Algeria is now much more peaceful, but its democracy is fragile and still vulnerable to occasional terrorism
Algeria has a narrow coastal plain which is regularly broken by parts of the Atlas range of mountains which run across the country from east to west and between which there are high plateaux. To the south, the mountains give way to the arid, sandy expanse of the Sahara that accounts for around 90% of the territory.
Most Algerians, 90% of whom live in the coastal region, are of mixed Arab and Berber descent and are Sunni Muslims. But around one-fifth, particularly in the Kabylia region, consider themselves to be Berber rather than Arab and have protested against official efforts at ‘Arabization’. In response, the government declared in 2002 that Tamazight would become an official language.
Although standards of human development have improved in recent years, and primary school enrolment by 2005 had reached 99%, while adult literacy is now around 70%. One of the main problems is unemployment, officially around 12%, but much higher for young people.
Algeria's rapid development after independence in 1962 was based on huge reserves of hydrocarbons in the Sahara. Initially the emphasis was on oil extraction, and Algeria still produces around 1% of the world's oil and has five refineries. But in recent decades the balance has swung in favour of natural gas which now makes up 80% of hydrocarbon production. Hydrocarbons account for more than 98% of exports and 45% of GDP.
Algeria also has extensive reserves of iron ore as well as smaller deposits of other metals. In the past, mining has been relatively neglected, but the government is now keen to develop the mining industry by inviting foreign investment for extracting phosphorus, gold, and diamonds.
In the 1970s, Algeria used its oil revenues to finance industrialization in a number of other sectors, including steel, vehicles, and cement. Around three-quarters of the manufacturing sectors remains in state hands though there have been efforts to attract foreign partners in oil, gas, and other industries. As a result, most people in formal employment work for the state.
Only a small proportion of the land, mostly in the coastal plains and valleys, is suitable for agriculture, which employs around 11% of the workforce. The country does grow cereals, and exports fresh dates, but has to import around half of its food.
Algeria waged a long and bitter war for independence from France. In the decades following independence in 1962, political life in Algeria was dominated by the only legal party, the Front de libération national (FLN). Development initially took the form of state socialism but this started to unravel in the mid-1980s with the fall in oil prices and the government started to liberalize the economy.
Radical Islamic groups win an election
From 1988, the younger generation became increasingly resentful of the FLN's grip on power and protested at its austerity measures. The president, Colonel Chadli Benjedid, responded in 1989 with a new constitution that legalized other parties. Radical Islamic groups took full advantage, and in 1990 the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) gained control of local government in most major cities. Then in 1992 they looked like taking power nationally. After the first round of voting in the parliamentary elections, the FIS took 188 of the 231 seats.