MODERN-DAY ALGERIA is a leading member state of the Arab Maghrib, the term applied to the western part of Arab North Africa. Algeria is inhabited predominantly by Muslim Arabs but it has a large Berber minority. The most significant forces in the country's history have been the spread of Islam, arabization, colonization, and the struggle for independence.
North Africa served as a transit region for peoples moving toward Europe or the Middle East. Thus, the region's inhabitants have been influenced by populations from other areas. Out of this mix developed the Berber people, whose language and culture, although pushed from coastal areas by conquering and colonizing Carthaginians, Romans, and Byzantines, dominated most of the land until the spread of Islam and the coming of the Arabs.
The introduction of Islam and Arabic had a profound impact on North Africa (or the Maghrib) beginning in the seventh century. The new religion and language introduced changes in social and economic relations, established links with a rich culture, and provided a powerful idiom of political discourse and organization. From the great Berber dynasties of the Almoravids and Almohads to the militants seeking an Islamic state in the early 1990s, the call to return to true Islamic values and practices has had social resonance and political power. For 300 years, beginning in the early sixteenth century, Algeria was a province of the Ottoman Empire under a regency that had Algiers as its capital. During this period, the modern Algerian state began to emerge as a distinct territory between Tunisia and Morocco.
The French occupation of Algeria, beginning in 1830, had a profound impact. In addition to enduring the affront of being ruled by a foreign, non-Muslim power, many Algerians lost their lands to the new government or to colonists. Traditional leaders were eliminated, coopted, or made irrelevant; social structures were stressed to the breaking point. Viewed by the Europeans with condescension at best and contempt at worst--never as equals--the Algerians endured 132 years of colonial subjugation. Nonetheless, this period saw the formation of new social classes, which, after exposure to ideas of equality and political liberty, would help propel the country to independence. During the years of French domination, the struggles to survive, to co-exist, to gain equality, and to achieve independence shaped a large part of the Algerian national identity.
The War of Independence (1954-62), brutal and long, was the most recent major turning point in the country's history. Although often fratricidal, it ultimately united Algerians and seared the value of independence and the philosophy of anticolonialism into the national consciousness. Since independence in 1962, Algeria has sought to create political structures that reflect the unique character of the country and that can cope with the daunting challenges of rebuilding a society and an economy that had been subject to years of trauma and painful transformation.
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