After enduring one of the most brutal and longest colonial occupations in the Maghreb region, Algerians revolted against French rule in 1954. Independence was finally gained in 1962 after years of bloody conflict against French troops as well as infighting between rival Algerian movements.

Since independence, Algerian politics has been dominated by the FLN (National Liberation Front), a group which rose to prominence while leading the charge against French occupation. Under a succession of FLN presidents, the government became ever more authoritarian, relying heavily on the army and state-controlled media to suppress opposition. The Algerian economy also became increasingly dependent on oil exports as its principal source of income, leaving the nation vulnerable to price fluctuations.

In the late 1980s, following widespread youth-driven protests against the slow pace of economic and political reform, Algeria began moving towards greater political liberalization. The government promised to increase transparency and allow greater political participation. Opposition parties were finally allowed to register in 1988.

In 1991 the FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front), a prominent opposition party, won a startling victory in the legislative elections. The regime, sensing a major threat to its control and to the secularism of the state, suspended the elections and soon dissolved the FIS entirely, arresting and imprisoning its leadership and many of its members. A political crisis ensued which caused the collapse of the government in 1992 and led to a bloody civil war between government forces and opposition rebels, which raged between 1993 and 1998.

During this period of incredible violence (it is estimated over 150,000 people died during the war), the government created a new constitution tightening its grip on power. A state of emergency was declared in 1992 giving the military and police sweeping power to silence dissidents. The expansion of political participation that had been instituted three years earlier was revoked and opposition groups were harassed into submission.

Recognizing the terrible damage the conflict had caused to the Algerian population as well as to the economy, infrastructure and reputation of the country, government and central rebel officials agreed to a cease fire in 1999. Amnesty was given to members of the armed wing of FIS in 2000 leading to a relative return of normalcy. However, smaller rebel splinter groups, such as the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (now Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) continue to fight the Algerian government and perpetrate terrorist attacks.

Though less publicized than opposition protests in neighboring Morocco, Tunisia, and nearby Libya, Algeria has experienced many demonstrations since December 2010, some of which have exceeded 10,000 participants. In January a wave of self-immolations occurred across the country but failed to catalyze the same level of mass mobilization as in Tunisia. In February, participation in demonstrations swelled as large numbers of protestors took to the streets demanding democratic reform, lower food prices, employment opportunities and greater civil liberties. Since February participation seems to have decreased, although weekly marches are still being organized by a recently formed group known as the National Coordination for Democracy and Change.

Though the regime remains strongly in control of the situation, President Bouteflika announced on February 15, 2011 several reforms, including the possible end of the state of emergency. The lifting of these emergency laws, which prevent public demonstrations, is widely seen as an attempt to placate activists and lower tensions. On April 15, 2011 the President issued further promises to amend the constitution in order to increase electoral transparency and expand rights, but no time frame for these changes or details were provided.

Benjamin Santucci

Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern

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