Map of Algeria

Algerian flag

Flag description: two equal vertical bands of green (hoist side) and white with a red, five-pointed star within a red crescent; the crescent, star, and colour green are traditional symbols of Islam (the state religion)

Location: Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Morocco and Tunisia

Currency: 1 Algerian dinar (DA) = 100 centimes

Geographic coordinates: 28 00 N, 3 00 E

total: 2,381,740 sq km
land: 2,381,740 sq km
water: 0 sq km

Area - comparative: slightly less than 3.5 times the size of Texas

Land boundaries:
total: 6,343 km
border countries: Libya 982 km, Mali 1,376 km, Mauritania 463 km, Morocco 1,559 km, Niger 956 km, Tunisia 965 km, Western Sahara 42 km

Coastline: 998 km

Climate: arid to semi-arid; mild, wet winters with hot, dry summers along coast; drier with cold winters and hot summers on high plateau; sirocco is a hot, dust/sand-laden wind especially common in summer

Terrain: mostly high plateau and desert; some mountains; narrow, discontinuous coastal plain

Elevation extremes:
lowest point: Chott Melrhir -40 m
highest point: Tahat 3,003 m

Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, phosphates, uranium, lead, zinc

Natural hazards: mountainous areas subject to severe earthquakes; mud slides

Geography - note: second-largest country in Africa (after Sudan)

Government type: republic

Capital: Algiers

Independence: 5 July 1962 (from France)

Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber 99%, European less than 1%

Religions: Sunni Muslim (state religion) 99%, Christian and Jewish 1%

Languages: Arabic (official), French, Berber dialects

History: From the 9th century BC the area now known as Algeria was ruled by Carthage, and subsequently by Rome 2nd century BC-5thcentury AD. In the early Christian era, St Augustine was bishop of Hippo (now called Annaba) 396-430. The area was invaded by the Vandals after the decline of Roman rule and was ruled by Byzantium from the 6th to the 8th century, after which the Arabs invaded the region, introducing Islam and Arabic. Islamic influence continued to dominate, despite Spain's attempts to take control during the 15th and 16th centuries. 

From the 16th century Algeria was under Ottoman rule and flourished as a centre for the slave trade. The sultan's rule was often nominal, and in the 18th century Algeria became a pirate state, preying on Mediterranean shipping. European intervention became inevitable, and an Anglo-Dutch force bombarded Algiers in 1816.

A French army landed in 1830 and seized Algiers. By 1847 the north had been brought under French control, and was formed in 1848 into the départements of Algiers, Oran, and Constantine. Many French colonists settled in these dé partements, which were made part of metropolitan France in 1881. The mountainous region inland, inhabited by the Kabyles, was occupied 1850-70, and the Sahara region, subdued 1900-09, remained under military rule.

After the defeat of France in 1940 by Germany in World War II, Algeria came under the control of the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis, until the Allies landed in N Africa in 1942. Postwar hopes of integrating Algeria more closely with France were frustrated by opposition in Algeria from both those of non- French and French origin. An embittered struggle for independence from France continued 1954- 62, when referenda in Algeria and France resulted in 1962 in the recognition of Algeria as an independent one-party republic with Ben Bella as prime minister in 1962 and the country's first president from 1963. Colonel Houari Boumé dienne deposed Ben Bella in a military coup in 1965, suspended the constitution, and ruled through a revolutionary council.

A new constitution confirmed Algeria as an Islamic, socialist, one-party state in 1976. Boum édienne died in 1978, and power was transferred to Chadli Benjedid, secretary general of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN). During Chadli's presidency, relations with France and the USA improved, and there was some progress in achieving greater cooperation with neighbouring states, such as Tunisia. Algeria acted as an intermediary in securing the release of the US hostages in Iran in 1981. The FLN had adopted a new party structure in 1979, whereby the party leader automatically became president; under this new system, Chadli was re- elected in 1983. A proposal by Colonel Khaddhafi for political union with Libya received a cool response in 1987. Diplomatic relations were restored with Morocco and Egypt in 1988.

Domestically, there was mounting popular unease over the extent of corruption within Chadli's administration. Riots and protests at economic austerity measures in Oct 1988 were dealt with harshly by the army, which opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 170 people. Reforms were implemented, and revisions to the constitution (approved by referendum in Feb 1989) deleted any reference to socialism, opening the way for a multiparty system. The amended constitution provides for a president and a two-chamber legislature, comprising an elected national people's assembly of 430 deputies, serving a five -year term, and an appointed upper chamber. Islam remained the state religion, and the political reforms were designed, at least in part, to stem the growing fundamentalist movement. Ben Bella returned in Sept 1990 after nine years in exile.

In the first round of assembly elections in Dec 1991, the Islamic Front for Salvation (FIS) won 188 of the 231 seats contested. Chadli resigned in Jan 1992. The army stepped in and cancelled the second round of the elections, forming a junta
headed by a former opponent of the president, Muhammad Boudiaf. Political activity in mosques was banned and FIS leaders were detained in an attempt to halt the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. A state of emergency was declared in Feb 1992 and in March the FIS was ordered to disband. Disquiet and potential violence persisted. Boudiaf was assassinated in June and replaced by Ali Kafi.

From 1993 Islamic fundamentalists mounted a retaliatory campaign against the government, targeting politicians, members of the police and armed forces, secularist intellectuals, and foreigners in successive waves of killings. The brutal tactics employed by the government in return were condemned by the human-rights organization Amnesty International, including its use of torture, summary executions, and unfair trials. 

In Jan 1994 former minister of defense General Lamine Zeroual was chosen to replace Kafi as president. Talks were opened with the Islamic fundamentalists in an attempt to resolve the political deadlock, but the militant campaign continued unabated, and the talks collapsed in Nov.

Proposals for ending the civil strife were drawn up by opposition groups, including the outlawed FIS, the FLN, and the Berber-based Socialist Forces Front (FSS), at a meeting in Rome in Jan 1995. Algeria's most radical militant faction, the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), expressed its support, but the military regime rejected the proposals outright, launching several full-scale offensives against the fundamentalist guerrillas in the months that followed. 

More than 30,000 people were estimated to have died in the ongoing civil strife Dec 1992-Jan 1995. In Aug 1995, following the collapse of a further round of talks with FIS leaders, President Zeroual announced that multiparty presidential elections would be held in Nov. The main opposition parties boycotted the contest, enabling President Zeroual to secure a clear victory of 67%, amid a 75% turnout, which had been achieved despite Islamic militant calls for voters to boycott the polls. 

After the elections, the FIS called for further talks with the government. Ahmed Ouyahia was appointed as prime minister. A constitutional referendum held 28 Nov 1996 resulted in a new constitution which provided for the recognition of Islamic, Arabic, and Berber cultures as the three main constituents of the nation and bans the political exploitation of Islam. The government claimed a resounding victory with 85.5% of the vote. It also claimed a turnout of 80%, although eyewitnesses refuted this. 

Islamic opposition to President Zeroual had called for a boycott of the poll. Legislation was passed in Dec 1996 enforcing the use of Arabic as the preferred language of public life. The imposition of the new constitution fuelled the civil war, with renewed violence by Islamic fundamentalists. Within a week of the results of the Nov referendum, 29 people were killed, almost all decapitated with knives. The Islamic Armed Group (GIA) were blamed for the bloodbath. Islamic extremists killed more than 300 people during the month of Ramadan, in Jan -Feb 1997. Rebels massacred 80 villagers in April 1997. In one of the worst attacks in the five years of continued violence, the guerrillas ringed the village of Thalit, 80 km/45mi from Algiers, moved in and exterminated 52 of its inhabitants. 

Also in 1997, more than 300 villagers were killed at Sidi Moussa, only seven km from Algiers; the attack, which was believed to be the work of the GIA or its faction, was one of particular savagery, involving mutilation and disembowelling, and directed indiscriminately at all the villagers, including the elderly, women, and children. 

The slaughter of civilians in Algeria spread during late Dec 1997 and the first weeks of Jan 1998. From the beginning of the Islamic Muslim holy month of Ramadan on 30 Dec to 14 Jan 1998 at least 1,700 lives were taken in attacks by members of the extreme Islamic Armed Group (GIA). The killings finally provoked calls for an international inquiry from the USA as well as Europe. 

Washington called for an investigation into Algeria's human rights abuses as well as the massacres. The European Union Jan 1998 sent a fact-finding mission to Algeria to discuss the situation in the country.