Algeria (Modern Standard Arabic: الجزائر al-Jazāʼir, Algerian Arabic and Berber: Dzayer, ⴷⵣⴰⵢⴻⵔ, French: Algérie), officially known as The People's Democratic Republic of Algeria (Arabic: الجمهورية الجزائرية الديمقراطية الشعبية al-Jumhūriyya al-Jazā'iriyya ad-Dimuqrāṭiyya a-aʿbiyya), is the largest country in Africa. Even though the country adopts Modern Standard Arabic as an official language, is a part of the Arab League, and mostly speaks an Arabic variety (albeit one that is incomprehensible to Arabic speakers from the Middle East), it is frequently not considered Arab. This is Serious Business, so we'll say no more.
Like the rest of North Africa, ethnic Berbers have been living in Algeria since the Iron Age. The first major state in the region was a Berber kingdom called Numidia, centered in Cirta (modern-day Constantine), which rose in the late 1st millennium BCE. Numidia was a client state to the Romans, and before them Carthage. After its fall, its eastern half was integrated to the Roman province of Africa, while its western half was taken by Mauretania, a fellow Roman client state. This western half later became a separate Roman province, Mauretania Caesarensis, after its capital city Caesarea (modern-day Cherchell). The region gradually distanced itself from Rome as the latter lost power from the 3rd century onward, something exacerbated by the the Vandal invasions in the 6th century.
After the Arab invasion in the 8th century, the region hosted several Arab-Berber kingdoms which fought supremacy over North Africa. Some were foreign (the Zirids, Almoravids) while others were homegrown (Hammadids). During this period, the only dynasty which covered all of present-day Algeria was the Almohads. By the time the Ottoman Turks arrived in early 16th century, local rule had mostly vanished, with Spain effectively controlling the Mediterranean coast of Algeria. Under Hayreddin Barbarossa, a corsair, the Ottomans fought back the Spanish. As a result of this precedence, the region, known afterwards as Deylicate of Algiers, became mostly pirate-run; although the Ottomans nominally had supremacy, the ruler, the Dey, acted so autonomously that it might as well have been independent.
In 1830, Algeria was invaded and annexed by France. Unique among its African colonies, France legally integrated it; in other words, the French didn't see Algeria as a colony, but rather a region of Metropolitan France that "just happened" to be located overseas. During 132 years of French rule, thousands of ethnic Spaniards, Italians, and French settled along the coast and became known as the pied-noirs (pyeh-nwah) or 'black-feet'. Though the majority were not French by ethnicity, 'French' identity at the time was very much defined by cultural identity. This was reflected in the two tiers of citizenship in French North Africa: French, and French-Muslim. The latter were French subjects rather than citizens. Algerian natives could only gain full French citizenship if they renounced Islam, something very few were willing to do. Notably a similar requirement was not imposed on Algerian Jews, who in 1870 were granted unconditional French citizenship. While the option to become French citizens was intended to promote assimilation into French culture, it had the opposite effect by declaring that French culture and Islam were incompatible. Even though in the 20th century these restrictions were loosened (in 1919, Algerian veterans of World War I along with their parents could become fully "French" without renouncing Islam, as could their parents, those who married a French citizen and those who were employed by the French Army or government), but the majority of the population were still mere "subjects" who had no voting rights. In the mid-1940s after the fall of the Vichy regime and restoration of the French Republic, movements were made to extend citizenship to all Algerians, but it was far too late and marred by rampant continued discrimination against the "French-Muslim" population. By the time Algeria achieved independence, the pied-noirs numbered 1 million, forming 10% of the country's population.
The last 7 years of French Algeria, from 1955 to 1962, were marred by The Algerian War. This was not a Colonial War, though it was been portrayed that way subsequently, but a Civil War and the greatest existential dilemma of France's twentieth century. France's fundamentally self-contradictory status as a Democratic Empire, controlling liberator, and selfish benefactor had never been so apparent - or its human cost so high.
Ironically, it was this theoretically inclusive - and in practice, patronising and self-centred - mindset that caused France's left-wing to back heavy-handed repression of Algerian autonomy movements. It was unthinkable for France to just give up part of her country to secessionists, or so they said. Things quickly became rather violent, and the French military soon became involved in huge numbers. Half a million troops, many of them conscripts and with 150,000 French Muslim volunteers (Harkis) among them, were used for Quadrillage duty. Stationed in a series of garrisons right across the countryside they formed close ties with the locals and policed their districts. Some 2000 specialised military governors associated with the garrisons were given extraordinary powers to start and oversee programs contributing to economic growth and public education, though in practice they were perpetually short of funds and their main duty was overseeing the deportation of the rural population from areas sympathetic to the insurgency into more secure areas. Some 2 million French Muslims - a fifth of the entire region's population - were forced out of their villages and into state housing during the war. The other part of the French strategy was the use of mobile forces, including paratroops and fire-support (mostly artillery and airpower), for Search & Destroy duties. They would cordon off regions and use their superior numbers and firepower to kill all the rebels within. In areas where the insurgency sprang up again they would get the garrisons to deport the rural population to deny the rebels shelter, supplies, and conscripts before sweeping the area again until it was truly cleared.
The French military strategy worked, but at a price; the left-wing became increasingly disenchanted and eventually outright horrified with the actual conduct of the war, particularly the use of torture - which was supposedly only used at the 'transit camps' and in 'situations of urgent need' on people who they were sure had valuable knowledge, but in practice tended to be done on many if not most ordinary rebels, rebel sympathisers, suspected rebel sympathisers, and people who just happened to live in the same general area as the former three types ('let's pull all her nails out and drown her just in case she knows something important that we don't and feels like telling us', and so on).
Unlike The Vietnam War, the Algerian War proved impossible to ignore as the revenge-killings, extortion for funds, and bombings spread to mainland France through the French Muslim community and eventually the Pied-Noir community as well. The war also exposed the deep divisions within French Society and evoked the worst aspects of the Vichy regime and Nazi occupation - French Resistance members who had been tortured were called upon to torture FLN revolutionaries in turn. Vichy-era authority figures like Maurice Papon were called upon to organise and execute the brutal repression of dissent in North Africa and even Metropolitan France itselfnote .
As their support for the war faded, the French right-wing turned on the country's moderates and left-wing for what it saw as their betrayal of France. Whereas the left-wing became increasingly disgusted with the cruelty and brutality it would need to use if it wanted to keep holding onto North Africa, the right continued to see it as being totally justified and argued that leaving North Africa would be a betrayal of the French People (and the Pied-Noirs in particular). Not only did Pied-Noir paramilitary groups begin their own terrorist campaign in mainland France, but part of the military (operating out of North Africa) attempted the 'Four Generals' Coup' to turn France into a military dictatorship and 'win' the war in Algeria through the adoption of the most brutal methods possible. The coup was foiled, but it brought General De Gaulle into the political spotlight. He announced that there would be a referendum on the future of French North Africa and tried to arrange a ceasefire in the meantime. In the referendum the French Muslims overwhelmingly voted for independence and the Pied-Noirs for continued union with France, with a result of 90% of the electorate being in favour of independence. France bowed to the will of French North Africa and soon granted it its independence as the new country of 'Algeria'.
The independent Algerian government then used its contacts with paramilitary groups to spread the message that the Pied-Noirs had a choice: "Suitcase or Coffin". In the ensuing panic the Pied-Noirs left almost all of their property behind, intact, in their haste to leave the country before the government-sanctioned militias started butchering them in earnest (as opposed to 'intermittently', which had been going on for six years by that point). A million Pied-Noirs fled to metropolitan France and those who remained - including the overwhelming majority of all the Harkis who had ever served with the French Army - were slaughtered in numerous and often quite horrible waysnote .
As the pied-noirs left, Algeria collapsed into civil violence that never quite became a proper Civil War because the whole country basically shattered once the Pied-Noirs and Harkis were gone. This changed when the country got its act together by the 1990s, only for a real Civil War to get going with the rise of the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé, "Armed Islamic Group"), the radical military wing of the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut, "Islamic Salvation Front"), an Islamist political party whose 1992 election victory was annulled by a military coup, causing its supporters to rebel against the government in a decade-long war which only ended when the army proposed an amnesty plan. Ex-independence fighter Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president in 1999 and presided over the reconstruction of Algeria.
The civil war, which killed over 150,000 people, traumatized the Algerians from rising up against the government for a long time. Suffice to say, they chose stability over freedom, which was why for the next twenty years, the country saw no large-scale protests, even during the height of The Arab Spring and even as Bouteflika became increasingly autocratic. This changed in 2019, however, when the people had enough and conducted weeks of peaceful protests that led to Bouteflika's resignation. The next election in December 2019 saw ex-Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune ascending as president, but because the army holds significant sway over the new order, the election was boycotted by more than half of the population.
Algeria is a major exporter of oil and gas, particularly to Italy and France. The country has planned to diversify its economy away from oil, on which it is still dependent; when the oil prices fell in 2014, it took a big hit on government expenditure and put pressure on the increased state subsidy the government implemented to defuse the Arab Spring (and eventually resulted in the deposition of the Bouteflika government). State control continues to be pervasive, hampering foreign investment. The impact of the Algerian civil war means that unlike its neighbors Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria's tourism sector is relatively undeveloped and contributes little-to-nothing to the GDP.
More than four-fifths of the country's land area is part of the Sahara desert, supporting less than 10% of total population. The other is concentrated in the Mediterranean coastal strip bordered to the south by the Atlas Mountains. Despite its relative narrowness, the strip is complex in topography and vibrant in life. The Atlas in Algeria consist of two distinct ranges in the west: the Tell and the Saharan Atlases. The former is closer to the coast, while the latter is higher but drier. Between the ranges is a dry plateau called Hautes Plaines. The ranges merge near the city of Batna to form the Aurès range, which extends into Tunisia. In general, the eastern coast is more rugged than the west, although it still cannot compare with the ranges located deep in the Sahara, which have the country's highest peak, Mount Tahat.
While the nation is mostly ignored in Anglophone media, it maintains a reasonable place in French media, partly because of the Algerian diaspora in France. One rare Anglophone exception is Algiers (1938), starring Charles Boyer as a doomed French jewel thief hiding out in the native quarter of the capital. Another is The Day of the Jackal, where Charles de Gaulle allowing Algeria to gain its independence is the impetus for the plot to assassinate him that takes up the story (which happened in real life). The Italian film The Battle of Algiers, produced in cooperation with the Algerian government, is probably the best-known film about this topic.
It's also the former home of the French Foreign Legion.
Famous Algerians and Algerian diaspora include:
- Jean Amrouche, a pioneer of French language Algerian literature.
- Boualem Sansal, writer whose main subjects include the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country. His books have been banned there since 2006 for criticizing the powers that be.
- Sofia Boutella, dancer and actress.
- Mohammed Dib, probably the country's most prolific writer.
- Director Claude Zidi was born in France from an Algerian father and a Pied-Noir mother.
- The father of actor Samy Naceri was from Western Algeria. Naceri played a World War II soldier from the French colony of Algeria in 2006's Indigènes (Days of Glory).
- Italian director Luca Guadagnino is half-Algerian on his mother's side.
- French actor Jacques Villeret was half-Kabyle on his father's side.
- Legendary Association Football player Zinedine Zidane was born in France to Algerian parents.
Famous pieds-noirsnote include:
- Albert Camus. The country is the setting of his first novel The Stranger. In Anglophone translation, this is probably the most famous work that touches on the Algerian conflict.
- Philosopher Jacques Derrida.
- Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.
- Sculptor Paul Belmondo (father of Jean-Paul Belmondo).
- Actor and director Daniel Auteuil.
- Actor, director, screenwriter and comedian Alain Chabat.
- Actor and comedian Didier Bourdon, of Les Inconnus fame.
- Controversial French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy was born in Beni Saf, near Oran.
- Kabyle Mythology
- Outside the Law, an Algerian-French coproduction about the Algerian war for independence that makes an interesting comparison to The Battle For Algiers
The Algerian flag
The Algerian national anthem
- Unitary semi-presidential constitutional republic
- President: Abdelmadjid Tebboune
- Prime Minister: Aymen Benabderrahmane
- President of the Council of the Nation: Salah Goudjil
- President of the People's National Assembly: Slimane Chenine
- Capital and largest city: Algiers
- Population: 44,700,000
- Area: 2,381,741 km² (919,595 sq mi) (10th)
- Currency: Algerian dinar (دج) (DZD)
- ISO-3166-1 Code: DZ
- Country calling code: 213
- Highest point: Mount Tahat (3003 m/9,852 ft) (67th)
- Lowest point: Chott Melrhir (−40 m/−131 ft) (15th)