Algeria - Encyclopedia Information
Official name People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria
Formation 1962 / 1962
Population 35.4 million / 38 people per sq mile (15 people per sq km)
Total area 919,590 sq. miles (2,381,740 sq. km)
Languages Arabic*, Tamazight (Kabyle, Shawia, Tamashek), French Religions Sunni Muslim 99%, Christian & Jewish 1%
Ethnic mix Arab 75%, Berber 24%, European & Jewish 1%
Government Presidential system
Currency Algerian dinar = 100 centimes
Literacy rate 75%
Calorie consumption 3104 kilocalories
Ancient peoples, including Neanderthals, inhabited North Africa for hundreds of thousands of years. The Berbers, a mixture of peoples living in North Africa, eventually became a distinctive group. They were the original inhabitants of the region in North Africa occupied by Algeria. For much of the last 3,000 years they have been under the rule of foreign powers. The Phoenicians, Romans, and Vandals preceded rule by the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Between 642 and 669 C.E. sporadic Arab military incursions into the Maghrib (the western Islamic world, as distinguished from the Mashriq, or eastern Islamic world, the Middle East) brought Islam to the region. Literally, the Arabic word maghrib means “the time and place of the sunset—the west.” For its Arab conquerors, the region was the “island of the west” (jazirat al maghrib), and Algeria has traditionally been included in this designation. (Other North African nations included in the Maghrib are Morocco, Tunisia, and Mauritania.)
A series of Islamic caliphates followed, beginning with the Umayyads (661–750), then the Abassids and Aghlabids (750–909), followed by the Fatimids (909–972), the Zirids (972–1148), the Hammadids (1011–1151), and the Zayyanids. Until the Ottoman Turks conquered the Maghrib in the 16th century, for 300 years the Zayyanids maintained tenuous control. These in turn were followed by a series of privateer merchant captains whose power reached its height in the 16th and early 17th centuries. These privateers, from their base in Algeria, preyed on many vessels, including those of the United States and other Western nations. France, preoccupied with the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath in the early 19th century, was not in a position to act. However in 1827, enraged by an alleged insult to the French consul by the dey (local ruler), France put in place a three-year blockade of Algiers. This 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. During the colonial days discontent on the part of the Algerians led to several uprisings, the most prominent occurring in 1871. Heavy violence also broke out on Victory in Europe (V.E.) Day in 1945, in response to which the French military killed more than 1,500 Algerians and detained more than 5,400. The growing French authoritarian rule and Algerian nationalism led to the creation 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]) by Ahmed Ben Bella (b. 1916) and his colleagues in 1954. The War of Independence was launched by the FLN on November 1, 1954, and all Algerian Muslims were urged to support it. A bloody war ensued, killing as many as 30,000 Algerians and ending only when Algeria attained independence on July 5, 1962.
The French reluctantly gave the reins of Algeria to its people. The country’s strategic location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Arab, and African worlds was the main reason for the delay in granting it freedom. After independence Algeria saw a number of regimes and military coups. Ahmed Ben Bella appointed himself the president in 1962 and was then elected as the first president of the Algerian Republic in 1963. Ben Bella formed his government from the ranks of the military and close personal and political allies, indicating that the factional infighting was far from suppressed. He drafted a constitution, steered his country toward a socialist economy, and strengthened the power of the presidency.
Ben Bella was overthrown by Houari Boumedienne (1932–78) in a bloodless coup on June 19, 1965. The latter suspended the 1963 constitution, disbanded the militia, and abolished the Political Bureau, which he considered an instrument of Ben Bella’s personal rule. Eleven years after he took power, in April 1976, Boumedienne set out, in a draft document called the “National Charter,” the principles on which the long-promised constitution would be based. He died on December 27, 1978, and was succeeded by Chadli Benjedid (b. 1929). Benjedid began to liberalize Algeria’s economy, shifting from investment in heavy industry to concentration on agriculture and light industry. He also disbanded a number of large-sized government enterprises and state farms.
The economy suffered from high unemployment and food and housing shortages, resulting in social discontent. The unrest culminated in a series of widespread strikes in 1988. 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, Benjedid cut back on the reforms and encouraged private agriculture and small businesses. In 1989 the president also instituted political reforms, including a new constitution that eliminated the term socialist ushered in by Ben Bella, separated the FLN party from the state, and granted freedom of expression and association. Algeria’s repressive policies had made such a big impact on the economy that Benjedid’s reforms failed to show results immediately. Moreover, the control of one party, the FLN, between 1962 and 1980 had led to an authoritarianism that was difficult to reverse and that had resulted in the rise of Islamists, particularly the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut [FIS]).
In January 1992 a conservative military coup overturned four years of significant political and economic liberalization undertaken by Benjedid in the late 1980s. The coup took place only days before the second round of the first free national elections, which were likely to usher in a new government dominated by Islamists. Since then the virtual elimination of constitutional government and the resurrection of military authoritarianism have returned Algeria to the familiar situation of placing power in the hands of a small, elite group, nullifying almost all democratic freedoms and many of the free-market reforms of the preceding few years.
The Islamic insurgency saw intense fighting between 1992 and 1998, which resulted in over 100,000 deaths. Many were attributed to indiscriminate massacres of villagers by extremists. The government had gained the upper hand by the late 1990s and FIS’s armed wing, the Islamic Salvation Army, disbanded in January 2000. However small numbers of armed militants persist in confronting government forces and conducting ambushes and occasional attacks on villages. The army placed Abdelaziz Bouteflika (b. 1937) in the presidency in 1999 in a fraudulent election but claimed neutrality in his 2004 landslide reelection victory.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Algeria is the 10th largest country in the world and the second largest in Africa (after the Sudan). This mineral-rich country is also one of the wealthiest in Africa. Algeria is bordered by Mauritania, Morocco, and Western Sahara on the west, the Mediterranean Sea on the north, Tunisia and Libya on the east, and Niger and Mali to the south. The nation is divided by the Atlas Mountains into a coastal lowland strip and a semiarid plateau. The Sahara, which is much larger but arid and sparsely populated, lies in the south. Algeria’s highest peak, Mount Tahat (9,540 feet) is located in the Ahaggar Mountains, about 930 miles south of the capital of Algiers.
Algeria’s geography ensures that its climate is also diverse. While the coastal areas are endowed with a Mediterranean climate, the southeast is semiarid, and the south is dry. Algeria’s coastal areas experience mild and wet winters with hot, dry summers. The high plateau is dry and has extremes of climate, with chilly winters and very hot summers.
Summer temperatures are very high throughout the country; they can reach 130°F during the day in the Sahara. High humidity is a common phenomenon in the northern cities, which are cooled by sea breezes. The southern oases become a major tourist attraction in winter due to the pleasant weather. Nighttime temperatures drop dramatically in the desert, to below freezing in places where it had been over 100°F during the day. The temperatures between September and May in the north of the Sahara are very mild, and there is little variation between night and daytime temperatures. South of the desert, temperatures are pleasant between October and April, but there are tremendous differences between night and daytime temperatures. Coastal areas are regularly hit by sea storms. Rainfall is low throughout the country.
The Algerian Sahara is richly endowed with natural and hydrocarbon resources. This sector, the lifeline of the economy, accounts for 60 percent of budget revenues, 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and over 95 percent of export earnings. Algeria has the seventh-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and is also the second-largest gas exporter. It also has rich oil reserves.
Algeria is one of the few developing countries with iron and steel industries, as well as petrochemical, mechanical, electronic, and processing industries. Almost 80 percent of the country has electricity. Before independence, agriculture played a strong role in the economy. However, after the French left, this sector was critically handicapped by the sudden loss of skilled labor and foreign managers. Moreover, after independence, the government started focusing on the profitable hydrocarbon sector, neglecting the agriculture sector. Natural factors, such as insufficient rainfall and drought, also took their toll. Algeria today has to import food for its people. Principal food crops include grains, vegetables, and fruit; sheep and cattle are the principal livestock. Fishing also plays an important role in the economy.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Islam is the dominant religion in Algeria. The number of foreigners was reduced dramatically after independence; in 2003, there were only 2,500 Christians remaining in Algeria. Nevertheless there has been tremendous Western influence on Algeria’s culture and learning. Islam is a major force not only as a religion, but also in the political arena. Sunni Muslims are the largest group within the Islamic population. Algeria is dominated by Gallic traditions as a result of more than a century of French rule. Roman, Spanish, Arab, and indigenous influences are also very much present in Algerian architecture, music, and literature. Algeria’s interest in a national Arabic literature, which had been suppressed by the French during the 1950s, was raised again during the War of Independence. Even before independence, local artists and intellectuals had been striving to revive national interest in their Arab-Berber heritage. This movement has steadily gained national support since 1962. Kateb Yacine (1929–89), Mohammad Dib (1920–2003), and Malek Haddad (1927–78) are some of the noted 20th-century Algerian writers who wrote in French. French novelist Albert Camus (1913–60), famous for his existential novels including L’Étranger (The Stranger) and La Peste (The Plague), was born and educated in Algeria. Assia Djebar (b. 1936), a famous Algerian woman writer, has described the lives of women in books such as So Vast the Prison (2001) and A Sister to Scheherazade (1988).
After independence, the government established handicraft centers to encourage local artisans to use traditional methods in rug-making, pottery, jewelry, and brassware. The National Institute of Music promotes traditional music, dance, and folklore. Algeria also has a rich architectural heritage with strong Roman and Turkish influences. There are beautiful Arab mosques decorated with mosaics. The old towns and cities are full of historic buildings built around courtyards. Narrow and winding streets are a main feature in these areas, called medina, which are usually the native quarters of the city.
Most Algerian houses have domes to ease the intense heat. El Oued, an oasis town, has earned the title of the “Village of a Thousand Domes” because of its many domed houses.
In Algeria local festivals and celebrations are called moussems. Moussem Taghit celebrates the harvest of dates in an oasis in western Algeria at the end of October. Similarly, there is a cherry moussem in Tlemcen during springtime and a tomato moussem in Adrar.
Algiers and certain popular coastal towns, which are the main tourist haunts, have an array of good restaurants, serving mainly French- and Italianstyle food. However the food is much spicier than their European equivalents. Even classic European dishes have a unique Algerian touch. The coastal areas boast a multitude of fish dishes. A typical Algerian three-course menu consists of a soup or salad to start, roasted meat or fish as a main course, and fresh fruit for dessert. Ubiquitous street stalls sell kebabs in French bread, topped with a spicy sauce, the local version of the hamburger. For ordinary meals, Algerians generally cook roasted meat, usually lamb, couscous (a dish of steamed semolina) with a vegetable sauce, and fresh fruit to finish.
Weddings are organized with great pomp and show in Algeria. The celebrations may last from one day to several, depending on the financial status of the family. Sometimes men and women celebrate separately. An Algerian Muslim is forbidden to marry a non-Muslim under the Islamic Sharia law. Marriages, which are mostly arranged, are primarily a contract between two families in which the elders negotiate the terms and conditions of the union. The bride has a very important role in planning the wedding. She is the one who decides the venue of the wedding party, which is usually a big hall.
According to custom the bride has to carry a lot of clothes to her husband’s home, so shopping is important. Brides must also decide on the wedding day menu and select the caterers. Algerian weddings are known for their sumptuous food, which usually includes couscous, soup, and meat, often served with tomato sauce.The groom has only to buy a new suit. The wedding celebration generally lasts two days. The bride celebrates the wedding with her family and friends on the first day. This is called the henna ceremony: Women decorate the bride’s hands and feet with beautiful motifs using henna dye. At the same time some of the groom’s relatives pay a visit to the bride, carrying her trousseau and other presents. They also bring with them one or more sheep, along with the necessary ingredients for a big party at the house of the bride’s father. The bride’s family then gives a bowl of henna to them, which is used to decorate the groom.The next day is the big day groom.The next day is the big day when the bride leaves her parental house for her new home.
In Algeria’s urban areas bereaved families are assisted by professional morticians in arranging funerals, which are usually held at the local mosque. The burial generally takes place in the community graveyard. Algeria has no custom of cremation, and Islamic law forbids it. In the desert region, onionshaped mosques known as white kuppa can be seen near residential areas. In these mosques religious leaders of the Berber and Maragut are enshrined. These kuppa can be seen throughout the Maghrib countries of North Africa.