At independence, the Algerian population stood at about nine million. Nearly a million European colonists (pieds noirs) fled the country. Fifty years later, there are 37 million Algerians. The annual rate of population growth was high (3 percent) during the 1960s and 1970s. The creation or improvement of medical and social facilities resulted in a sharp decline in mortality, while birth rates remained high during the first two decades of independence. These demographic features led to a ‘youth bulge’ in the 1980s. This and economic constraints were probably factors behind the social unrest emerging at the time.
In recent decades, the birth rate has been declining, falling to less than 1.2 percent by 2010. This diminishing population growth coincides with smaller family sizes. An important factor behind this development has been the improved education levels of women. Education is also a potentially important, though underused, asset of the Algerian economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, unemployment has declined from 30 percent in 1999 to just under 10 percent in 2013, but the number of Algerians without a proper job remains significant, especially those under 24 years old. This applies even in times of economic growth and includes those with a higher education.
Given the country’s large surface area, the overall population density is low, with sixteen inhabitants per square kilometre. The concentration of people in the north, which makes up only 20 percent of the country, has, however, led to overpopulation and associated problems of housing and transport. This coincides with strong urbanization. Most Algerians are now city dwellers and have acquired the corresponding socio-economic and cultural preferences. As in many recently industrialized countries, economic development in rural areas has lagged behind the rapid increase of opportunities and facilities in the economic and cultural centres. As a result, migrants from the rural regions keep moving to the cities. They settle not just in the suburbs of the capital and other major cities in the north, but also in the newer urban centres in outlying regions.
Areas of Habitation
Most people live in the northern urban areas, where Algiers, Oran, and Constantine are the major cities. With more than three million inhabitants, the capital has by far the largest population. The north-western city of Oran is home to about 650,000 people, and Constantine has nearly 500,000 inhabitants. All of these cities still have old quarters dating back to the Arab empires and the subsequent Ottoman times. The most famous example is the Kasbah of Algiers, which was built on a hill overlooking the seafront. Despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, many houses in the Kasbah have been delapidated for years. The area is overpopulated, and restoration is costly.
Large parts of the city centres were built by the French and are dominated by blue and white apartment blocks. In the main cities, the number of inhabitants in colonial times was only about a third of what it is at present. The expansion of suburban housing has only partly relieved the resulting shortages.
For many years after the war of independence, many houses remained in bad condition. Among the social issues that led to widespread discontentment during several periods, the shortage of living space has been a continuous complaint of ordinary Algerians. Among the social effects has been the difficulty for young people to marry and live in their own apartments.
Strengthened by greater oil and gas revenues over the past decade, the government has invested significantly in the housing sector. An ambitious programme was launched for the construction of one million houses.
Chinese companies, especially, were hired to supervise the construction of new apartment blocks in the suburbs of the major cities. The Chinese have ample experience with building large-scale projects in a short time, for which Algerian workers are not always deemed sufficiently qualified.
The mountainous regions of Kabylia and Aurès also have a long history of substantial population. The villages, often located on hilltops, have survived, despite the emigration of large numbers of people to the major cities and to France and other European countries. Remittances from these migrant communities have supported economically their relatives remaining in Algeria and have paid for the construction of new houses. The High Plateaux, originally home to herdsmen, have also seen considerable urbanization. Many have migrated to smaller cities that have grown rapidly over the past decades. Improvement of road and railway networks in the plains may strengthen this trend but may also be slowing migration to the northern coastal cities.
The people of the Sahara are concentrated in the oasis towns, especially with the fading away of their nomadic lifestyle of life and their integration into the modern economy. A sign of this development is the rapid expansion of the southernmost city of Tamanrasset, lying at a crossroads of the trans-Sahara routes, which currently has more than 100,000 inhabitants. Other important oasis towns are Ghardaïa, El Oued, Timimoun, and Djanet.
Ethnic and Religious Groups
Most Algerians identify themselves as Arabs and speak the Algerian dialect of Arabic. An important minority (25 to 30 percent) is Berber-speaking and identifies with cultural traditions predating the arrival of the Arabs. The Berbers are spread over various regions and speak various dialects. Almost all Algerians adhere to Islam, with a very small Christian minority. Since 1962, a few European settlers have chosen to remain in Algeria, as has a tiny Jewish minority. Near the south-western city of Tindouf, some 160,000 people from the Western Sahara live in refugee camps. The continuing Moroccan occupation of this former Spanish colony has made the refugees into semi-permanent inhabitants of Algeria, which has always supported their claim to independence. In more recent years, people from various West African countries have settled in Algeria, mostly as a result of their (unsuccessful) attempts to migrate to Europe.
The prominence of the Arab language and culture goes back to the waves of Arab migrations from the east from the 7th to the 10th century. The conquests of the armies from the Arabian Peninsula that came to spread Islam led to a strong connection with the traditions and customs that prevail in the Middle East. With their conversion to Islam, many Berbers also adopted the Arab language and culture. Arabic is also the language of the Koran and thus has always had a special status. As in other Arab countries, it is also the language of government, the education system, international contacts, and writing.
In colonial times, the original inhabitants were considered ‘Muslims within France’. With this definition came a limitation of their rights. For this reason, most of the leadership in the future independence movement chose to emphasize the Arab-Islamic identity. In this way, they aimed to demarcate the divide between Arabs and the largely Christian and Jewish European colonists. This emphasis on the Arab identity also had a regional dimension, as it placed the struggle of the Algerian nationalist movement firmly within the Arab nationalist current. This was the ideology of leaders such as the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had come to power in 1952 and had resisted Western domination of the Middle East and North African region.
After 1962, the leadership of the independent state attempted to use Arab identity as a basis for the national unification of a country that had never existed in its present form and that was burdened with regional differences. Arabism could, in this view, bridge the significant rifts arising from regional and class affiliations. These policies were also expected to put an end to the dominant position of the French language and culture, but, because only very few Algerians had received an Arabic education during colonial times, there were few teachers who could pass on the language in schools.
The effort to unite all Algerians on the basis of a supposed uniformity in language has therefore always been problematic. To begin with, the Algerian dialect is very different from the classical Arabic of the Koran and its modern variant, standard Arabic. The effect has been that many people, especially those with less education who identified themselves as Arabs, felt excluded by the state’s emphasis on a language that was used mainly in writing and official speeches.
The policies of Arabization have encountered serious problems in the educational system. It has proven difficult to change the entire curriculum to modern standard Arabic and roll back the influence of French as a language of instruction. Many newspapers and other publications are in French, although most use Arabic.
The Berber population inhabited the territory of present day Algeria long before the Arabs. They call themselves Imazighen (perhaps meaning ‘free men’). The Berber language, or Tamazight, probably originated, like Arabic, in the Middle East. The Imazighen peoples comprise the inhabitants of Kabylia, the Aurès Mountains, and some other regions in the north, as well as the Tuareg peoples of the Sahara and the religious minority in the Mzab Valley. All these groups speak various dialects of Tamazight, which was only a spoken language until recently. In modern times, it has been written in the Arabic and Latin scripts and in a separate alphabet that is probably derived from the Tuareg script.
Berber identity, language, and culture have always had a significant political dimension as well. Many leaders of the independence movement originated in the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia. Some of them pleaded for recognition of all the different cultural traditions in Algerian society. The politics of Arabization after 1962, however, effectively led to the neglect, if not the outright repression, of Berber language and culture. The regime’s attempts to close down all political debate led to a politicization of ‘cultural’ issues. In the early 1980s, Islamism made itself felt, and a movement for the recognition of the Berber identity emerged. The impact of the latter became apparent in the so-called Berber Spring in 1980, when persistent riots broke out after the government cancelled a cultural forum. With the short-lived political liberalization beginning in 1989, the recognition of the Berber culture was a major issue for two political parties, the Socialist Forces Front (Front des Forces Socialistes, FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie, RCD), which draw their electorate largely from Kabylia and, to a lesser extent, from other Berber-speaking regions. These parties failed, however, to control the Berber-culture movement at the level of the villages in the region itself. The severe unrest that broke out in Kabylia in 2001 was not only about the recognition of Berber language and culture but was also based on the dire economic situation, for which the government was blamed, and the supposed ineffectiveness of the opposition parties in redressing the situation. Despite the repression following the riots, the state’s policies on ‘the Berber issue’ have undergone significant changes over the last decade. Tamazight was recognized officially as a ‘national language’ in 2002, and its use in the media and education has been allowed.
About 99 percent of Algerians are Muslim, with small Christian and Jewish minorities. Most Algerians adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, which predominates in the Islamic world. A small group of Muslims, living mainly in the Mzab region near Ghardaïa, are followers of the Ibadi current, which distinguishes itself from both Sunni and Shiite Islam. The Algerian Ibadis are descendants of the Berber tribes that were part of the 8th-century Rustamid empire based in Tiaret.
Religion plays an important part in Algerian society as the framework of culture and many aspects of daily life. The meaning of religion in specific social and political issues has, however, always been heavily contested in society and politics.
Both Islamist movements and the state have tried to enforce their interpretation and use religion to strengthen their position. Historically, the various regions of Algeria have had their specific traditions. These centred on the veneration of marabouts, holy men whose graves became places of worship. This form of popular Islam flourished largely in rural areas where only a few people had access to the written religious sources for a sunna, or right way of life, that is, the Koran and the teachings from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (the Hadith). From the beginning of the 20th century, a reformist movement emerged that promoted a return to scripturalist Islam. This urban current rejected the role of the marabout as an intermediary between man and God, which, they believed, would deny the unity (tawhid) of God. In this way, the reformist Association of Ulama also hoped to make religion a basis for a cultural self-assertion opposing the domination of the French culture.
After the incorporation of the Association into the governing party after the war of independence, the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale, National Liberation Front), the state attempted to control the religious domain. Religious opposition was to be prevented, and the state might even take advantage of the important social role of Islam. During the presidency of Houari Boumedienne (1965-1976), the leadership’s message was that there was no contradiction between the state’s socialist orientation and the role of Islam as the official religion. In the 1980s, President Chadli Bendjedid tried to use Islam as a weapon against leftist adversaries within the FLN and in education and the media. Because of the lack of prestigious domestic leaders, the state resorted to importing Islamic scholars from abroad, especially Egypt. These preachers were, however, often very conservative and sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. They obtained access to the Algerian universities and appeared on national television to spread their ideas on the ‘proper’ interpretation of Islamic principles, while the voices of the secular opposition were denied such opportunities. In this situation, it became difficult for the state to silence opponents who were demanding a society based on Islamic values. This was, however, far removed from the current situation, in which the FLN and other institutions were blamed for corruption, abuse of power, and the ‘decadent’ lifestyle of their leaders.
Neither could government officials control the spread of unofficial prayer rooms, where imams were preaching who did not follow the state’s ideological line. These ‘garage mosques’ provided the infrastructure for the emergence of a political opposition based on Islam, in particular, the sudden rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) beginning in 1989.
The military action against the FIS and the subsequent civil war of the 1990s did not lead to a ban on all political parties based on Islam. As long as they adhered to the existing order, they were even invited to join coalition governments, as occurred with the Movement of Society for Peace (Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix, MSP). In society at large, the political leadership tried to regain control of the religious domain. Given the importance of Islam in the lives of the majority, but also in order to undercut Islamist currents, the state has continued to strengthen its Islamic credentials. The building of a huge new mosque in Algiers is one of the more visible signs of this policy. Also, a college of the most important experts on Islamic law (ulama) – serving as successor to the Association of Ulama that preceded independence – was created to provide advice on social issues.
The main minority in Algeria are the Berber-speaking peoples, who make up 25 to 30 percent of the population. Most live in Kabylia, the Aurès Mountains, the Mzab valley around Ghardaïa, and the southern desert. People from these regions are also heavily represented in the migration to cities in Algeria or to France and other countries. Despite their common origins, these groups differ greatly in their ways of life and have developed in their particular environments. Being close to Algiers, the Kabylians have always been involved in the country’s political, economic, and cultural life. The movements based on a renewed consciousness of berberité and, moreover, a different view of the Algerian nation, were rooted here more than in the Aurès.
In contrast, the Tuareg of the Sahara have been represented far more marginally on the national scene. Relative to the other countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel where they live, the Algerian Tuareg have been more integrated into the national economy and other systems, but the diminishing prospects of continuing their traditional way of life have strengthened their marginalization. In the cities of the Saharan oases, the socio-economic status of Tuaregs is often lower than that of more recent migrants from northern Algeria. The revival of tourism in the southern desert regions may, however, offer more employment opportunities. Whether this trend will continue depends on the political and security conditions that influence tourists’ decisions whether or not to visit the region.
The Berber inhabitants of the Mzab valley distinguish themselves mainly by their religious affiliation. The Ibadi current in Islam was long repressed, and most followers chose to settle in outlying regions (other Ibadi communities are found on the Tunisian island of Djerba and in Oman). Despite this history of isolation, the community has become more integrated into Algerian society since 1962, as many of them became successful traders and merchants. This may be one of the reasons for the tensions that have flared at times with Arab populations that have settled in the Mzab region more recently.
Algeria also has small minorities of Christians and Jews. The Christians consist mostly of descendants of the colonial population but also include converts of Muslim origin, although this is disapproved of by religious and state officials. A third group of Christians are West Africans who have migrated to Algeria. The Jewish community has been part of what is now Algeria for more than two thousand years. Under French law, they were considered full citizens on equal terms with the Europeans and in clear contrast to the disinherited Muslim majority. During and after the war of independence, most Algerian Jews left the country, mainly for France and Israel.
The structure of the colonial economy has had an impact on the socio-economic composition of the population. Most Algerians had been of rural background, but, having been forced to give up the most fertile lands, they had little choice but to serve the enterprises of the colons ((9999(9999((90E(European immigrants) or to survive as small-scale producers in marginal regions. After 1962, the state’s policy of rapid industrialization led to the emergence of modern labour and managerial classes, as well as a large national bureaucracy. A middle class of private entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals has always existed, even in the era of Algerian socialism.
With the growing difficulties of the state enterprises, the private sector grew. In many cases, though, these businesses were run by former state cadres, often with a military background, who saw opportunities based on their former positions. These privatizations have not remedied the lack of jobs that has been associated with the petroleum-based economy.
As a result, even when the official figure of 10 percent is accepted, the unemployed remain an important group, especially among the youth, whose rate is about 20 percent. Many others who have a job are unable to make a living from it. This has been a major factor in sustaining an informal economy that at least creates some jobs and business opportunities. Many try to make a living by becoming street vendors of mass consumer items, such as sunglasses, belts, or fruits, which are sold cheaply in many cities. More complex operations involve the illegal procurement of materials produced in the public sector for the manufacture of consumer products. The wealthier social strata are drawn from businesses that are still linked to the state and the networks maintained by the higher political and administrative echelons.
Income Distribution and Poverty
The egalitarian principles of the Algerian revolution and its subsequent socialist phase did not prevent huge inequalities in income: that was the case then and is even truer today. The upper 10 percent controls about 30 percent of the total wealth of the country. As a result, ways of life vary considerably among social groups. This is especially visible in the suburbs of the main cities, which contain both marginalized and well-to-do neighbourhoods. Wealth does not translate only into access to consumer goods and housing but also to opportunities to travel abroad and to obtain a private education. For the lower classes, these things are clearly beyond reach, which causes the inequalities to be passed on to the next generation. The desperation among large groups of young people has led some to attempt the dangerous emigration across the Mediterranean or to commit suicide. The iconic image of the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked the Tunisian revolution in 2011, inspired some Algerians to do the same.
Poverty has, on average, been declining in the last decade. This is due mainly to the rise in oil and gas prices on the world market, resulting in rising income for the state and greater public expenditures. This also allowed the government to raise wages, an action that was also politically motivated. After a wage increase of 30 percent in 2009, the revolutions elsewhere in North Africa and their domestic repercussions led to new rises in recent years (e.g., 20 percent in January 2012 alone). Earlier cuts in spending in the state sector had resulted in many unemployed or underemployed workers.