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new internationalist
issue 312 - May 1999

Country profile


Where is Algeria?

Algiers is a thriving port: anyone looking down from the hills on the attractive sweep of its bay might find it hard to conceive of this as a ‘dangerous place’. Yet the world associates Algeria not with its significant slice of the Sahara or with its vast size – at 2.4 million square kilometres it is Africa’s second largest country – but with the violence of two separate brutal wars, one of which still continues.

On the morning of 5 July 1830, Algeria was a sleepy backwater on the fringe of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of that day it had been occupied by a French expeditionary force and one of the most ruthless colonizations of recent history had begun. The French settlers, the colons, took all the best land (often replacing staple crops with vineyards), and the indigenous population were reduced to a state of dispossession, poverty and cultural disrepair.

Only in the 1920s did the tide begin to turn. The first Algerian nationalist newspaper appeared in 1924 and the nationalist movement became ever stronger. By the end of World War Two Paris had a clear choice: negotiate a settlement or give in to the colons’ demands and suppress nationalism. It took the second road: after a full insurrection erupted in 1954 it deployed more than 500,000 troops. This bitter war, in which more than a million civilians died, ended in 1962 in Algeria’s independence and the evacuation of the 1.5 million colons.

At independence the Front de Libération National (FLN), which had led the insurrection, was the sole political party. Despite internal divisions, the FLN stayed in power until 1991. With large reserves of oil and gas, the economy was strong. The fame of the liberation struggle was such that Algeria gained a prominence beyond its real strength. But the country’s reputation – stable, prosperous, socialist – was to prove an illusion. The decline in oil revenues in the 1980s brought economic downturn and increasing popular discontent. By 1988, spiralling unrest threatened the FLN’s rigid control of the state.

Constitutional reform led to a free general election at the end of 1991. A massive protest vote saw the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) victorious in the first round of voting, with 47 per cent of the vote. But the military leadership was not about to stomach an Islamist government in Algiers. The President was deposed, the second round of voting cancelled and the FIS itself outlawed.

A military council was installed to rule. Within five days the country was plunged into a civil war which has claimed 90,000 lives and polarized Algeria’s disparate population. The conflict has pitted the army and police against a shadowy insurgency led by the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA).

The GIA has engaged in seemingly random acts of mass carnage. Whole villages have been wiped out in the worst atrocities, sometimes with troops sitting in their barracks very close to the scene. Not surprisingly, many believe the army has colluded with the insurgents. Meanwhile liberal journalists and artists have been murdered and thousands of people have ‘disappeared’.

The Government has rejected criticism and reconciliation ideas from outside and shows little inclination to tackle the causes of the conflict. The bloodshed will continue until it does.

Steve Sherman


LEADER: General Liamine Zeroual, President until elections in April and May. His most likely successor from within the regime is Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $1,520 (France $26,270).
Monetary unit: Dinar.
Main exports: Hydrocarbons (natural gas & petroleum) 97%.
Main imports: Capital goods/machinery (25%); semi-finished goods (25%); food & tobacco (20%).

PEOPLE: 29.5 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 34 per 1,000 (France 5 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Relatively uniform, but with major linguistic divides. Some 78% are Arabic-speaking, mostly Maghrebi, with 100,000 speakers of the Saharan dialect and 168,000 Hassaniya-speaking Saharawi refugees at Tindouf in the south-west corner. Most of the rest speak one of ten indigenous mutually unintelligible Berber – better called Amazigh – dialects. The most important are Kabyle (2.75m), Chaouia (1.5m), Tamazight (1m), Tashilhit and Tarifit (several hundred thousand each).
Religion: Nearly everyone is Sunni Muslim.

SOURCES: World Guide 1999/2000; The State of the World’s Children 1999; Middle East Review 1998.

Previously profiled December 1987.


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
There is a small and very wealthy élite, a sizeable middle class and a very large poor urban and rural working class.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The adult literacy rate is 62%, midway between neighbours Libya (76%) and Morocco (44%).
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Nearly everything except petroleum products is imported. The rural economy has never recovered from French rule.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown]
    The military rules without reference to the people and there are currently few outlets for popular expression. The war has induced a climate of fear.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Employment prospects outside the home are very poor for most. Few women attain positions of power.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
69 years (Tunisia 69 years, France 79 years)
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The civil war means the Government functions as a military regime. The current presidential elections are the closest to genuine public participation in the political process since the cancelled 1991 election. But the FIS remains banned and there is still tight military control: a pro-Islamist result would not be tolerated.

NI star rating

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