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Algeria: Country Profile

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Algeria: Country Profile

Algeria

Basics:

Official country name: People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria
Area: 919,595 sq miles (2,381,740 sq km)
Population: 33 million (2006 est.)
Median age: 25.5
Ethnic Groups: Arab-Berber 99 percent
GDP and GDP per capita: $115.5 billion and $3,463 (2006 estimates)

Government and Politics:

While not an absolutely authoritarian state like most of its Arab neighbors, Algeria is still rigorously controlled from the center by the president, popularly elected to five-year terms (Abdelaziz Bouteflika was reelected with 85% of the vote in 2004 and more than 90% in 2009). Political parties are controlled. The legislature consists of a 389-seat lower house, its members popularly elected to five-year terms, and a 144-seat Senate, partly appointed by the president, partly elected by regional representatives. Islamists who almost took control of the Legislature in 1992 were crushed by the army’s intervention.

Religion:

Islam is the official religion. Algeria is 99 percent Muslim, and overwhelmingly Sunni. Religiously based political parties are banned by law since 1997. Militant Islamism made big strides in the 1980s and almost took control of the Algerian legislature through legal elections in 1992. The army nullified the election. A civil war ensued, resulting in the death of 100,000 Algerians. Political Islam is currently repressed, but militantly, violently active.

Economy:

Oil and gas account for 97 percent of Algerian exports, 60 percent of Algeria’s government revenue and 30 percent of the country’s total economic output. Algeria sits on the world’s ninth-largest reserve of natural gas and 14th-largest oil reserve. The United States has more than $5 billion invested in Algeria, most of it in the oil and gas sector. The economy is diversifying poorly, with higher oil prices acting as a disincentive to reform and privatize the economy. Unemployment officially stands at 13 percent but is likely much higher. 2007 oil revenue: $57 billion; 2008: $76 billion; 2009 forecast: $30 billion.

Military:

Algeria’s military totals 138,000 active soldiers and 100,000 reservists. Paramilitary forces include a 60,000-member national guard, controlled by the president (who’s also the minister of defense), and a 30,000-member police force under the control of the ministry of interior. Men 18 and older must serve 18 months. Algeria has traditionally been armed by Russia and China. In “Bush at War,” Bob Woodward wrote of Algeria that “the CIA was heavily subsidizing its intelligence service, spending millions to get their [sic.] assistance in the war against al-Qaeda.”

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

The government through an amnesty law forgave the perpetrators of the 1990s civil war, but also criminalized criticism of government abuses during that war. The amnesty law diminished efforts to investigate numerous cases of enforced disappearance and other cases of human rights abuses, according to Amnesty International. The Algerian military and police reportedly torture suspects in detention. Journalists benefited from the amnesty law in 2006 as many were freed from prison, but press-freedom reforms have not followed. Criticizing the president or the state can still yield five-year prison sentences.

History Until Independence:

Ottoman Turks gave Algeria the rough outline of its present boundaries between 1516 and 1830, when France began conquering the country. Algerians resisted fiercely. But by 1900, millions of arable acres were in French hands, encouraging more French settlers to move in and undermining Algerian tribal unity. Resistance began anew in the run-up to World War II as the French refused to reform their governance. Bloody French repression continued leading to an outright French-Algerian war that ended in March 1962. Algeria declared its independence on July 3, 1962 (observed on July 5).

History Since Independence:

One of the more vibrant cultures of the Arab world, Algeria was moving toward a marginally open society in the 1970s and 1980s, at least economically, at the same time that political Islam was making inroads throughout the Middle East. Islamists appeared poised to take over the Legislature in the 1992 election. The Algerian army intervened and routed Islamists, who, with $40,000 in seed money from Osama bin Laden, regrouped as the armed, brutal force known as the Groupe Islamique Armé. A civil war raged through most of the 1990s.

Current Issues:

The war ended in the late 1990s, Islamists are forbidden from entering politics, and the tension between secular and Islamic Algeria is unresolved despite an amnesty in 2005 that released thousands of Islamists from prison. Algeria has been the site of numerous terrorist bombings. Trade relations with Europe are growing, however, as are military relations with the United States.

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