History of Algeria

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Algeria > Map Economy History

ALGERIA IN OCTOBER 1994 was in a state bordering on civil war. The military in late January 1994 had named General Lamine Zeroual, previously minister of defense, as president. He was to rule in coordination with the High Security Council (Haut Conseil de Sûreté) because the High Council of State (Haut Conseil d'État--HCÉ), created two years previously, had been abolished. In April armed forces leaders removed Prime Minister Redha Malek from his post after an incumbency of only eight months, replacing him with Mokdad Sifi, an engineer technocrat who had served as minister of equipment. Efforts to achieve a workable compromise with the major Islamic activist group, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut--FIS), appeared unsuccessful. Martial law, imposed in February 1992, continued.

To understand the forces behind recent events, one must look at the factors that have shaped Algeria's history. The indigenous peoples of the region of North Africa that today constitutes Algeria comprise an ethnic group known as the Berbers. In the mid-1990s, the Berbers represented only about 20 percent of Algeria's population. In A.D. 642, following conquests by the Romans, the Vandals, and the Byzantines, the region came under the influence of Islam and the Arabs. Hence, the vast majority of the population, about 80 percent, are Arabs. Islam and arabization, therefore, have profoundly influenced the area.

The Arab rulers of Algeria have come from various groups. In chronological order, they have included the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Almoravids, the Almohads, and the Zayanids. The latter group was followed in the sixteenth century and early seventeenth century by a series of privateer merchant captains. One of the early sixteenth-century Muslim privateers, Khair ad Din, ruled present-day Algeria on behalf of the Ottoman Turks, who gave him the title of provincial governor. The Ottoman sultan nominally controlled the area into the nineteenth century but in reality exerted minimal influence.

From their base in Algeria, the privateers preyed on French vessels and those of other Western nations. Because France was occupied with the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath in the first part of the nineteenth century, it was not in a position to act against the Algerian privateers. In 1827, however, as a result of an alleged slight to the French consul by the local ruler, or dey, France undertook what became a three-year blockade of Algiers. The incident led to a full-scale French invasion of Algeria in 1830 and the imposition of French rule, which lasted until Algeria obtained its independence in 1962.

In the course of French colonization of Algeria, discontent on the part of the inhabitants led to several uprisings. The most prominent of these was a revolt that originated in the Kabylie region in eastern Algeria in 1871 and spread through much of the country. Serious disturbances also broke out on V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, 1945. In response to the latter uprisings, the French military killed more than 1,500 Algerians and arrested more than 5,400 persons. French actions and growing Algerian nationalism led in 1954 to the creation by Ahmed Ben Bella and his colleagues of the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale--FLN) and a military network throughout Algeria, the National Liberation Army (Armée de Libération Nationale--ALN).

The FLN launched the War of Independence on November 1, 1954, and called on all Algerian Muslims to support it. A bloody war ensued. The conflict ended on July 1, 1962, with Algeria obtaining independence at the cost of as many as 300,000 Algerian dead. The major reason for the prolongation of the war was France's determination to maintain direct control of Algeria because of its strategic location. Seeking to integrate Algeria into the Third French Republic, France had made Algeria a part of France proper, whereas under similar circumstances it had given Morocco and Tunisia the status of protectorates. France granted independence to Morocco and Tunisia in March 1956, although their institutions were less developed than those of Algeria, believing that it could continue to exercise control over the other two states through Algeria.

In the thirty-two years since independence, the Algerian republic has seen a number of regimes and several forceful overthrows of governments in which the military has played a major role. From 1963 to 1989, Algeria was technically a socialist state. In February 1979, following the death of Houari Boumediene in December 1978, Chadli Benjedid became president. Beginning in 1980, Benjedid began to liberalize Algeria's economy, shifting from investment in heavy industry to concentration on agriculture and light industry. In addition, the regime disbanded a number of large government enterprises and state farms. The drop of world oil prices in 1986, however, together with poor domestic economic management, aggravated the already depressed economic situation. Despite some attempts at diversification, the oil industry and especially natural gas remained major sources of national income. The economy was characterized by high unemployment, particularly among younger males in the cities. (About 70 percent of Algerians are under thirty years old, and 44 percent of the total population are under age fifteen.) The resulting social unrest stemmed from the discontent of those youths who were either unemployed or in dead- end jobs and from food and housing shortages. The unrest culminated in a series of strikes in late September and early October 1988 in major industrial areas and cities, including Algiers. The strikes were repressed by the military with considerable force and a loss of life estimated in the hundreds.

To counter this unrest and the rising appeal of the Islamists (Muslim activists, sometimes seen as fundamentalists), Benjedid expanded the reforms designed to encourage private agriculture and small businesses. In 1989 he also instituted political reforms, including a new constitution that eliminated the term socialist, separated the FLN from the state, and granted freedom of expression, association, and meeting. However, because Boumediene's socialist policies had been exacted at such a high cost to the economy, Benjedid's reforms came too late, in the opinion of many observers. Furthermore, the control of one party, the FLN, between 1962 and 1980 had led to an authoritarianism that was difficult to overcome and that had resulted in the rise of Islamists, particularly in the form of the FIS.

In response to the newly gained right to form political organizations, parties proliferated, of which the FIS constituted the leading opposition party. The FIS demonstrated its appeal, or perhaps the extent of popular disillusionment with the FLN, by defeating the FLN in June 1990 local and provincial elections, winning in such major cities as Algiers, Constantine, and Oran. The Berber party, Front of Socialist Forces (Front des Forces Socialistes--FFS), and Ben Bella's Movement for Democracy in Algeria (Mouvement pour la Démocratie en Algérie--MDA) and several other small opposition parties did not participate.

Again in the December 1991 national elections, the FIS surprised many by its large-scale victories despite the presence in jail of the party's leadership, including Abbassi Madani and Ahmed Belhadj. To prevent the holding of second-stage, run-off elections in mid-January 1992, which the FIS presumably would have won decisively, the army staged a coup led by Minister of Defense General Khaled Nezzar. Martial law was reimposed, and Benjedid resigned. The military named Sid Ahmed Ghozali president and head of a short-lived six-person High Security Council, which was replaced by the five-person HCE. Both bodies were dominated by the military. Army leaders recalled Mohamed Boudiaf from his self-imposed exile in Morocco to serve on the HCE and be head of state.

In response to the popular demonstrations that occurred in February 1992, the authorities banned the FIS in early March and dissolved the communal and municipal assemblies. The court banned the FIS on the ground that it violated the constitution, which prohibited political parties based on religion, race, or regional identity. After an initial period of calm, many Islamists were arrested and tried by military courts, receiving severe sentences; in 1992 about 10,000 Algerians were sent to prison camps in the Sahara. The military government's repression of the FIS brought sharp responses from other political parties; the FLN and the FFS sought an alliance with the FIS to preserve the democratic process. Furthermore, the repression caused some elements in the FIS and in the military to become more radical. Rapidly, a violent environment was created, leading to the assassination of Boudiaf in June 1992 and to terrorist attacks on civilians as well as military personnel. Ali Kafi of the HCE succeeded Boudiaf as head of state, but he was unsuccessful in resolving the country's political and economic problems.

The military named Redha Malek prime minister in August 1993. Recognizing the need for some compromise, Malek sought to initiate talks with the opposition, despite his firm stance against terrorism. However, because the banned FIS was not included in the proposed dialogue scheduled for mid-December 1993 when the authorization for the HCE was due to end, other parties boycotted the talks. The HCE's mandate was extended into January 1994, but because most parties had lost confidence in the government only smaller parties participated in the dialogue. By September 1994, in the fourth round of the national dialogue, five parties were taking part.

In naming General Zeroual as new president, the army took direct responsibility for governing. Despite opposition criticism of the renewed military rule, Zeroual committed himself to working with the opposition, including the FIS. This stance has caused divisions within the military over political strategy and prompted the resignation of Malek as prime minister in April. In a conciliatory gesture toward the FIS, in mid-September 1994 the government released five senior leaders from prison. Included among those released were Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj, who were placed under house arrest and asked by the government to assist it in reaching a reconciliation with the FIS. In pursuit of some sort of accommodation with the FIS, in late September three generals were holding negotiations on behalf of the government separately with Madani and Belhadj in their homes.

Meanwhile, violence has increased, and more than 10,000 (some estimates range as high as 30,000) Algerians are reliably reported to have been killed between January 1992 and October 1994. Between February 22, 1993, and May 15, 1994, death sentences were passed on 489 persons, of which twenty-six have been carried out. In addition, some sixty-eight foreigners--the number is variously reported--had been killed by October 1994. As a result of the violence, numerous West European countries and the United States in 1993 urged their nationals to leave Algeria. French citizens were particularly affected by such warnings because in late 1993 the French government estimated that approximately 76,000 French nationals, including those holding dual nationality, resided in Algeria.

The main body of the FIS was willing to consider reconciliation with the authorities under certain conditions, such as the freeing of FIS members who had been imprisoned and the legalization of the party. The most radical group, however, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé--GIA), had split from the FIS, which it considered too conciliatory, and rejected any compromise. Instead, the GIA, an urban terrorist group, began military action in November 1991. It claimed responsibility for killing the majority of the sixty-eight foreigners and also targeted oil installation personnel. Particularly embarrassing to the government was the GIA's kidnapping of the Omani and Yemeni ambassadors in July 1994. (They were subsequently released.) Another Muslim activist group, the FIS-sponsored Armed Islamic Movement (Mouvement Islamique Armé--MIA), later renamed the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut--AIS), engaged in traditional guerrilla warfare. The AIS consisted in late 1994 of about 10,000 men and attacks military bases; it denies any involvement in attacks on civilians and foreigners.

While working on the one hand to promote dialogue, the government on the other hand instituted sharp repressive measures on Islamists. Curfews designed to counter terrorism, instituted in December 1992, were not lifted until 1994, and martial law continued to apply. The government undertook a counteroffensive against radical Islamist groups beginning in 1992, and had succeeded in killing several leaders of the GIA, including the group's head, Mourad Sid Ahmed (known as Djafar al Afghani), in February 1994 and Cherif Gousmi, Djafar al Afghani's successor, in September 1994. The government's apparent inability to stop the killing of unveiled women led to the formation of at least two anti-Islamic groups: the Organization of Free Young Algerians, which announced in March 1994 that it would resort to counterkillings of veiled women at the rate of twenty to one, and the Secret Organization for Safeguarding the Algerian Republic. Also in March, thousands of Algerians, particularly women, took to the streets to protest against the killing of unveiled women and to demonstrate their disillusionment with both the government and the FIS. Furthermore, the regime seemed unable or unwilling to prevent Islamist attacks on Berbers. In consequence, in 1993 Berbers began arming themselves in self-defense. Also indicative of the questionable effectiveness of government security measures was the successful escape of about 1,000 prisoners from the Tazoult high-security prison near Batna in March 1994.

Given the absence of basic government bodies such as elected assemblies, contemporary Algeria is being governed by the military. In late 1994, the only body that theoretically exercised some legislative functions was the National Transitional Council (Conseil National de Transition--CNT), created in May 1994. Zeroual installed the CNT, which in principle was to consist of 200 members: eighty-five from political parties; eighty-five representing unions, professional and social organizations; and thirty-five civil service members. In actuality, the twenty-two seats for the five legal political parties (the FIS was not included) were unoccupied because the parties refused to participate.

Leaders of the armed forces became the main force rejecting Islamists. Elements of the army, however, recognized that a compromise with moderate Islamists appeared to be necessary if the country were to move ahead. Furthermore, military leaders seemed aware that the FIS had made inroads within the lower ranks of the armed forces. Zeroual undertook a large-scale reorganization of the top echelons of military leadership after coming to power, introducing younger officers more willing to consider compromise with Islamists. In addition to military service staff appointments, he named new commanders to five out of the six military regions in May 1994. In June Zeroual appointed new governors to thirty-nine of the forty-eight wilayat, or governorates.

Public frustration has led to some growth in the number of Islamists, but accurate figures as to their strength are lacking. The overall Algerian attraction to Islamist groups appears to stem from increasing skepticism as to the likelihood of democratic government being restored.

The position of Islamists in general and the FIS in particular in contemporary Algerian society reflects the role of Islam in Algeria. Historically, the marabouts, or Muslim holy men, played a prominent role among the bedouin tribes that constituted the major element of the early culture of the area. A number of marabouts were also associated with mystical Sufi Islamic brotherhoods that existed primarily in rural and mountainous areas of North Africa. When the French came to dominate Algeria from 1830 onward, they endeavored to undermine Muslim culture and to substitute Western ways. Therefore, the contemporary efforts of the FIS to restore the Islamic heritage of Algerians can be seen not only as a religious and cultural phenomenon but also as part of a nationalist resurgence to revive a way of life that was discouraged by a colonial power.

Since independence in 1962, Algeria has experienced ambivalence about the role of Islam in society. The 1962 constitution made Islam the state religion because the founders saw Islam as a force for bringing cohesion to the new country. The government assumed control of mosques and religious schools and administered religious endowments. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Boumediene's development policies, which led to the redistribution of oil revenues, were often considered to be instances of Islamic activism. However, many French-educated Algerians in the upper and upper middle classes were secularly oriented and wished to minimize the role of Islam in Algerian society.

A number of Western observers believe that Islamist movements grew as a result of political underrepresentation and economic hardships experienced by the average Algerian. The FIS in particular saw itself as the heir of the FLN. It promised to continue the redistribution of wealth that the FLN had promoted in the 1960s and the 1970s, using oil revenues. For example, the FIS capitalized on its well-organized party structure after the 1989 earthquake by distributing food and medical supplies in affected areas and providing such services as garbage collection and school tutoring. Such social service programs, when added to the FIS's role of providing religious instruction, met with popular response and constituted a threat in the eyes of many of those in positions of government power.

Because of economic constraints, the government found it very difficult in the late 1980s and early 1990s to counter any Islamist activities relating to the economy and social services. Despite its deteriorating economy, Algeria for years had avoided rescheduling its debt payments for fear of losing its political and economic independence. Thus, in 1993 the country devoted 96 percent of its hydrocarbon export revenues to debt repayment. When the economic situation became critical in 1994, partly because of a severe drought that resulted in Algeria's being able to meet only about 10 percent of its grain needs and the consequent death by starvation of about 1,000 persons monthly, the regime was obliged to act. In addition, most industries were operating only at 50 percent of capacity because of lack of funds for raw materials and other inputs; inflation officially was estimated at 25 percent but actually was considerably higher (for example, in September 1991 it had reached 227 percent); the 1993 gross domestic product growth rate was -1.7 percent; land erosion was causing the loss of about 40,000 hectares of cultivated land annually; and water distribution losses were as high as 40 percent, according to the World Bank.

To qualify for an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment loan, the government needed to take preliminary reform measures. These steps included instituting 20 percent to 100 percent price increases in late March 1994 on nine basic commodities--among which were bread, flour, and milk--and devaluing the Algerian dinar by 40 percent in early April. Following the IMF's approval in May of a US$1.1 billion standby economic stabilization loan extending to April 1995, Algeria was able to ask the Paris Club of official creditors for rescheduling of other government debt (total indebtedness, including loans from private banks, was estimated at US$26 billion). In July Algeria received economic aid in the amount of US$1.1 billion from France as well as a loan from the European Union. In October 1994, Algeria had not yet completed its plans for rescheduling its commercial loan repayments with the London Club.

In order to gain popular support for the structural adjustment program, the IMF specifically asked that other donors make loans that would facilitate housing construction. Algeria faces a severe housing crisis because between 1962 and 1989 the country built only about 48,000 housing units annually. This figure is in contrast to the 107,000 needed to prevent further deterioration of the situation and the 234,000 units needed per year to provide each household with a unit. With regard to other services, to maintain its existing health level, the country requires an additional 24,000 hospital beds and 5,000 more paramedics. To meet the needs of the number of new students resulting from Algeria's high population growth rate (variously estimated at 2.7 percent to 2.9 percent per year), it needs 24,000 additional classrooms and 8,000 more teachers by 2005.

Because of the serious economic situation, when Islamists made such a good showing in the June 1990 elections, and again in the December 1991 elections, some Western observers considered the results primarily a vote against the FLN rather than an endorsement of Islamism. The military, whose leadership was secularly oriented, felt threatened, however, and determined to take decisive action.

The repressive measures adopted demonstrated that democracy constituted a somewhat thin veneer. Algeria's military leaders were apparently unwilling to accept the risks connected with political pluralism and liberalization. Furthermore, the country lacked a solid commitment to the electoral process. In the December 1991 elections, of the 13.2 million Algerians eligible to vote, only 7.8 million, or 59 percent, voted. Moreover, the continued influence of the military on the processes of government represents a further obstacle to true democracy.

While undergoing these domestic difficulties, the Algerian government has sought to obtain not only economic assistance from abroad but also political support. Traditionally, Algeria's closest economic relations have been with France, to which it ships most of its exports and to which thousands of Algerian workers continue to migrate, often illegally in contravention of immigration restrictions. However, given Algeria's colonial heritage, a love-hate relationship exists between it and France. Many older Algerians, particularly military officers, are proud of their French culture and training but also resent past dependence; many younger people are ardent nationalists or Islamists and tend to reject France's role and the influence of the West in general. Furthermore, France, concerned at the unrest so close to it as well as the potential for subversion of thousands of Algerians in France, seems to have been pressuring Algeria to take harsh measures against Islamists. The United States has been more conciliatory, stressing the need for the Algerian government to compromise with Islamists in order to move toward greater democracy. Democracy appears to be a more acceptable course than socialism, in view of developments in Eastern Europe in recent years and the questionable success of Boumediene's socialist policies.

On the regional level, Algeria historically has tended to view itself as the leading state of the Arab Maghrib. In recent years, however, the country's economic plight has limited its regional influence, and the role of Morocco appears to be growing. Algeria is a founding member of the Union of the Arab Maghreb (Union du Maghreb Arabe--UMA), which came into existence in 1989, designed to create a common market among Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. Benjedid saw the UMA as a factor for peace and stability in the region as well as for social and economic progress. Formed at the time of the Soviet Union's disintegration and the prospect of serious economic competition from the European Community, the UMA was intended not only to promote economic cooperation but also to promote common policies in the broader political and social fields. For example, at its November 1992 meeting, the UMA ministers of foreign affairs agreed to take common action to counter the rise of Islamism in the Maghrib. However, at their February 1993 meeting the ministers decided on a "pause" in the UMA's work. In actuality, because of economic differences among the members, none of the fifteen conventions adopted since 1989 has been implemented.

Thus, in late 1994 the Algerian government was challenged on a number of fronts. Its greatest problems lay in the domestic field: the strength of Islamism, which threatened to topple the regime, and the economy. The IMF loan, supplemented by Paris Club, London Club, and other foreign financial assistance, gave some hope of relieving economic hardships in the long run. In all likelihood, however, the austerity measures nonetheless would create in the immediate future further unemployment and cost-of- living increases that would have a serious impact on less affluent members of society. Therefore, the government needs to make progress in the social and infrastructure fields, particularly in housing and to a lesser extent in health care and education, if it is to offer a domestic program to counteract the popular appeal of Islamists. Wise use for such purposes of funds obtained from abroad while simultaneously seeking to negotiate a compromise with moderate Islamist groups like the FIS, may represent the government's best hope of remaining in power.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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