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The birth of independent Algeria on 5 July 1962 brought with it enormous hopes among the population for a better future, but it was also the time when the political divisions among the many groups and tendencies that made up the independence movement came to the fore. The National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) also sought to settle accounts with the harkis, Algerians who had served in the French army and were considered traitors; at least 30,000 were killed.
The FLN, which had monopolized the independence movement and had incorporated all other groups, now became the focus of political rivalry. The provisional government that intended to take power in Algiers almost clashed with the ALN (the National Liberation Army), FLN’s armed wing, which was based in neighbouring Tunisia and Morocco.
The ALN, headed by Colonel Houari Boumedienne, prevailed and supported one of the main FLN leaders, Ahmed Ben Bella, in his quest to become the first President of independent Algeria. He was committed to a socialist course for the country and began to rebuild Algeria along those lines. This did not end the political turmoil, which Ben Bella proved unable to control. I
n 1963, a rebellion broke out in the region of Kabylia, led by Hocine Aït Ahmed, one of the other ‘historic’ FLN leaders. To make things worse, there was in the same year an armed confrontation with Moroccan forces over disputed sections of the western border.
In June 1965, Boumedienne, who had become Defence Minister, ousted Ben Bella in a bloodless coup. In order to put an end to political rivalry and prevent opposition to his rule, the new leader restricted political life and curbed the role of the FLN as the state party.
Boumedienne sought to rule the country with the assistance of his closest associates, with whom he had worked in the Moroccan border town of Oujda at the time of the war of independence. Boumediene intended to rebuild the state’s institutions, re-launch the war-crippled economy, and promote Algeria’s role in the international arena. These ambitions came together in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources.
As one of the driving forces behind a more radical posture of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), Boumedienne sought to increase Algeria’s oil income and use this for developing the country. In 1971 he nationalized the interests of foreign oil firms. Other state enterprises were set to grow as well. An ambitious programme of industrialization was to create a prosperous nation, thereby fulfilling the promises of the independence movement.
Simultaneously, the institutions of the state had to be rebuilt, starting with the local and provincial councils. Rejuvenation of political life was also sought by launching an agricultural revolution, through which students were encouraged to volunteer in rural areas. But, like the earlier autogestion of workers within the state enterprises, the ‘revolutionary’ movement from below soon ran into the limitations of a centralized rule that was also facilitated by growing oil revenues.
When Boumedienne died suddenly at the end of 1978, Algeria was ostensibly a booming country. Massive petrochemical complexes and natural-gas plants, steel mills, and many light-industrial factories dominated the landscape along the coast. Many people found jobs in the ever-growing state firms and administration.
For most Algerians, though, the promise of a better life had yet to be fulfilled. The image of Algeria as a new industrial power was deceptive for several reasons. Many factories had been paid for not by oil income but by borrowing from the international financial markets. The rapid development of these industries did not produce immediate results, let alone an integrated, more or less self-sufficient economy. The logic of the oil economy also hampered real development.
In fact, the political system came to be dominated by the question of who had the most influence on the spending of oil revenues for industrial projects, welfare institutions, and consumption. Efficient management and competitiveness in the world market for industrial products became less important than control over this income.
In the short term, this made life easier for government leaders, who could spend in order to buy political stability, as is still done in the oil-rich Gulf States. Algeria, however, has far smaller resources, even taking into account the huge deposits of natural gas that soon came to replace oil as the primary source of revenue.