Algeria remains prosperous and peaceful, despite regional instability

Algeria is a country rich in history and situated in a strategically important region. While its past has at times been turbulent, the last decade has been one of relative peace. As result, economic growth and development has followed, driven primarily by advances in the hydrocarbons sector.

History

Until the arrival of the Ottomans in the 16th century, the region that became the basis of the modern nation state of Algeria was widely known as the Barbary Coast, derived from the word Berber. These indigenous North Africans had been a continuous presence on this fertile strip of coast since 4000 BCE but over the intervening millennia, several empires have also sought a foothold. The territory was annexed by the Romans in 24 CE and the population converted to Christianity by the end of the 4th century CE. This did not last long, however. By the 7th century, Islam had arrived and North Africa fell under the rule of first the Umayyads and then the Abbasids. From the 11th century onwards, the Arabic language spread through Berber lands and extended into rural areas.

In the early modern period, Algeria fell under the loose oversight of the Ottoman Empire, controlled by a regent based in Algiers, but nonetheless it cultivated a reputation as a centre of piracy and privateering. France began the invasion and colonisation of the country in 1830, following a three year naval blockade sparked by a supposed insult levelled at the French consul to Algeria. The second French Republic, established in 1848, brought Algeria under the direct control of Paris, dividing the country into French departments overseen by a civilian government in Paris.

Algerian nationalism began to take hold in the 1920s and 1930s, a fertile time for anti-colonial feeling globally. This grew over the next three decades with the French government offering only limited and ineffective reform and power to the local population. This led to the War of Independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, and cost the lives of anywhere between 400,000 and 1.5m Algerians, with a further 2m displaced. France finally declared Algeria independent on July 3, 1962.

The post-independence period was a turbulent one. The country experienced a coup in 1965 and was subsequently ruled by Houari Boumedienne, who served as the president until his death in 1978. The country got a new constitution under Boumedienne’s successor, Chadli Bendjedid, in 1989. However, following the success of the Islamic Salvation Front at municipal and national elections in 1990 and 1991, a civil war broke out. The election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 1999 brought greater stability and a return to normalcy for the country.

Political System

The 1989 constitution, which allowed for multi-party elections, was modified further in 1996 to allow for the creation of political parties as long as they were not defined by religious, racial, linguistic or regional underpinnings.

The country has a bicameral political system, with a lower house – the National People’s Assembly and an upper chamber – the Council of the Nation. The Council of the Nation has 144 members, 96 of whom are elected through an electoral college on a six-year cycle. The president appoints the remaining members. The National People’s Assembly is a 462 member body elected by proportional representation every five years.

The executive branch holds relatively more power than the representative bodies. The president is elected every five years by absolute majority. A second round of voting is used when no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the first round. The president appoints a prime minister, who in turn appoints the Council of Ministers, the primary executive body in the country on which both the head of state and head of government serve.

In terms of the judiciary, the Supreme Court has four divisions filled by 150 judges. These members are appointed by the High Council of Magistracy, a body presided over by the president. There are no term limits for Supreme Court judges.

Geography

Algeria occupies a strategic position in North Africa, with its major population centres abutting the Mediterranean and its hinterland stretching deep into the arid desert that covers much of the continent’s northern third. Its southern border touches the Sahel, a climatic zone marking the boundary with Africa’s tropical centre.

By area, Algeria is the largest country in Africa and the 10th biggest in the world. It sits in an increasingly unstable geographic region, bordering Libya and Tunisia to the east, Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania to the west, and Mali and Niger to the south. It also has almost 1000 km of coastline on the Mediterranean. Much of the country consists of desert and high plateau. The coastal strip is reasonably fertile, supporting Algeria’s limited agricultural industry. The sector, which produces wheat, barley, potatoes and dates amongst other crops, accounted for 10% of GDP in 2013. However, only 17.3% of the land is put to agricultural use and even less, 3.1% of the land in the country, is arable. The coastal strip is also home to the country’s two main cities, Algiers, the capital, and Oran. It is bound by the Tell Atlas Mountains, a range contiguous with the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. There is also a highland area, the Ahaggar Mountains, nestled on Algeria’s south eastern border.

Climate

Given the general topography of Algeria, it is perhaps unsurprising that the prevailing climate is arid or semi-arid. There is some variation between the coast and the interior. The coast experiences mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The interior remains drier and experiences greater temperature extremes, with particularly cold winters.

Average temperatures in the coastal zone range from 10°C in winter to 26°C in summer. In the Sahara, there can be a dramatic swing in a single day. Temperatures here range from -10°C to 34°C, depending on the season and time of day. However, it is not unusual for the region to experience a great degree of extreme weather. The record highs and lows in the country stand at 50.6°C and -20°C, illustrating the dramatic range in the country’s interior. For the country as a whole, average rainfall ranges from 2.2 mm in July to 10 mm in December.

Natural Resources 

Because of its wealth of minerals beneath the ground, the country profits from a rich and varied natural resource base. Algeria is able to extract oil, gas, phosphates, uranium, iron ore, zinc and lead. The country is the 19th largest producer of crude oil globally, with an average production rate of 1.42m barrels per day in 2014. As of the beginning of 2015, proven reserves of crude stood at 12.2bn barrels (see Energy chapter).

Natural gas is even more important to the country. In 2013, Algeria was the 11th largest producer and the 8th largest exporter globally. Production stood at 79.65bn cu metres, just over half of which (43bn cu metres) was exported to Europe and beyond. Given these rankings, it is hardly surprising that the hydrocarbon industry is a mainstay of the economy. It accounts for 30% of GDP, more than 95% of export revenues and approximately 60% of budget revenues (see Energy chapter).

Population

Algeria is home to 39.5m people, making it the 34th most populous country in the world. Given its geographic footprint, overall population density is relatively low at 16.35 people per sq km. However, this is somewhat misleading given that over 70% of the population live in cities. Indeed, the urbanisation rate is relatively high at 2.77%, and significantly above the general population growth rate of 1.84%. The capital, Algiers, is home to 2.59m people, while the second city, Oran, has a population of over 850,000.

As with much of the MENA region, Algeria is a predominantly young country. Over 45% of the population is under the age of 25. This will present both a challenge and an opportunity as the youth cohort transitions into the labour market, and the dependency ratio falls from its current level of 52.6%. With fewer dependants, the pressure on public services will lessen, revenues from taxation will increase and the economy will grow rapidly, if employment opportunities can be found for young people. Youth unemployment currently stands at 22.4%.

Language & Religion

The country is predominantly Arab-Berber, with less than 1% of the population identifying as European. Approximately 15% of Algerians self-identify as Berber. Reflecting this ethnic makeup, more than 99% of the population is Muslim, the majority Sunni, with small communities of Christians, Jews and Shiite Muslims. Arabic and French are the official languages of the state, but a number of Berber dialects are widely spoken.

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The Report: Algeria 2015

The Report

This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Algeria 2015. Explore other chapters from this report.