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The Barbary coast: 16th - 20th century

With the decline of the local Berber dynasties in the 15th and 16th centuries, the valuable coastal strip of north Africa (known because of the Berbers as the Barbary coast) attracts the attention of the two most powerful Mediterranean states of the time - Spain in the west, Turkey in the east.

The Spanish-Turkish rivalry lasts for much of the 16th century, but it is gradually won - in a somewhat unorthodox manner - by the Turks. Their successful device is to allow Turkish pirates, or corsairs, to establish themselves along the coast. The territories seized by the corsairs are then given a formal status as protectorates of the Ottoman empire.

The first such pirate establishes himself on the coast of Algeria in 1512. Two others are firmly based in Libya by 1551. Tunisia is briefly taken in 1534 by the most famous corsair of them all, Khair ed-Din (known to the Europeans as Barbarossa). Recovered for Spain in 1535, Tunisia is finally brought under Ottoman control in 1574.

Piracy remains the chief purpose and main source of income of all these Turkish settlements along the Barbary coast. And the depredations of piracy, after three centuries, at last prompt French intervention in Algeria. This, at any rate, is stated by the French at the time to be the cause of their intervention. The reality is somewhat less glorious.

The dey and the fly whisk: 1827

In 1827 the French consul in Algiers has an audience with the dey, the Turkish governor of the province. The subject under discussion is the bill for a consignment of wheat, payment for which is now overdue by some thirty years. An invoice was first submitted to the French government by two Algerian citizens in the 1790s. The dey threatens to withdraw certain French concessions in Algeria. The consul becomes heated in response, whereupon the dey flicks him with his fly whisk.

Charles X, the French king, takes this as an insult to French national pride and orders a naval blockade of the Algerian coast. When this has little effect, a military expedition is prepared.

The French in Algeria: 1830-1936

A French army, landing in June 1830, easily overpowers the forces of the dey. But this success brings France only a small region round Algiers, for the dey himself has long lost control of his subordinates in the provinces.

The city of Constantine, in the east, holds out against the French for seven years. Meanwhile the invading force is also under threat in the west from the powerful amir of Mascara, Abd-el-Kader. In 1839 Abd-el-Kader proclaims a jihad, or holy war, against the Christian intruders. Not until 1847 does he finally surrender. He is promised a safe conduct to a Muslim country. Instead he spends the next five years in French gaols.

With Algeria now under a reasonable degree of control (though outbreaks of rebellion continue until the 1880s), the French government sets in place the process of colonization. European settlement is actively encouraged. By the 1880s the European population of Algeria is more than 350,000. Half a century later this figure has doubled.

In the same period, from 1830 to the mid-20th century, the Muslim population also increases greatly, from 3 million to about 9 million. As in any such situation, the settlers ensure that economic and political power is exclusively theirs. And as elsewhere, the underprivileged majority begins to make itself heard during the 20th century.

The early leaders of Algerian nationalism see a solution in integration rather than separation. Muslim Algerians, they argue, should enjoy equal status with the settlers as French citizens. Ferhat Abbas (a future president of an independent Algerian parliament) writes in 1931: 'Algeria is French soil and we are French Muslims.'

In 1936 the French socialist government of Léon Blum sees the force of this argument. The so-called Blum-Violette plan proposes that 21,000 Muslims should immediately have the vote on the same terms as European settlers. But this provokes an outcry from the settlers in Algeria. The proposal is dropped. The problems of the future, though postponed by World War II, are prefigured in this clash.

Nationalism and reaction in Algeria: 1945-1958

The demands of Algerian nationalism become unmistakable immediately after the end of the war in Europe. In May 1945 demonstrators carrying Algerian Nationalist flags appear at victory celebrations in the town of Sétif.

Scuffles with the police spark an impromptu uprising in which eighty-eight French settlers are killed. Subsequent French reprisals result in at least 1500 Muslim deaths (the official French figure), though other estimates place the death toll as high as 10,000.

In the aftermath of this crisis the National Assembly in Paris passes, in 1947, a Statute of Algeria. This makes provision for an Algerian assembly, with Muslims forming part of the electorate. The assembly is duly elected, and there is much talk of wide-ranging reforms in the administration of the colony.

Several years later the delegates have delivered little in the way of effective legislation, when Algerian life is suddenly transformed by a wholly unexpected uprising. During the night of 31 October 1954 several coordinated terrorist attacks are carried out on French police and military establishments.

A manifesto issued on November 1 declares them to be the work of the recently formed FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), stating also that the political aim of the FLN is a fully independent Algeria. Every resident in the country is promised citizenship of the proposed new republic, with full rights, if willing to adopt Algerian nationality.

Terrorist violence and French reprisals now become an established pattern in Algeria. There is a vast build up of French troops, and the army forcibly resettles some two million villagers to try and deprive the FLN of rural support.

Meanwhile the FLN, joined by nearly all the other Algerian nationalist groups, establishes an extremely sophisticated government in exile, first in Cairo then in Tunis. Diplomatic representation is maintained at the UN and in friendly capitals around the world. From September 1958 this body is known as the GPRA (Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne), with the veteran nationalist Ferhat Abbas serving as prime minister.

A few months earlier the Algerian crisis has caused a major political upheaval within France itself - as a result of direct action by the settlers (known as the pieds-noirs, black feet).

In May 1958 angry French Algerians become alarmed that the government in Paris may come to terms with the FLN. They seize government buildings in Algiers and establish a Committee of Public Safety to ensure that Algeria remains French. Senior officers of the French army in Algeria side with the insurgents, while right-wing groups in Paris become equally agitated. With the danger of nation-wide disturbances, or even perhaps civil war, there is clearly need for a change of government.

A French general in Algeria expresses the mood of the moment, and the apparent best hope for the pieds-noirs, when he declares: 'We appeal to General de Gaulle to take the leadership of a Government of Public Safety.'

De Gaulle's moment: 1958

Charles de Gaulle, the war hero, waiting in retirement for his country's call, drives a hard bargain when the moment comes. He will resume the leadership of the nation only if he is given unrestricted powers for a period of six months and the authority to draft a new constitution for a fifth French republic. On 2 June 1958 the national assembly accepts his terms.

De Gaulle turns his attention first to the crisis which has caused his return to power. On June 4 he visits Algiers, to be received by an ecstatic crowd of settlers who greet him as their saviour. But as they listen to his speech, from the balcony of Government House, their enthusiasm becomes muted.

Far from taking the expected right-wing line, De Gaulle talks of equal rights for Europeans and Muslims. He praises the Algerian nationalists as courageous fighters, and holds out the prospect of an amnesty. 'To these men I, de Gaulle, open the door of reconciliation.'

But the immediate next step is the preparation of a new constitution and the holding of a referendum to win the approval of French citizens around the world. When the details are announced, the constitution gives a much greater executive role to the president than under the previous republic. He may even assume emergency powers in a crisis.

The referendum is ready for the voters in September 1958. In addition to seeking approval for the proposed constitution, it asks voters in overseas territories whether they want to sever all links with France or to be part of the French Community (known as La Communauté). All the territories except Guinea vote to remain within La Communauté, and the constitution of the Fifth Republic is approved by a large majority of 78% of the votes cast.

The most pressing task facing the new president remains Algeria. In the short term the situation there becomes worse rather than better. But within four years it is solved, with the precisely opposite result from the settlers' hopes of de Gaulle. The expected defender of French Algeria presides over Algerian independence.

The thorny path to independence: 1959-1962

In September 1959 de Gaulle offers Algerians a choice once violence in the colony has ceased. Within four years of the return of peace they are to have a free vote on three possible options for their future: full political integration with France; association with France as an independent entity; or complete secession as an independent nation.

The immediate effect of this proposal is even greater unrest in Algeria, where the settlers are outraged at any suggestion that the link with France might be severed. In January 1960 there are barricades in the streets of Algiers in an uprising which lasts ten days until the army, loyal to de Gaulle, brings it to an end.

In April 1961 a more serious revolt is led by four senior generals in the French army in Algeria. It too collapses after four days, when de Gaulle reacts with great firmness and assumes special emergency powers. But the failed uprising prompts the final escalation of terrorist violence in the colony.

Two of the generals surrender when the uprising fails. The other two, Raoul Salan and Edmond Jouhaud, go underground to continue their resistance. They form the extremist OAS (Organization de l'Armée Secrète) to engage in a campaign of terror against Muslims in Algeria and against political targets in mainland France. In September 1961 an attempt is made to assassinate de Gaulle.

With FLN terrorist activity also continuing in Algeria, the colony by now requires the permanent attention of some 500,000 troops. The only practical solution is discreetly acknowledged when the French government, in the autumn of 1961, begins secret negotiations with the provisional Algerian government in Tunis (the GPRA). In March 1962 a cease-fire is agreed at Évian-les-Bains, to be followed by a referendum on Algerian independence.

This agreement sparks off an immediate escalation of OAS terrorist activity, but in April 1962 the people of France endorse the Évian terms with a 90% vote of approval. Two weeks later the OAS leader, Raoul Salan, is captured in Algiers.

During the summer of 1962 about three quarters of the French colonists flee from Algeria to France, leaving only some 250,000 (reduced by the end of the 1960s to fewer than 100,000).

The departure of the predominantly right-wing element among the settler population is reflected in the referendum held in Algeria on 1 July 1962. Nearly six million votes are cast in favour of independence, less than 17,000 against. Two days later de Gaulle formally recognizes Algeria as an independent nation. In October the new state becomes a member of the United Nations.

The FLN years: 1962-1992

With victory achieved, a power struggle ensues within the FLN. The resulting triumvirate, in the autumn of 1962, consists of Ahmed ben Bella (who has spent the previous six years in a French gaol) as premier, Houari Boumedienne as minister of defence and Muhammad Khidr as head of the party.

The first political upset is Khidr's resignation in April 1963, shortly followed by his absconding abroad with the party's funds (he is subsequently assassinated in Madrid). Two years later, in 1965, Boumedienne and the army remove ben Bella from power in a bloodless coup, placing him under house arrest - where he remains for the next thirteen years.

Boumedienne and the army now establish a military one-party regime (elections for the national assembly are not held until 1977, fifteen years after independence). The official state policy is socialist.

Radical left-wing measures are more easily taken early in the FLN years, under ben Bella, when the agricultural estates abandoned by the departing French are without difficulty transformed into state farms under the management of the workers. But in the 1970s Boumedienne also pushes through a programme of land reform, redistributing large Algerian estates as small holdings for peasants. Meanwhile the Algerian economy is greatly helped by reserves of oil and gas found in the south.

President Boumedienne dies in 1978 and the FLN nominate in his place an army colonel, Chadli Bendjedid. During the 1980s he takes steps to lighten the heavy hand of state monopoly - in 1987, for example, measures are put in place to break up the 4000 state farms into six times as many smaller units. But Bendjedid and the party are taken by surprise by sudden widespread rioting in 1988.

In response Bendjedid introduces, in 1989, a new constitution in which no mention is made of socialism. More important, political parties other than the FLN are now to be allowed to function. The next elections for the national assembly are due in December 1991. They bring, for the FLN, a very unpleasant shock.

Civil war: from1992

The most vibrant new party to emerge after the liberalization of 1989 is the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut, or Islamic Salvation Front). Muslim fundamentalism is of great appeal to a devout peasant population upon whom socialism has been imposed for a quarter of a century. In local elections in 1990 the FIS wins more seats than the FLN. The same is thought likely to happen in the national elections, due in 1991.

In the first ballot, in December, the FIS wins 188 seats in the National Assembly. This is just 28 seats short of an overall majority. It seems a safe bet that the party will achieve that majority in the second ballot, due in January 1992. But the ballot never takes place.

Three days before the polling booths are due to reopen, the army intervenes to cancel the election. It is an action which plunges Algeria into years of civil war.

The FIS, denied a legitimate role in the nation's affairs, spawns a military wing - the AIS (Islamic Salvation Army). Among rapidly escalating violence an even more extreme guerrilla group emerges in the Muslim cause, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). Meanwhile, on the government side, power now rests entirely with a group of generals known collectively as Le Pouvoir (The Power).

Atrocities of a particularly brutal kind are committed by both sides, soon causing most of the remaining foreigners in Algeria to flee.

There are occasional attempts at a return to democracy. The election of Liamine Zeroual as president in 1995 is seen as offering a glimmer of hope, but little has been achieved to end the bloodshed when he is persuaded to step down prematurely in 1998. The subsequent election, in April 1999, seems promising in that at least there are seven candidates. But it turns to farce when six of them withdraw their candidacy on the eve of polling day, complaining that the election is patently going to be rigged.

The only competitor left in the race is Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a civilian who has the backing of both the FLN and the generals of Le Pouvoir. He therefore enters office as a lame-duck president. But within weeks he astonishes everyone by his evident independence and his capacity for reconciliation.

Bouteflika immediately admits, in a new mood of openness, that the deaths in seven years of civil war have been not 26,000 (the official government figure) but 100,000 - higher even than previous independent estimates. He even, for the first time, describes the cancellation of the 1992 elections as an 'act of violence' against the FIS.

In June 1999 Bouteflika receives an assurance from the leader of the FIS that its guerrilla wing, the AIS, is calling off its violent campaign against the government - and is urging other terrorist groups to do the same. Evidence even begins to emerge of a split within the much more hardline GIA, some members of which are now said to be keen to join in a peace process.

The mood of optimism is heightened when Bouteflika declares an amnesty for Muslim terrorists held in gaol. In July 1999, on the 37th anniversary of Algerian independence, the first of an anticipated 5000 such prisoners are released.

In a referendum in September 1999 Bouteflika receives an overwhelming vote of support for his plans to end the civil war. 85% of Algerians cast their vote, with more than 98% in favour of the president. There remains a long way to go before Algeria achieves anything resembling democracy (in spite of the euphoria, the FIS itself remains a banned party). And as in similar situations elsewhere in the world, the generals always remain a threat in the background.

But it does seem possible that the summer of 1999 will prove a much needed turning point in Algeria's short experience of independence.