by Hocine BEKKOUCHE...


Full name Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria/Jaza'ir Capital Algiers
Other main urban centres Oran, Constantine (750,000), Annaba (450,000), Tizi Ouzou (350,000) Population 31 193 917 (est. 2000)
Time zone GMT + 1 hour Population density 13.10 hab./km²
National dialling code +213 Official religion Islam
Flag Drapeau animé d'Algérie par Pascal Gross Drapeau d'Algérie par Graham Bartram National anthem



Algeria is the largest of the three countries(including Morocco and Tunisia) which form the region of western North Africa known traditionally as Al Maghrib ("the West"). It is also the second largest country in Africa and the tenth largest country in the world in terms of land area, equal in size to Western Europe.

The name Algeria derives from the Arabic Jaza'ir which is the plural for the word meaning "island" or "peninsula". The name Jaza'ir comes from the ancient regional descriptive, Barr al Jaza'ir (Lands of the Islands), indicating the three countries of the Magreb region.

The total area of Algeria is 2,381,741 km², sharing its western border with Morocco,its southern border with Niger, Mali and Mauritania and its eastern border with Libya and Tunisia. Its 1,200km of northern coastline runs along the Mediterranean Sea.

As of 1994, the population of Algeria was registered at 27,815,000 (1995 estimate 28,581,000) with a projected rise to 32,693,000 by the turn of the century, which indicates a 100% increase in population within 30 years.

The average annual population is rising at the rate of 24% per annum in contrast to an average of 16% for the rest of the world.

This population explosion presents the country with a major crisis for the future, particularly since 92% of the population is confined to the fertile northern region of the country which covers only 14% of the land area.

The implications of this are reflected in unemployment figures which stand at around 21%, particularly among young people.

Over 52% of all Algerians live in cities and towns. Algeria's largest population centre is the capital of Algiers. The greater city, which is also the country's industrial centre, contains a population of over 3 million.

Algeria's overall population density of 11.7 people per square kilometre is misleading given the heavy population concentrations in the northern region of the country. In the north of the country there are not less than 30 people per square kilometre, rising to as many as 1,100 people per square metre.

The overriding racial characteristic of the Algerian population is Arab (83% of the population) or Berber (17% of the population) or Berber-Arab through intermarriage. Prior to independence in 1962 one million Europeans lived in Algeria, primarily French, as well as 150,000 Jews. After independence 90% of the Jewish and European communities emigrated. Of the present population over 50% live in what are classified as rural, agrarian areas.

The nomadic Touareg tribes living in the Sahara are believed to have emigrated to Africa from southwestern Asia in 3,000BC. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun records that the Touaregs were converted to Islam in the 9th century and apostatized 14 times before finally submitting.

The country is characterized by four distinct parallel geographical regions running east to west: The Tell region is the northern band of terrain extending along the country's northern coastal area, between 80 and 190km (50-120 miles) wide. This region is a narrow, discontinuous coastal strip in which the majority of the country's population lives.

The Tell is formed of hills and fertile valleys which contain the majority of Algeria's arable land. The main coastal cities of Algiers, Oran and Annaba are located on the plains of the Tell. The southern perimeter of this region is bounded by the Tell Atlas mountain range which extends from the Moroccan frontier of Cap Carbon to the east near Bijaya. The Bijaya plain is another highly productive agricultural area. The highest peak of the Tell Atlas range is Jebel Warsenis with an elevation of 1,985m. Algeria's main river, Chelif, flows from the Tell Atlas for 725km (450mi) to the Mediterranean Sea.

The second geographical region is known as the High Plateau, a tableland interspersed with large shallow basins which collect water during the rainy season, becoming dry lake beds or salt flats called chotts, or shotts, in the hot season. This region extends on a southwest to northeast axis from east of Shott ash-Shargui to Shott al-Hodna, terminating east of Batna. The High Plateau is mostly a barren, arid wasteland, although its western area is known for its abundance of esparto grass, a needlegrass which grows in the deserts of North Africa and which is an age-old material used for making ropes, sandals, baskets and other traditional items.

The third geographical region is known as the Saharan Atlas which is formed of three mountain chains: the Jibal Amor in the southwest; the Jibal Awlad Nail in the centre and the Monts du Zab in the northeast. The Saharan Atlas receive more rain than the High Plateau with the result that the region contains large areas of pasture land.

The fourth and largest region of Algeria is the Sahara Desert, which covers 90% of the country's total land area. This is mostly a desolate flatland covered with gravel, but there are wide expanses of sand desert composed of two 'uruq, or dune chains, called the Great Western 'Irq and the Great Eastern 'Irq. At the Sahara's geographical centre lies the Hajjar massif, a volcanic highland 800km wide and 3,000m in elevation. Jebel Tahat, located in the Hajjar, is the highest peak in Algeria at 3,003m (9,852ft). There are also scattered oasis settlements throughout the Sahara where dates are cultivated and small-scale farming is carried out.



The earliest know inhabitants of certain areas of Algeria were cattleherds and hunters living in the Al Hajjar region between 8,000 and 2,000BC. These may have been tribal Berbers. Phoenicians settled some of the coastal areas of Algeria from their north-African state of Carthage which was in modern day Tunisia. The first Algerian kingdom was established by the Berber chieftain Massinissa during the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage which took place between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Massinissa reigned over his kingdom of Numidia from 202-148BC and his dynasty lasted until 106BC when his grandson Jugurtha became a Roman client. As part of the Roman Empire Numidia flourished, becoming known as the 'granary of Rome'. A road system and a series of Roman garrisons which became small Roman cities were built during the Roman period.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, Roman armies were withdrawn from Algeria and in the 3rd century AD, the Donatists, a North African Christian sect which had been suppressed by the Romans, declared a short-lived independent state. Algeria was invaded by the Vandals in the 5th century who occupied the country for a hundred years before being driven out by the Emperor Justinian's Byzantine army.

It was Justinian's aim to restore the Holy Roman Empire but the spread of Islam and the Arab conquest of North Africa during the 7th century thwarted the expansion of Byzantium and permanently changed the character of North Africa.

The Arab invasion was not without resistance. The Berbers, led by a tribal high priestess named Kahina who claimed conversion to Judaism, fought the invaders but eventually surrendered to the Umayyad Khalif. The Berbers quickly embraced Islam and, in the 8th century, formed their own Islamic government. Several tribes embraced Shi'ism and founded Shi'a tribal kingdoms, the most powerful of which was the Rustamid Kingdom at Tahert in central Algeria which flourished during the 8th and 9th centuries.

Algeria became part of the powerful Berber empires of the Almoravids and Almohads which dominated the Magreb and Andalusia. Tlemcen became the eastern capital of the Almohads and flourished as a centre of Islam. During this period Algerian seaports like Algiers, Annaba and Bijaya thrived on trade with European markets.


Algeria was annexed to France despite intense popular resistance. Resettlement programmes were implemented by the French government using land-owning incentives to draw French citizens to the new colony. The French introduced a wide variety of measures to 'modernize' Algeria, imposing European-style culture, infrastructure, economics, education, industries and government institutions on the country. The colonials exploited the country's agricultural resources for the benefit of France. The concept of French Algeria became ingrained in the French collective mind.

This period of early French influence over the country saw a huge drop in Algeria's native population, as it fell from around 4 million in 1830 to only 2.5 million in 1890.

The French colonials looked upon the Muslim populace as an inferior underclass that had to be tightly controlled. Muslims were not allowed to hold public meetings, bear arms or leave their districts or villages without government permission. Although they were officially French subjects they could not become French citizens unless they renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. It was a brutal, racist regime which alienated the vast majority of Algerians. The French attempt at acculturating an Algerian elite backfired badly. Those few schooled in French academies and infused with French values suffered the inherent racism of their French overlords and became the nucleus of the Algerian nationalist movement.

The Algerian nationalist movement emerged between the two World Wars, first simply demanding civil rights for the indigenous peoples of Algeria. The French government proposed concessions to the nationalists but these were blocked by French colonial reactionaries in the National Assembly. The colonials resisted any reform giving Muslims equal rights until, after 20 years of fruitless non-violent activism, the frustrated nationalists formed a militant anti-French party in 1939 called the Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty, combining Islamic and communist factions.

In the aftermath of World War II the French government revived attempts to bring Muslim Algerians into the decision-making process but these were too little and too late to offset deep-rooted colonial attitudes and a growing mutual hatred between the French and their Muslim subjects. Algerian Muslim attitudes had also hardened and an increasing number of nationalists were calling for armed revolution.

By the 1950s revolutionaries were being hounded into exile or hiding and the stage was being set for the Algerian War of Independence.

In March 1954 a revolutionary committee was formed in Egypt by Ahmed Ben Bella and eight other Algerians in exile which became the nucleus of the National Liberation Front (FLN). On November 1st of the same year the FLN declared war on the French through a spectacular simultaneous attack on government buildings, military installations, police stations and communications facilities in the country.

The populist guerrilla war paralyzed the country and forced the French government to send 400,000 troops to try and put down the uprising. However, the courage and ruthlessness of FLN fighters and their tactical use of terrorism dragged the French into the reactive trap of bloody reprisals against the general population, which served to galvanize the Algerians and strengthen the revolution.

The cruelty and brutality of French colonial forces and the government's inability to find a political solution turned world opinion against France. The French use of concentration camps, torture, and mass executions of civilians suspected of aiding the rebels, isolated France and elicited invidious comparisons with totalitarian regimes and Nazism.

The French government was caught between a colonial policy based upon racism and exploitation, and its place as a standard-bearer of democracy. On the one hand, the French colonials were intransigent. On the other, the world community was calling for a cessation of hostilities and a political solution.

In 1958 colonials and French army officers joined forces to bring down the French government and demanded the return of General Charles De Gaulle to lead France to victory over the Algerian Nationalists and the preservation of French Algeria. De Gaulle returned to power with the support of the political extreme right but, realizing that the war could never be won, announced a referendum allowing Algerians to choose their own destiny, be it independence or remaining part of France.

De Gaulle's move was seen as betrayal by the colonials, the extreme right wing and certain parts of the military. The OAS, a militant terrorist organization, was formed by an alliance of these groups with the aim of overthrowing the general. The OAS carried out a ruthless terrorist campaign against the FLN and the French government, but they were doomed to failure.

In March 1962 a cease fire was negotiated between the French government and the FLN and De Gaulle's referendum was held in July. The Algerian people spoke with a single voice. They voted for independence. Following the referendum the French departed from Algeria en masse. By the end of the year most colonials had evacuated the country that had once been French Algeria.