top of page

The Colonial and Postcolonial History of Algeria

Algeria has a long and rich history ­– and it is heavily intertwined with French colonial rule. On Friday, August 26, 1881, the French government, led by arch colonist’s Jules Ferry, announced a momentous step to the National Assembly [1]. Algeria would be administratered as an integral part of France under the Third Republic’s 1875 constitution.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Algeria was a country ravaged by two conflicts [2]. The first conflict took place in the countries colonial period. Algeria’s famous war with France took place between 1954 and 1962 – and its purpose was emancipation from colonial domination. The second conflict was a civil war that began in 1992 as Algerian Islamists rebelled against the state.

Algeria, like many African nations in the colonial and postcolonial periods respectively, struggled with social cohesion. Indeed, as early as the nineteenth century, Algeria did not conceive of itself as a space unified socially, economically, or even culturally, and this paved the way for French colonial rule.

On May 16, 1830 – a fleet of five hundred French ships headed from Toulon to Algiers – bringing with them the mentality of colonial domination. De Bourmont’s army landed on June 14, only a few hundred meters from the peninsula of Sidi-Ferruch – and the fort protecting the beautiful city of Algiers finally fell – and the French conquest of Algeria has begun.

After the surrender of the Algiers authorities, the French military held effective power but was divided on what course to follow. During the French colonial experience in Algeria – the French army faced strong resistance ­– and within the country, religious sects called for a holy war. From 1830 until 1870, the French colonial army conducted a policy to eliminate traditional economic and political ties ­– which is a common colonial arrangement in African countries.

The country’s economic future was based almost entirely on agriculture. “Colonization” and “agricultural colonization” became one in French Algeria. On the other hand, the institution of private property was unknown in Algeria before the arrival of Europeans: there was only a complicated hierarchy of rights of use.

These rights were devolving in the Ottoman period into two major categories of statues: the rights of the dey (the rulers of the Regency of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis) in his capacity as sovereign, and the rights of the tribes.

After the conquest, the French state, as successor to the rights of sovereignty, seized the lands of the dey, divided them, and distributed them to the French colonies. It is important to note that the colonization of land coupled with the colonialization of agriculture led to an erosion of the basic fabrics of Algerian style – and this paved the way for French colonial dominance. The modern agricultural sector was concentrated in the most favorable region, the Tell, where 98% of lands were expropriated.

The application of French law regarding private ownership was accompanied by a program breaking up the major tribes. The destruction of these tribal units and of their leaders’ powers had several severe consequences – and it created power vacuums in the country that are bound to create unrest in the future and provide the groundwork for the creation of a failed state – and this is a framework that is all too common in African colonial history.

The fundamental economic disruptions unveiled in Algeria were not the only source of colonial disarray that the French had to offer to the Algerians. The local Algerian Muslim population and the French minorities often clashed ­– and this demonstrates to us that the French took a more hands on and interactive approach to colonialism than their British counterparts.

Despite this colonial domination, a whole series of religious sects, which had organized society before the arrival of the French, provided a counterweight to colonial power. The peasantry’s participation in the new urban world came about through the intermediation of religious associations and new forms of organization within the traditional religion. Algeria remained linked to the rest of the Arab Islamic World, thanks to an uninterrupted stream of newspapers, books, and journals.

Between the end of World War 1 and the first gunshots in 1954, the sense of belonging to a country, Algeria, took root among the French-Algerian settlers. The European population, in fact, grew from 833,000 in 1926 to 984,000 in 1954. After World War 1, the organization of French Algeria became more pronounced.

The colons obtained large loans to finance major public works projects, with irrigation of settled areas and modernization of railroads receiving the lions share. The consequence of colonial policy was to concentrate the lands in the hands of a small colons.

The mechanization of agriculture left the smaller colons indebted to the banks; artisans were ruined, and massive unemployment ensued among Algerians, who were forced to seek exile in France.

The tensions between colonizers and colonial subjects kept brewing on the lands of Algeria until the Algerian Revolution (1954 – 1962) finally won independence for Algeria [3]. For many people, it also became the very archetype of the mid-twentieth century struggle to end Western colonialism.

The war between the French military and the Algerian nationalist was one of the bloodiest in history – and observers noted that the French Algerian war unleashed a torrent of events with an astonishing and disturbing legacy [4].

By the wars end, France’s infant Fourth republic had collapsed due to mismanagement. Algeria’s infrastructure was in complete ruins and its institutions inefficient – while an estimated four hundred thousand people had perished (a major demographic catastrophe for Algeria).

The war has had an enormous impact on French and Algerian cultural, political, social, and intellectual history. Violence such as torture, terrorism, and military actions had a serious impact on national communities. More than any other colonial confrontation, the French-Algerian war forcibly demonstrated North Africa’s impact on a major European power.

The war in Algeria triggered a series of events that toppled the Fourth Republic, affected intellectual life and destroyed long-standing myths about the universality of French culture.[5] On a grand scale, the decolonization of Algeria forced a fundamental reconsideration of politics, the status of intellectuals and the role of French culture in the world.

The legacy of decolonization is seldom effortlessly forgotten, memory of the war will continue to pass from national history into national mythology. This is most certainly the case with regard to Algeria because the legacy of the war and decolonization reverberate in contemporary debates over histography, language, ethnicity, immigration, gender relations, political ideology, morality, torture, violence, language and religion.

The colonial and decolonial legacy in Algeria made it a weak state with frail state institutions – and these conditions were the precursor to conflict in Algeria. Indeed, Algeria has suffered over 100,000 deaths and thousands more wounded in one of modern history’s most savage and incomprehensible civil wars touched off by the military coup d’état of January 1992, which put a sudden halt to the country’s democratic process [6].

It all started with a political crisis arising from the interruption of the elections in January 1992 ­– which produced a dynamic of violence whose roots are to be sought in a war in which violence is a form of accumulation of wealth and prestige. The civil war destroyed political machinery that ensured social control, and thus opened new ways for social progress through violence.

The roots for conflict were planted after the riots in October 1988 in Algiers, President Chadli Bendjedid organized a referendum on a Constitution which opened the way to multiparty politics in Algeria. In municipal elections in June 1989 the FIS won control of more than half the town halls and became the main political force.

The Islamist party’s ambition was to set up an Islamic state in Algeria, its proposed policy worried a section of society and the military leaders who were afraid of becoming expiatory victims of an Islamic regime based on righteousness.

Thankfully, now, Algerians no longer live-in fear of being killed by radical Islamists at makeshift roadblocks or of being disappeared by Ninja’s – hooded policemen who break down front doors and take occupants away, never to return [7]. This in itself is a remarkable achievement for a country that during the 1990s was synonymous with horrendous violence perpetrated both by Islamist radicals and by security forces.

Algeria has regained stability – with radical Islamists no longer a fundamental threat to society and security across the country. The country is also increasingly opening up to foreign investment. Algerians have enjoyed a period of peace and relative prosperity, despite occasional flare ups.

During the Presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who took office in 1999, Algeria has transitioned from civil war, state failure, and moral decay to stability. In 2019, Mr. Bouteflika stepped aside after mass protests ­– and the country now has the potential to maximize civil liberties and economic flourishing – even though the country still has a long a very long way to go.

Sources [1] Evans, Martin. Algeria: France's undeclared war. Oxford University Press, 2012. [2] Stora, Benjamin. Algeria, 1830-2000: A short history. Cornell University Press, 2004. [3] Shepard, Todd. The invention of decolonization: the Algerian War and the remaking of France. Cornell University Press, 2008. [4] Le Sueur, James D. Uncivil war: Intellectuals and identity politics during the decolonization of Algeria. U of Nebraska Press, 2005. [5] Sueur, James D. Le. "Decolonising' French universalism': reconsidering the impact of the Algerian war on French intellectuals." The Journal of North African Studies 6, no. 1 (2001): 167-186. [6] Martinez, Luis. The Algerian civil war, 1990-1998. Amer Univ in Cairo Press, 2000. [7] Tlemçani, Rachid. Algeria under Bouteflika: Civil strife and national reconciliation. Vol. 7. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2008.


bottom of page