Toward a Modern Society

Toward a Modern Society

At independence Algerian society differed greatly from its condition at the beginning of the struggle for liberation. The exodus of Europeans in 1962-63, left a society composed primarily of illiterate peasants and sizable numbers of urban laborers. It was estimated that less than 1 percent of the 1964 population had belonged to the middle and upper classes during the 1950s. Educated persons remaining in the country were insufficient to staff all the positions in government and industry vacated by the Europeans. A criteria of prestige stemming from the war had also entered the social reckoning; those who had participated actively in the fighting or suffered loss because of it became eligible for special benefits or consideration.

During the colonial period, the country's most significant social distinctions had been those that separated Europeans from Algerians. Europeans had ranged from great industrialists through middle-class businesspeople, professionals, and farmers to unskilled workers. The Algerian population had also covered a range from well-to-do business and professional families to landless rural laborers. Distinctions, however, were blurred by the disabilities and discrimination suffered during the war by all Algerians and by the ideological emphasis on the unity of the Algerian people.

The removal of the European community permitted the appearance of the rudiments of a modern class system in which probably the most influential group consisted of French-trained technocrats, civil servants, army officers, and senior functionaries of the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale--FLN). The few indigenous industrialists lacked great influence, but the bureaucrats and technocrats who managed the government and its expanding enterprises began to form a conspicuous and highly influential group that was to contribute upper-echelon personnel for public administration and state enterprises. Education, more than any other single factor, became the criterion for membership in the new elite.

Houari Boumediene, who was president from 1967 to 1978, headed a government that was dedicated to furthering Islamic socialism and held that, because early Islam in Algeria had its own egalitarian tendencies, no contradiction was involved. The pursuit of socialism since the 1960s, however, has produced its own rich assortment of social contradictions and tensions.

The Boumediene government at times has been criticized for its state capitalist tendencies because of its single-minded pursuit of industrialization, which led to the emergence of a prosperous and reasonably competent elite. After 1968 Boumediene gradually brought more and more educated young bureaucrats and technocrats into government service; by the late 1970s, they formed part of an administrative and managerial elite who staffed the government ministries and planned and operated the state industrial sector. Largely in control of the country, the new social group nonetheless shared status and influence with the army and functioned under the supervision of senior political officials. Although the explicit ideology of the government discouraged the formation of social classes, this relatively wealthy and powerful elite seemed to represent an important barrier on the road to an egalitarian society.

The technocrats and bureaucrats tended to be modernizers influenced by Western ideas. In general, they subscribed to the modernist view of Algerian society and believed that all members of society, including women, should participate actively to change the environment to suit the needs of society and its members. In socialist-oriented Algeria, the concepts of the nation-state, self-determination, and state planning came to the fore among members of the elite; local loyalties and family ties declined in importance as the society became more modern, urban, and educated.

Aside from the bureaucratic and technocratic elite, the middle class consisted of employees of state industrial and service enterprises; small businesspeople and shopkeepers; professionals, such as teachers, physicians, and lawyers; and artisans. Except for businesspeople, this stratum increased greatly after independence, moving to help fill the void created by the departure of the French and by the demand for services and skilled labor in the postindependence economy. Residing mostly in the cities and larger towns, the middle class was by Algerian standards relatively well-off.

An urbanized working class had similarly come into being over the previous few decades, finding employment, for example, in state and private industries, construction, public works, and transportation. As with the urban middle class, this group grew steadily in size after 1962 as a consequence of economic expansion. Another sizable group also found in the cities consisted of the unemployed. Substantial number of the unemployed were young males, many of them migrants from rural areas, who were often forced to settle in squalid housing. Usually monolingual in Arabic, lacking job skills, and possessing only a primary education, the migrants and the unemployed survived on the largesse of the state welfare system. Finally, there were the rural agricultural workers, including small and medium-sized landowners, landowning and landless peasants, and those who worked on large state farms. Some members of this class benefited from land distribution in the 1970s and early 1980s. Others, such as medium-sized landowners who survived land redistribution and the formation of large agricultural enterprises, reportedly were enjoying a measure of prosperity and favored government investment in roads and services in rural areas.

As the nation continued to modernize in the 1980s and early 1990s, millions of Algerians were torn between a tradition that no longer commanded their total loyalty and a modernism that did not satisfy their psychological and spiritual needs. This dilemma especially affected the nation's youth. Educated young women were torn between the lure of study and a career and the demands of their husbands and fathers. Young men faced conflicting models of cultural behavior and achievement, conflict between demands for fluency in modern Arabic and fluency in French, and conflict between devotion to Islam and the secularism of modernization. Above all loomed the reality of youth unemployment, which reached a staggeringly high 41 percent in the early 1990s (compared to 30 percent for the overall working-age population). With no solution in sight, unemployment was a prime factor accounting for the boredom, frustration, and disillusionment that characterized the younger generation. Many young people became major supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut--FIS) whose groups were located on campuses and in major cities throughout the country. Young people contributed to the clashes with government forces ongoing since the late 1980s and to the general political instability.

To strengthen a sense of national pride in the country's culture, in 1970 an officially sponsored "cultural revolution" was launched to restore historic monuments and to develop the means to communicate cultural themes via radio, television, the press, libraries, and museums. In realms such as economics and politics where the past offered no guidance, new structures were to be devised in keeping with the theory of the 1962 Tripoli Program. This program rejected capitalism, which it associated with Western colonial powers, and disavowed an economic system that would make it dependent on the West. Instead, it favored a socialist system that allowed for state control both of the means of production and of the plan for national development. The program opted for a one-party political system that would represent the aspirations of the rural and urban masses. Other aspects of the cultural revolution included substituting Arabic for French and eliminating foreign teachers and foreign influence from the educational establishment--all part of a policy of constructing an Algeria distinctive in personality and proud of its heritage and achievements.

The cultural revolution was fifteen years old in 1985; beyond language and education development, however, its achievements were hard to measure. The program had suffered from neglect and lack of funds for projects involving monuments and archeological sites, museums, the arts, and the publishing industry. A national seminar on the history of the Algerian Revolution was successfully organized in 1981, however, and in late 1983 Chadli Benjedid (president, 1979-92) issued a renewed call for serious attention to cultural affairs and to the study of Algerian national history.


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