education, industries and government institutions
on the country. The colonials exploited the country's
agricultural resources for the benefit of France. The
concept of French Algeria became ingrained in the French
This period of early French influence over the
country saw a huge drop in Algeria's native population, as
it fell from around 4 million in 1830 to only
2.5 million in 1890.
The French colonials looked upon the Muslim
populace as an inferior underclass that had to be tightly
controlled. Muslims were not allowed to hold public
meetings, bear arms or leave their districts or villages
without government permission. Although they were officially
French subjects they could not become French citizens unless
they renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. It was a
brutal, racist regime which alienated the vast majority of
Algerians. The French attempt at acculturating an Algerian
elite backfired badly. Those few schooled in French
academies and infused with French values suffered the
inherent racism of their French overlords and became the
nucleus of the Algerian nationalist movement.
The Algerian nationalist movement emerged
between the two World Wars, first simply demanding civil
rights for the indigenous peoples of Algeria. The French
government proposed concessions to the nationalists but
these were blocked by French colonial reactionaries in the
National Assembly. The colonials resisted any reform giving
Muslims equal rights until, after 20 years of fruitless
non-violent activism, the frustrated nationalists formed a
militant anti-French party in 1939 called the Friends of the
Manifesto and Liberty, combining Islamic and communist
In the aftermath of World War II the French
government revived attempts to bring Muslim Algerians into
the decision-making process but these were too little and
too late to offset deep-rooted colonial attitudes and a
growing mutual hatred between the French and their Muslim
subjects. Algerian Muslim attitudes had also hardened and an
increasing number of nationalists were calling for armed
By the 1950s revolutionaries were being hounded
into exile or hiding and the stage was being set for the
Algerian War of Independence.
In March 1954 a revolutionary committee was
formed in Egypt by Ahmed Ben Bella and eight other Algerians
in exile which became the nucleus of the National Liberation
Front (FLN). On November 1st of the same year the FLN
declared war on the French through a spectacular
simultaneous attack on government buildings, military
installations, police stations and communications facilities
in the country.
The populist guerrilla war paralyzed the country
and forced the French government to send 400,000 troops to
try and put down the uprising. However, the courage and
ruthlessness of FLN fighters and their tactical use of
terrorism dragged the French into the reactive trap of
bloody reprisals against the general population, which
served to galvanize the Algerians and strengthen the
The cruelty and brutality of French colonial
forces and the government's inability to find a political
solution turned world opinion against France. The French use
of concentration camps, torture, and mass executions of
civilians suspected of aiding the rebels, isolated France
and elicited invidious comparisons with totalitarian regimes
The French government was caught between a
colonial policy based upon racism and exploitation, and its
place as a standard-bearer of democracy. On the one hand,
the French colonials were intransigent. On the other, the
world community was calling for a cessation of hostilities
and a political solution.
In 1958 colonials and French army officers
joined forces to bring down the French government and
demanded the return of General Charles De Gaulle to lead
France to victory over the Algerian Nationalists and the
preservation of French Algeria. De Gaulle returned to power
with the support of the political extreme right but,
realizing that the war could never be won, announced a
referendum allowing Algerians to choose their own destiny,
be it independence or remaining part of France.
De Gaulle's move was seen as betrayal by the
colonials, the extreme right wing and certain parts of the
military. The OAS, a militant terrorist organization, was
formed by an alliance of these groups with the aim of
overthrowing the general. The OAS carried out a ruthless
terrorist campaign against the FLN and the French
government, but they were doomed to failure.
In March 1962 a cease fire was negotiated between the
French government and the FLN and De Gaulle's referendum was
held in July. The Algerian people spoke with a single voice.
They voted for independence. Following the referendum the
French departed from Algeria en masse. By the end of the
year most colonials had evacuated the country that had once
been French Algeria.
After independence (1962-1999)
The Evian Accords which were signed in 1962 gave Algeria
immediate independence and French aid to help reconstruct
the country. The French Sahara with its oil resources was
also handed over to Algeria. In return the FLN guaranteed
protection and civil rights for the French Algerians
choosing to remain in the country, and the option of
choosing either French or Algerian nationality after three
Eight years of war had shattered Algeria. There had been
more than one million Algerian casualties and nearly two
million Algerians had lost their homes. For over a century
the French had deprived the Algerians of any but the most
minimal opportunity to become involved in its infrastructure
and institutions. Algerians had been made a subclass of
servants, unskilled labourers and peasants. The departure of
the French left the country without the skilled labour to
keep the country running.
At the same time, internal conflicts within the FLN that
had been set aside during the war emerged and a power
struggle between various factions of the FLN flared up.
Ahmed Ben Bella, with the support of Colonel Houari
Boumedienne, the National Liberation Army chief of staff,
emerged as the winner and was elected the first president of
Algeria in 1962. The country he presided over had been
established as an Arab-Islamic socialist state with a single
party political system, the FLN being the only legal party.
The FLN was to exercise collective leadership and rule the
country from a central political bureau. All the fashionable
accoutrements of post-colonial socialist government were
activated, including centralization, nationalization of
private industry and land reform. A constitution was passed
by popular referendum in 1963 which gave the president
wide-ranging powers and few restraints.
During his three years as President of Algeria, Ben Bella
made some attempts to revive Algeria, but eventually
succumbed to the vanity of international politics and
domestic autocracy. He never really grappled with the
country's hard-core problems of unemployment and the deficit
of technical and administrative skills that prevented the
country becoming a modern nation.
In 1965 Defence Minister Houari Boumedienne staged a
bloodless coup which removed Ben Bella from power. He formed
a 26-member Council of Revolution which became the country's
highest government body, with the army displacing the FLN as
the overriding political influence.
Although Boumedienne held the reins of power tightly
until his death in 1978, he also established a more
authentically collective form of leadership which finally
began to come to grips with building a modern Algeria. The
country's oil resources were developed and an industrial
sector was established. Education and literacy became a
focus of concentration and agricultural land reform
continued. In the process the Boumedienne government
developed a socialist political system which was codified in
a constitution in 1976. Under the new constitution
Boumedienne was elected president of Algeria and ruled until
his death. However, for all Algeria's accomplishments during
this period, imposing authoritarian one-party socialism on a
traditional Islamic country was considered a mistake.
When Boumedienne's chosen successor, Colonel Chadli
Benjedid, was elected president of Algeria he began to relax
the government's authoritarian practices and made a genuine
attempt to solve some of the country's problems. Benjedid
also pardoned Ahmed Ben Bella in 1980 and released him from
house arrest. However, for all his liberal tendencies,
Benjedid was a product of the FLN-military elite and was
re-elected in 1984 because he ran unopposed.
With the fall of oil prices and the resurgence of Islam,
the government's credibility fell dramatically. The manifest
failure of world socialism and the government's failure to
solve the country's increasing social and economic problems,
encouraged more and more Algerians to seek solutions in
their Islamic traditions.
The socialist government's repressive secularism and one
party rule fed a fundamentalist backlash which gave rise to
widespread rioting in 1985. Islamic leaders branded the
government as 'a band of atheists' and called for a return
to an Islamic government.
Benjedid responded by initiating a programme of reforms,
removing many old-guard Boumedienne partisans from
government and making moves toward privatization and
reduction of socialist centralization. But his moves were
too little and too late. In October 1988 Algeria exploded in
riots once again.
In response, a new constitution reducing the role of the
FLN, allowing limited political opposition for the first
time since independence, confining the role of the army to
defence matters and giving public sector employees the right
to strike was passed in February 1989. Though apparently
liberal, the constitution was still rigged in favour of the
FLN, severely limiting the activities of opposition parties.
Nevertheless, the rising tide of Islamic activism swept the
Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) to an overwhelming victory
over the FLN in municipal and provincial elections in 1990.
The goal of the FIS was nothing less than transforming
Algeria into an Islamic state. After decades of socialist
incompetence and social and religious repression, the vast
majority of Algerians embraced FIS doctrines and led the
party to a stunning first round victory over the FLN in the
December 1991 general elections.
With the prospect of the FIS in control of the parliament
after the second round of elections, the secular and
military elite forced Benjedid's resignation, halted the
electoral process and suspended parliament.
A High Committee was established with Mohammed Boudiaff
named as president. The world community had applauded
Algeria's move toward multi-party democracy, but the
possibility of an Islamic government taking control had made
many western nations think again.
The new regime calculated, and calculated correctly, that
the repression of the FIS would ignite a wave of extremist
fundamentalist violence which would alienate many Algerians
and divide the Islamic movement. FIS and other Muslim
extremists played right into the government hands and
launched a campaign of terrorism which shocked the world and
polarized the country.
Internal terrorism affected secularists of all types
including journalists, academicians, intellectuals, military
and government figures, artists and Islamic scholars out of
sympathy with the fundamentalists' views. This, together
with government reprisals which have taken an estimated
30,000 lives, tore Algeria apart. Terrorism against
foreigners further isolated Algeria from the world
When Boudiaff was assassinated in June 1992 he was
replaced by Ali Kafi who in turn was replaced by a 5-member
presidential High Council. In 1994 the Council named
Algeria's defence minister Liamine Zeroual as interim
president of Algeria for a 3-year term, allowing him to
negotiate with the FIS. In 1994 the government met with five
opposition groups to negotiate a peace settlement.
Negotiations continued in Italy, and led to elections in
The November 1995 elections were open and multi
candidate, but were boycotted by the FIS who denounced the
elections. President Liamine Zeroual won the election and
promised to carry on with his reforms to ensure the
transformation of Algeria into a true democracy. Militants
opposed to the elections continued their campaign of terror
against the government.
On 7th December 1996, President Liamine Zeroual signed
new constitutional reforms which, among other things, banned
political parties that are formed on the basis of religion
or language. These reforms led to an escalation of violence,
with wide spread massacres and atrocities being committed.
The war between the government forces and the militants
continues with an estimated toll of 80,000 victims, most of
whom are civilians.
On 15th April 1999, Algeria held democratic presidential
elections which were won by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former
foreign minister who enjoys the support of the army. The
elections were held amid allegations of fraud, in response
to which the other six candidates withdrew from the
elections in protest , but did not remove their names from
the ballots. The war between the government forces and the
militant forces continues to rage on.