A Traveler’s Handbook: Algerian Independence
In 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched the Algerian War of Independence which was a guerrilla campaign. By the end of the war, newly elected French President Charles de Gaulle held a plebiscite, offering Algerians three options. In a famous speech (4 June 1958 in Algiers), de Gaulle proclaimed in front of a vast crowd of Pieds-Noirs (Algerians of European descent) “Je vous ai compris” (“I have understood you”). Most Pieds-Noirs then believed that de Gaulle meant that Algeria would remain French. The poll resulted in a landslide vote for complete independence from France. Over one million people, ten percent of the population, then fled the country for France in just a few months in mid-1962. These included most of the 1,025,000 Pieds-Noirs, as well as 81,000 Harkis (pro-French Algerians serving in the French Army). In the days preceding the bloody conflict, a group of Algerian Rebels opened fire on a marketplace in Oran killing numerous innocent civilians, mostly women. It is estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 Harkis and their dependents were killed by the FLN or by lynch mobs in Algeria.
Algeria’s first president was the FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella. He was overthrown by his former ally and defense minister, Houari Boumédienne in 1965. Under Ben Bella, the government had already become increasingly socialist and authoritarian, and this trend continued throughout Boumédienne’s government. However, Boumédienne relied much more heavily on the army, and reduced the sole legal party to a merely symbolic role. Agriculture was collectivized, and a massive industrialization drive launched. Oil extraction facilities were nationalized. This was especially beneficial to the leadership after the 1973 oil crisis, however, the Algerian economy became increasingly dependent on oil which led to hardship when the price collapsed during the 1980s oil glut.
In foreign policy, Algeria has strained relations with Morocco, its western neighbor. Reasons for this include Morocco’s disputed claim to portions of western Algeria (which led to the Sand War in 1963), Algeria’s support for the Polisario Front for its right to self-determination, and Algeria’s hosting of Sahrawi refugees within its borders in the city of Tindouf.
A modernization drive brought considerable demographic changes to Algeria. Village traditions underwent significant change as urbanization increased. New industries emerged and agricultural employment was substantially reduced. Education was extended nationwide, raising the literacy rate from less than ten percent to over sixty percent. There was a dramatic increase in the fertility rate to seven to eight children per mother. By 1980, there was a very youthful population and a housing crisis. The new generation struggled to relate to the cultural obsession with the war years and two conflicting protest movements developed: communists, including Berber identity movements; and an Islamist group. Both groups protested against one-party rule but also clashed with each other in universities and on the streets during the 1980s. Mass protests from both camps in autumn 1988 forced President Bendjedid to concede the end of one-party rule.
The first round of elections were held in 1991. In December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front won the first round of the country’s first multi-party elections, but the military intervened and declared a state of emergency that limited freedom of speech and assembly, and canceled the second round of elections. It forced then-president Bendjedid to resign and banned all political parties based on religion (including the Islamic Salvation Front). The military junta, the High Council of State (HCE), returned former leader Mohamed Boudiaf to become its chairman, but he was assassinated in June of 1992. The political conflict continued, leading Algeria into the violent Algerian Civil War.
More than 160,000 people were killed between January 17 1992 and June 2002. Most of the deaths were between militants and government troops, but a great number of civilians were also killed.
Elections resumed in 1995, and after 1998, the war waned. On 27 April 1999, after a series of short-term leaders representing the military, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the current president, was chosen by the army.
By 2002, the main guerrilla groups had either been destroyed or surrendered, taking advantage of an amnesty program, though fighting and terrorism continues in some areas.
The issue of languages and identity increased in significance, particularly after the extensive Kabylie protests of 2001 and the near-total boycott of local elections in Kabylie. The government responded with concessions including naming of Tamazight (Berber) as a national language and teaching it in schools.
Much of Algeria is now recovering and developing into an emerging economy, and tourists are returning. The high prices of oil and natural gas are being used by the new government to improve the country’s infrastructure and especially improve industry and agricultural land.
The Arab uprising across the Near Eastern and North African region beginning in December 2010, coupled with a sudden rise in the cost of food staples, triggered a wave of protests across Algeria during early 2011. Organizers of many of these protests included opposition political parties, labor and trade unions, and human rights organizations. The government’s initial response to protester demands included lifting the 19-year state of emergency laws and temporarily cutting taxes and duties on selected food items, but demonstrators continued to attempt to organize protests. An overwhelming Algerian police response managed to contain most demonstrations with some reports of violence. In mid-April 2011, President Bouteflika said he would seek to amend the nation’s constitution to reinforce representative democracy, propose changes to the election laws, and submit the proposals for national referendum.