issue 178 - December 1987
From the coastal plain to the desert oases, Algeria's beautiful landscapes are drenched in light. Yet the shadowy anguish of the liberation struggle against France has never quite disappeared. This is due in part to its brutality, but in part also to the periodic waves of racialism in France, now at a pitch with Jean-Marie Le Pen, which affect many Algerian migrant workers there and evoke the psychological tensions of colonialism, described so well by writer Frantz Fanon.
1987 marks the 25th anniversary of Algeria's independence, secured after a long and bitter war. So bitter, indeed, that the Front de Liberation Nationale's (FLN) victory was the signal for French settlers to leave in droves. With them went much of the country's managerial and technical expertise.
But the FLN inherited a sound infrastructure on which to build a modern post-colonial society. The country was also to benefit from plentiful hydrocarbon reserves (petroleum and natural gas) which guaranteed good foreign-exchange earnings.
The fall in oil prices in the 1980s has spelled trouble. President Chadli, who takes a more pragmatic approach than his predecessor, Houari Boumedienne, is keen to see Algeria diversify its economy. On the agenda is increasing the country's ability to feed itself by investing in a long-neglected agricultural sector, but for the time being oil and gas revenues remain the driving force behind development.
Under Boumedienne, there was emphasis on state investment in heavy industry to produce steel, fertilizers, petrochemicals and cement. Chadli's administration has encouraged more private sector involvement, as it has with agriculture. Algeria's high population growth rate (3.2 per cent) means the country needs to grow more food - at present it imports over half its requirements. There are typical problems of desert encroachment, soil erosion and droughts but irrigation and tree planting could increase the amount of farming land from the five per cent currently cultivated.
Plans for boosting food production include greater scope for private farmers, reflecting the administration's general inclination for less state intervention.
At the same time there is a widening gap between those who still espouse the old values forged by the liberation struggle and a younger generation - some two-thirds of the population are under 20 - for whom the FLN's founding precepts, and the leadership's old authoritarian style, mean much less.
Algeria's stature in the developing world is analogous to that of Cuba. It has leant strong support - moral but often logistical too - to many liberation movements, and wields considerable influence in regional and international organizations, where its own battle for independence is still regarded as a landmark in the history of decolonization.
Leader: President Chadli Bendjedid
Economy: GNP per capita $2,410 (US$15,390)
People: 21.7 million
Health: Infant mortality: 81 per 1,000 live births (US 11 per 1,000). Percentage of population with access to drinking water 100% in urban areas, 80% in rural parts.
Culture: Traditional Berber culture has survived occupation by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Europeans. An assortment of different social groups and ethnicities, modern Algeria achieved its unitary identity from the anti-colonial struggle. Recent laws permit freedom of association - a sign of growing pluralism in a state where opposition has traditionally been proscribed.
Sources: Middle East Review 1987; The Middle East and North Africa 1987 (Europa); Third World Affairs 1987; The Financial Times; State of the World's Children 1987.
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