The modern state of Algeria is a relatively recent creation. The name was coined by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century to describe the territory controlled by the regency of Algiers – initially a Turkish colony. The regency broke free of the Ottoman Empire and founded a military republic of unusual stability. This endured almost 300 years until spurious diplomatic problems prompted the French to invade in the 19th century.
Before the arrival of the French, Algeria was known to Europeans as the Barbary (a corruption of Berber) Coast, whose notorious pirates preyed on Christian shipping. The dreaded Khayr al-Din, going under the chilling pseudonym of Barbarossa, was the first regent of Algiers during this period, and at one point held no fewer than 25, 000 Christian captives in the city. Piracy sent shivers down many a spine until the US Navy defeated a Barbary fleet off Algiers in 1815. Despite this, the feared pirates were not entirely beaten until the French attacked Algiers in 1830 and forced the ruling dey (commander or governor) to capitulate. It took another 41 years for French domination of the country to be complete.
The main opposition came from Emir Abdelkader, the great hero of Algeria’s nationalist movement. Abdelkader was a sherif (a descendant of the Prophet, not a Wild West figure) who ruled western and central inland Algeria. His forces resisted the French for almost six years before they were defeated near Oujda in 1844. Abdelkader himself finally surrendered in 1846 and spent the rest of his life in exile. He died in Damascus in 1883.
The French colonial authorities set about changing the face of Algeria by eliminating anything that was previously thought of as Algerian: local culture was destroyed, mosques were converted into churches and the old medinas were pulled down and replaced with streets laid out in neat grids. The greatest symbol of the change was the conversion of the Great Mosque of Algiers to the Cathedral of St Philippe. The French also distributed large parts of prime farming land to European settlers (known as pieds-noirs) – Italian, Maltese and Spanish as well as French.
Algeria’s war of independence, led by the newly formed Front de Libération Nationale (FLN; National Liberation Front), began on 31 October 1954 in Batna, east of Algiers. The fighting lasted seven years, with terror campaigns led by both native Algerians and pied-noir settlers, costing at least a million Algerian lives. The French president, Charles de Gaulle, aware of the impossibility of continued French rule, agreed to a referendum on independence in March 1962. The result was a resounding six million in favour and only 16, 000 against. Independence was declared on 5 July 1962.
FLN candidate Ahmed ben Bella, who robbed a bank to fund a revolutionary group, became Algeria’s first president. He pledged to create a ‘revolutionary Arab-Islamic state based on the principles of socialism and collective leadership at home and anti-imperialism abroad’. He was quickly overthrown in 1965 by former colleague Colonel Houari Boumédienne, who effectively returned the country to military rule.
Boumédienne’s emphasis on industrial development at the expense of the agricultural sector was to have a major impact in later years, when the country became heavily dependent on food imports and migrant workers. Boumédienne died in December 1978 and the FLN replaced him with Colonel Chadli Benjedid, who was re-elected in 1984 and 1989.
There was very little political change under Boumédienne and Chadli.The FLN was the sole political party, pursuing basically secular, socialist policies. There was little evidence of opposition until October 1988, when thousands of people took to the streets in protest against government austerity measures and food shortages. The army was called in to restore order, and between 160 and 600 people were killed.
The government reacted by pledging to relax the FLN monopoly on political power and work towards a multiparty system. The extent of the opposition became clear at local government elections held in early 1990, which produced landslide victories for previously outlawed fundamentalist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS; Islamic Salvation Front).
The initial round of Algeria’s first multiparty parliamentary elections, held in December 1991, produced another landslide win for the FIS. The FLN was left looking like a political irrelevance, taking only 15 of the 231 seats. Chadli’s apparent acceptance of this prompted the army to step in, replacing the president with a five-person Haut Conseil d’Etat (HCE; High Council of State) headed by Mohammed Boudiaf, a former leader of the Algerian revolution. The second round of elections was cancelled, and FIS leaders Abbas Madani and Ali Belhadj were arrested while others fled into exile.
Boudiaf lasted six months before he was assassinated amid signs of a growing guerrilla offensive led by the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA; Armed Islamic Group). He was replaced by former FLN hardliner Ali Kafi, who oversaw the country’s rapid descent into civil war before he was replaced by a retired general, Liamine Zéroual, in January 1994. Zéroual attempted to defuse the situation by holding fresh elections in 1995, but Islamic parties were barred from the poll and Zéroual’s sweeping victory came amid widespread claims of fraud.
Hopes for peace went unfulfilled; instead, the war became even more brutal, with Amnesty International accusing both sides of massacres and war atrocities. The GIA, angered by French aid to the government, extended the war to French soil with a series of bombings and hijackings.
Eventually, government security forces began to gain the upper hand, and at the beginning of 1999 Zéroual announced that he would be stepping down. New elections held in April that year resulted in a controversial victory for the establishment candidate Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former foreign minister, who was elected unopposed after the rest of the candidates in the field claimed fraud and withdrew.
Bouteflika moved quickly to establish his legitimacy by calling a referendum on a plan to offer amnesty to the rebels. War-weary Algerians responded overwhelmingly with a 98% ‘yes’ vote, and by the end of 1999 many groups had responded and laid down their weapons. However, elements within the GIA remained defiant, and were suspected of assassinating FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani in October 1999 in an attempt to derail the peace process.
Since 1999 little has changed in this standoff – GIA splinter groups continue their campaign against the government, and the army continues its own campaign against the rebels, amid accusations of brutality, executions and failure to prevent massacres. Added to this has been violent unrest among the Berber people, which led to an appeasement package from the government in 2001, when Berber was proclaimed the country’s official language, alongside Arabic.
Relations with France have improved considerably in recent years; 2003 was celebrated as the Year of Algeria in France, and President Jacques Chirac made his first official visit to the country. Many Algerians boycotted the festivities in Paris, calling it a whitewash of history and resenting any suggestion of renewed French influence after so many years of abuse.
Parliamentary elections in May 2002, won by Ali Benflis of the FLN, were marred by violence and low voter turnout, and did little to strengthen people’s faith in Algerian democracy. Four parties boycotted the vote, including two of the major Berber parties. To cap all the political problems, northern Algeria was rocked by a severe earthquake in May 2003, which killed more than 2000 people.
In April 2004, Abdelaziz Bouteflika secured a landslide election victory and promised to seek a ‘true national reconciliation’ during his second term. The military – traditionally a key player in Algerian politics – pledged neutrality during the poll. January 2005 saw the government make a deal with Berber leaders, promising more investment in the Kabylie region and enhanced recognition of Tamazight dialect. A referendum for reconciliation was held in September 2005, with voters supporting the government’s plans to give amnesty to many of those involved in the 1990s conflict, and a six-month period of amnesty began in March 2006. According to the reconciliation plan, fugitive militants who surrendered were to be pardoned, except for the most serious of crimes, and some jailed Islamic militants were set free during the first part of the year.
President Bouteflika secured a second landslide election victory in 2009. Although the economy has received a lift from oil and gas finds in recent years, poverty remains widespread and unemployment high, particularly among Algeria's youth, and protests broke out in January 2011. The government responded by ordering a reduction in the price of basic foodstuffs, and repealed the 1992 state of emergency law.
Like in many other Arabic-speaking countries, the government faced calls for democratic change in 2011, but protests were not on the scale experienced elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. Nonetheless, President Bouteflika announced a programme of constitutional change in a bid to avert pressure for more radical reform.
There is remaining criticism of the country’s repressive attitudes towards the media (journalists can still be jailed for insulting the president), and militant attacks continue to happen every year.