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.
Prior to its invasion by France in 1830, Algeria (then known as the Deylicate of Algiers) was known mainly as a centre for piracy in the Mediterranean. It was technically part of the Ottoman Empire, but often the ruler, the Dey, acted so autonomously that it might as well have been independent.
For 132 years, from 1830 to 1962, the area was governed as an integral part of France. Many 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 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 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 they 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 basically got its act together by the 1990s, only for a real Civil War to get going with the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist GIA (the military wing of the FIS). The Civil War ended (kind of) at the turn of the century when the military installed in Abdelaziz Bouteflika as President, a post he occupied until 2019. Following weeks of mass protests and army pressure against his decision to seek a fifth term, Bouteflika resigned and was replaced by a caretaker government until the next election, although the military is expected to hold significant influence over the selection of the forthcoming president.
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 include:
- Sofia Boutella, dancer and actress.
- Writer Albert Camus was born there, and is 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 was born there.
- Italian director Luca Guadagnino is half-Algerian on his mother's side.
The Algerian flag