History

 

Early history

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With the decline of the Roman Empire, Roman armies were withdrawn from Algeria and in the 3rd century AD, the Donatists, a North African Christian sect which had been suppressed by the Romans, declared a short-lived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 army.
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 Africa.
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 collective mind.
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 factions.
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 revolution.
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 revolution.
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 and Nazism.
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 years.

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 community.

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 1995.

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.

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