French colonizers and their descendants (known as colons) dispossessed native Algerians of the best arable lands and monopolized political power. The non-European population worked the colons' lands or eked out a meager living in the less hospitable areas. By 1945 Algeria's population included approximately 900,000 colons, whose numbers had vastly expanded since the 1920s.
The postwar era saw the rapid growth of a militant nationalist movement that was adamantly opposed by the colons, who were determined that Algeria should remain part of France. In May 1945, Muslims throughout Algeria demonstrated against colonial rule. When French colonial police fired on the protesters in Sétif, they responded by attacking Europeans. In retaliation, the military carried out reprisals that killed thousands of Algerian Muslims. This massacre accelerated the conflict that culminated in the brutal Algerian War during 1954–1962.
From the beginning of the war, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) appealed to the United Nations (UN) for support of the nationalist cause, while France appealed to the United States and its European allies for assistance in its colonial claim. The Americans initially urged a negotiated peace, hoping to avoid a confrontation with France without antagonizing Arab nations. Alarmed at the French role in the 1956 Suez Crisis, the United States then adopted a less compromising line with France, determined to prevent a wider conflict between Arab nationalists and France (and Britain). The war also split the communist bloc, with the People's Republic of China (PRC) supporting the Algerian nationalists and the Soviet Union keeping its distance.
The war actively influenced French politics and led to social and political turmoil in metropolitan France that toppled the Fourth French Republic in 1958 and brought to power General Charles de Gaulle, who created the Fifth French Republic. In 1962 de Gaulle, then president of France and having exhausted other options, signed the Évian Agreements of March 1962 that granted Algeria its independence effective 3 July 1962. Tens of thousands of colons immediately immigrated to France. The FLN-led Algerian government, headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Ben Bella, promptly confiscated the colons' abandoned property and established a decentralized socialist economy and one-party state. Upon independence, Algerian military forces numbered around 125,000 men, including various irregular militias that were gradually eliminated or integrated into the national force.
Ben Bella's attempt to consolidate his power, combined with popular discontent with the economy's inefficiency, sparked a bloodless military coup by Defense Minister Houari Boumédienne in June 1965. In 1971, the government endeavored to stimulate economic growth by nationalizing the oil industry and investing the revenues in centrally orchestrated industrial development. Boumédienne's military-dominated government took on an increasingly authoritarian cast over the years. The military expanded rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s, with the army numbering 110,000, the air force 12,000, and the navy 8,000 by 1985.
Algeria's leaders sought to retain their autonomy, joining their country to the Non-Aligned Movement. Boumédienne phased out French military bases. Although Algeria denounced perceived American imperialism and supported Cuba, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, Palestinian nationalists, and African anticolonial fighters, it maintained a strong trading relationship with the United States. At the same time, Algeria cultivated economic ties with the Soviet Union, which provided the nation with important military matériel and training. When the Spanish relinquished control of Western Sahara in 1976, Morocco attempted to annex the region. This led to a twelve-year war with Algeria, which supported the guerrilla movement fighting for the region's independence. Diplomatic relations with the United States warmed after Algeria negotiated the release of American hostages in Iran in 1980 and Morocco fell out of U.S. favor by allying with Libya in 1984.
In 1976, a long-promised constitution that provided for elections was enacted, although Algeria remained a one-party state. When Boumédienne died in December 1978, power passed to Chadli Bendjedid, the army-backed candidate. Bendjedid retreated from Boumédienne's increasingly ineffective economic policies, privatizing much of the economy and encouraging entrepreneurship. However, accumulated debt continued to retard economic expansion. Growing public protests from labor unions, students, and Islamic fundamentalists forced the government to end restrictions on political expression in 1988.
The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) proved the most successful of the host of new political parties founded. After large victories by the FIS in local elections in June 1990 and national elections in December 1991, Bendjedid resigned. A new regime under Mohamed Boudiaf imposed martial law, banning the FIS in March 1992. In response, Islamist radicals began a guerrilla war that has persisted to the present, taking a toll of 150,000 or more lives. Although Algeria's military government managed to gain the upper hand in the struggle after 1998, Islamic groups continue to wage war on the state, which maintains control through brutal repression and tainted elections.
Stora, Benjamin. Algeria, 1830–2000: A Short History. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.