12 minute read


History & Background

Algeria is the second largest country in Africa, after the Sudan. Located in northern Africa, Algeria is bordered by the Mediterranean on the north, on the west by Morocco and Western Sahara, on the southwest by Mauritania and Mali, on the southeast by Niger, and on the east by Libya and Tunisia. The present boundaries were set during the French conquest in the nineteenth century.

Algeria is rich in oil, and the economy is heavily dependent on hydrocarbons. Petroleum and natural gas and nonfuel minerals such as high-grade iron, oil phosphates, mercury, and zinc account for approximately 50 percent of the budget revenue. The state owns more than 450 of the heavy industrial enterprises, particularly steel, and envisions the creation of private small-and medium-sized businesses in commerce, tourism, and transport.

Algeria is divided into 48 wilayas (provinces). Each wilaya has a wilayat (provincial council) headed by prefects appointed by the president and 1,539 local authorities. The Director of Education for each wilaya administers the plans and operations of the schools.

In 2000, the population numbered 31,193,917 people, with 35 percent aged 0 to 14 years, 61 percent aged 15 to 64 years, and 4 percent older than 64. The growth rate in 2000 was estimated at 1.74 percent, down from 3.3 percent in 1988. The mortality rate in children under five years of age was 4.2 percent in 1997; 13 percent were reported to be malnourished. Approximately 90 percent of the inhabitants are concentrated in 12 percent of the land along the coastal area that stretches some 1200 kilometers. More than half (57.2 percent) of Algerians live in urban areas. Approximately 2.5 million Algerians live in France.

The combined Arab-Berber people comprise more than 99 percent of the population (Arabs approximately 80 percent; Berbers 20 percent), with Europeans less than one percent. Islam is the official state religion, with Sunni Muslims numbering over 98 percent of the population. There are also 110,000 Ibadigah Muslims and 150,000 Christians. Together Christians and Jews comprise about one percent of the population.

In 1999, an estimated 23 percent of the population fell below the poverty line and 39 percent were unemployed. Almost 30 percent of the working population holds government positions, 22.0 percent are in agriculture, 16.2 percent in construction and public works, 13.6 percent in industry, 13.5 percent in commerce and services, and 5.2 percent are in transportation and communication.

Algeria derives its name from Al Jazain, which is Arabic for "the Islands," referring to the small islands along the coastline of the capitol Algiers. The territory along the Mediterranean coast has recorded early history, but the areas far south in the Sahara do not have written records. The indigenous people of Algeria and the surrounding Mediterranean area were Berbers, the name given the inhabitants from western Egypt to Morocco since ancient times. The origins of the Berbers are obscure, but they are believed to have migrated across North Africa from Asia. The origin of the Berber language is unknown.

Before the arrival of the French in 1830, Algeria was known as the Barbary Coast (a corruption of Berber) and was notorious for the pirates who preyed on Christian shipping. Piracy remained a serious problem until the U.S. Navy defeated a Barbary fleet off the coast of Algiers in 1815, and it was not completely eradicated entirely until the French attached Algeria.

Algerian history is one of repeated invasions. Phoenician traders (900 through 146 B.C.) established Carthage (present day Tunisia) and established and expanded small settlements along the North African coast. They were followed by the Romans (98 through 117 A.D.), who annexed Berber territory to the Roman Empire. In 429, a Germanic tribe of 800,000 Vandals crossed into Africa from Spain and pillaged Carthage. In 533, the Byzantines (429 through 536) raided and sacked the Vandal kingdom. For more than 1,000 years (642 through 1830), Muslim armies invaded from Cairo, bringing Islam to the Berbers. The Spanish (1504 through 1792) constructed outposts and collected tribute. The Ottomans (1554 through 1830) captured Algiers and established it as the center of the Ottoman Empire. The French (1830 through 1962) captured Algeria and annexed the country. Of all the invaders, it is the Muslim and French conquests that have had the greatest lasting impact.

The Muslim expansion into Algeria dates back to the first decades of Islam. The Arabs were tent-dwelling herdsmen; the Muslim invaders of the Barbary Coast stationed Arab leaders and soldiers in towns but did not settle in Algiers. The Berbers, who were highlanders and cultivators, lived in towns and villages in the countryside, which remained essentially Berber.

The Berbers found it advantageous to join the religion of the Muslim rulers and avoid having a minority status. Islam was compatible with Berber society and conversion to Islam provided a sense of identity and belonging. Between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries, Berber-Arab dynasties developed, eventually becoming Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia (collectively the Maghreb). Although the Maghreb (literally, place of sunset) today is considered part of the Arab world, the enduring influence of the Berber population gives it a cultural identity distinct from the Islamic lands to the east, in the Mashreq (place of sunrise).

The French forces who invaded Algeria in 1830 encountered fierce resistance. Achieving control of Algeria required the expenditure of a tremendous number of troops and was not complete until 1847. Algeria however, was annexed to France in 1842, after which the French started colonizing the entire country. The French colonists wished to be ruled by the home government rather than by military authorities, and a very close connection with France developed, whereby Algeria came to be regarded as an integral part of France, with representatives in the French parliament. Assimilation, however, was never complete and Algeria enjoyed considerable autonomy.

The colonial authorities imposed a policy of cultural imperialism intended to suppress Algerian cultural identity and to remold the society along French lines. Local culture was actively eliminated, mosques were converted into churches, and old medinas (Arab cities) were pulled down and replaced with streets. Prime farming land was appropriated for European settlers. White French settlers controlled most of the political and economic power, and the indigenous peoples became subservient.

As colonization continued, a new Euro-Algerian people came into being, numbering 800,000 by 1954. Of these, half were of Spanish, Italian, Maltese, or of other non-French origin. The 150,000 Algerian Jews were completely politically assimilated into that group. The Muslim population increased from three to nine million.

The rulers appropriated the habut lands (the religious foundations constituting the main income for religious institutions, including schools) in 1843, allocating insufficient money to maintain Muslim schools and mosques properly or to provide for adequate numbers of teachers and religious leaders for the growing population. As the colonizers ushered undesired changes into Muslim society, they unintentionally created Muslim resistance—a resistance born of the fear of cultural contamination and resentment of political domination.

From 1882 forward, primary instruction for Europeans and Jews was compulsory; Muslim schools were established at the discretion of the governor general. In 1892, more than five times the money was spent educating Europeans as was spent on Muslims, who had five times as many children of school age. Since few Muslim teachers were trained, European teachers staffed Muslim schools. The curriculum was in French, and there were no Arabic studies. It is estimated that, in 1870, only five percent of Muslim children were in any kind of school.

Early attempts at mixed French and Muslim primary and secondary schools had little success, but after 1920 improvement was achieved. In 1949, French and Muslim primary schools were merged. In 1958, only 12 percent of all children attended school. Few Muslims went beyond primary school.

Under French dominion for well over a century, Algerian independence came in 1962 after an eight-year war. A national assembly was elected and a republic was declared. Three years later, a military junta overthrew the government and ruled for 10 years before new elections were held. The National Liberation Front (FLN), the sole political party in Algeria, was a party of primarily secular socialist policies.

The post independence policy of Arabization that included replacing French with Arabic as the state language led to clashes with the Berber population, who saw French as their "avenue to advancement." At the same time, a grassroots Islamic revivalist movement was created that aimed to establish an Islamic state in Algeria.

After independence, free and compulsory education was guaranteed for all. School enrollment rose from 850,000 in 1963 to 3 million in 1975.

With the steep drop in oil prices in 1986, came a number of changes. The economy moved from a rigid, centralized control and placed a greater emphasis on market forces. Public expenditures in the early 1990s were increased to upgrade education and health care. As the Islamists sought to redefine Algerian identity to be more Arabic, more Muslims questioned the legitimacy of the existing political system, which they perceived as too secular and Western. A 1988 protest against austerity measures and food shortages resulted in government promises to relax the FLN monopoly on political power and to work toward a multiparty system.

In 1992, democratic elections were cancelled just as the militant Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)was headed for a landslide victory. The president resigned and handed power over to the military, which led to a civil war between the government and the Islamic fundamentalists. The FIS laid siege to the secular government, which escalated into the destruction of academic institutions, the assassination of students and scholars, and the exodus of over 1,000 academics from the country. By the 1995 election, the violence had become so widespread that the death toll was placed at 45,000. Bombings even reached Paris.

Reports differ on the effects of a 1999 government offer of amnesty to the FIS. Some sources report that, as a result of the offer, the Islamic Salvation Army disbanded in January 2000 and many of the insurgents surrendered under the amnesty program. However, all violence did not end. Other sources reported that, while some of the rebels responded to the offer and disarmed, the FIS still exists and is suspected of assassinations aimed at derailing peace efforts.

The transition from a state-owned economy and one-party regime to a liberal economy and a multiparty regime was accompanied by violence, both physical and symbolic. Officials of the authoritarian, centralist government that has ruled since independence are products of French education and are seen by many Algerians as a "political-economic mafia." Berbers (more specifically Kabyles), whom the French favored in education and employment, moved into administrative jobs after independence, much to the frustration of lesser-educated Arabs. Political turmoil ensued, as the angry Islamic Salvation Front sought to gain power by imposing fundamentalist ideology to transform Algeria into an Islamic state. At stake in the ongoing violence was the complete re-negotiation of the distribution of power.

The dramatic downturn in international petroleum prices in 1998 led to a decline of more than 25 percent of government revenues from oil and gas, amounting to as much as 60 percent of total revenue. Educational expenditures suffered at a time when educational needs were growing. In 1999 however, a degree of optimism was seen regarding Algeria's economic prospects, thanks to rising petroleum prices, and hopes that a return to domestic political stability would attract foreign investment and form the basis for sustained growth.

Algeria, more formally the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, is a multiparty socialistic state based on French and Islamic law. Suffrage is universal and begins at age 18. The government established the multiparty system in September 1989. One year later, there were an estimated 30 to 50 legal parties. The right to form political parties is guaranteed, provided such parties are not based on differences in religion, language, race, gender, or region.

Language: Three languages are widely spoken. Arabic, the official language, is spoken by 83 percent of the population, although many government and business functions occur in French, which is still widely spoken. Arabic has replaced French as the language of instruction. In 1992, English was introduced in primary schools on an equal footing with French as a first foreign language. Berber, with dialects spoken by approximately 17 percent of the population, was introduced into the schools in 1995.

Two forms of Arabic are used: the classical Arabic of the Quran (Koran) and Algerian dialectical Arabic. Classical Arabic is the essential base of written Arabic and formal speech throughout the Arab world. Written Arabic is psychologically and sociologically important as the vehicle of Islam and Arabic culture and as the link with other Arabic countries. It is the repository of a vast religious, scientific, historical, and literary heritage. Berber is primarily a spoken language with approximately 10 dialects, some with considerable borrowing of Arab words. An ancient Berber ceremonial script, tiffinaugh, survives in some areas.

Literacy: Prior to French occupation in 1830, the literacy rate in Algeria was 40 percent. After 130 years of French rule, it was even worse, as Algeria was left with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world—as low as 15 percent, according to the United Nations. Illiteracy was attacked in stages, with the greatest emphasis initially placed on developing formal education. The National Center for Literacy Education was established in 1964 to supervise the work of local literacy centers. Literacy is regarded as essential to economic development, and from the beginning, it was a prime objective of the independent government. In 1966, only 7.9 percent of women and 29.9 percent of men were literate. In the 1970s, massive efforts to reduce illiteracy resulted in vast improvements, as nominal literacy rose steadily, reaching 48.6 percent in 1985 (62.7 percent male, 35.0 percent female) and 57.4 percent in 1991 (69.8 percent male, 45.5 percent female). In 2000, literacy rates ranged from 62 to 72 percent (males, 73 to 80 percent; females, 43 to 63 percent). Female literacy is improving, but continues to lag in comparison to males.

Culture: Islamic culture constitutes a comprehensive holistic system of thought and behavior, with an equal emphasis on both the spiritual and physical aspects of life and their integration. All Muslims are equal before God and equal among themselves, an orientation that carries over into their philosophy of education for all. Learning in the Muslim culture, a necessity and a religious duty, occupies a central position in Muslim thought. Muslims often quote The Prophet: "God eases the way to paradise for him who seeks learning" and the Quran: "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the tomb;" and "To acquire knowledge is a duty for all Muslims."

Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineGlobal Education ReferenceAlgeria - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education