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Politics and education in post-war Algeria

| October 2018

Caroline Abadeer, PhD Candidate at Stanford University and Minerva Peace Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace

Yuree Noh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 31, Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.


The 1990s in Algeria were tumultuous. Economic crisis drove widespread protests in the late 1980s, which were followed by democratic political reforms, the victory of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) in the 1991 legislative elections, a rapid political breakdown, and a long and bloody civil war. These events have since continued to shape political developments not only in Algeria, but also in the broader Middle East region. What remain to be clarified, though, are the longer-term consequences of this contentious period for economic and social welfare conditions in the country.

This memo provides insight into these issues through an analysis of the distributive impacts of Algeria’s pre-war political divisions. What are the determinants of social sector investments in Algeria, and do political interests shape these distributions? To answer these questions, this paper explores the history of educational expansion under the autocratic regime that has ruled Algeria since its independence from France in 1962. The focus of the analysis is on the socioeconomic consequences of Algeria’s short-lived flirtation with democracy, and in particular, the relationship between the 1991 election outcomes and changes in educational enrollments after the end of the civil war.

The next section provides more context on the history of education in Algeria since independence. This is followed by a more in-depth discussion of the events of the 1990s, Algeria’s so-called “Black Decade.” The third section considers how political dynamics impact educational improvements and evaluates patterns of changes in educational enrollment across Algeria over the 1998 to 2008 period. The data show that the electoral districts that more strongly backed Algeria’s primary regime party, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), in the legislative elections in 1991 experienced large improvements in educational enrollment between 1998 and 2008. However, in electoral districts that offered support to the oppositional Islamist FIS in 1991, the gains over this period were more modest in comparison. These patterns are significant, and not only because they reveal some of the inner dynamics of the opaque Algerian state. They also demonstrate just how similar the country is to the rest of the MENA region, in that social policy processes, and education in particular, are not immune from the influence of politics.

Algerian education in historical perspective

Algeria became independent in 1962 following more than 130 years of colonial rule. Prior to French conquest, education in Algeria took place primarily in madrasas (Quranic schools). However, these religious schools were mostly disbanded by the colonial regime, and educational access became limited for the majority of the indigenous population. Though part of the colonial administration’s “civilizing mission,” or mission civilisatrice, in French Algeria involved the construction of an education system mirroring that of France, in practice it primarily serviced the European population and a relatively small Algerian elite. Consequently, at the eve of independence, only 10 percent of indigenous Algerians were literate, and less than a third of Algerian children actually attended school (Benrabah 2007, Heggoy 1973).

The FLN, which had led the successful fight for freedom from France, formed the core of the single-party regime after independence was achieved. This new socialist Algerian leadership viewed education as critical for enabling industrialization, improving inequality, and advancing economic development in Algeria (Benziane 2004). They also considered education to be a useful tool for consolidating their political authority, in large part because it could help to facilitate the instilling of certain ideals about the Algerian national state and identity on impressionable young minds (Cheriet 1996).

To achieve these goals, the Algerian state made rapid and massive financial investments in education. They combined these investments with a series of systemic reforms. Education was made completely centralized, nationalized, and compulsory for all children ages 6 to 15. Algeria also signed five loan agreements with the World Bank between 1973 and 1980 to facilitate the process of educational expansion. By the 1970s, approximately one-third of the state budget was allotted to the education sector (Cheriet 1996, Merrouche 2007).

These early achievements in the field of education were impressive, especially given the high rate of population growth in Algeria during this time. The country’s population more than doubled between 1970 and 1990, and the number of students enrolled in school increased from 940,000 in 1962 to 7.6 million by 1998 (ONS 1998). This rapid expansion of participation in education in post-independence Algeria is demonstrated in the table below:

The evolution of educational enrollment in Algeria, 1966-1998
Census year Boys Girls Total
1966 56.8% 39.9% 47.2%
1977 80.8% 59.6% 70.4%
1987 87.75% 71.56% 79.86%
1998 85.25% 80.73% 83.5%

Source: 4ème Recensement Général de la Population et de l’Habitat, 1998.

Reforms to the primary and higher educational systems continued in the ensuing decades as the Algerian regime also continued to prioritize education in its budget. School curriculums were eventually fully Arabized as well, a somewhat controversial policy because of the widespread adoption of the French language in Algeria that had occurred under colonization. The transition in the language of instruction was also difficult to implement owing to a dearth of Arabophone educators (Benrabah 2007).

The Algerian state maintained its monopoly on education provision until the 2000s, when private sector education was finally made legal, though private education remains limited and enrolls less than one percent of students. More recently, the share of education has also dropped to about 20 percent of government expenditure (Rose 2015). However, studies have shown that, as a result of the early policy decisions of the Algerian leadership, the regional disparities in educational access that existed at the time of independence – and were largely a product of regional discrimination in colonial policy – had declined substantially by the 1990s (Merrouche 2007).

Political conflict and the “Black Decade”

Algeria was able to maintain a high level of social spending, including on education, and achieve significant progress in expanding schooling access through the 1970s in large part because high oil prices provided the petrol state with ample monetary resources (Chemingui and Ayadi 2003). However, the decline in global oil prices in the 1980s hit Algeria especially hard, and it was no longer able to maintain its financial commitments. To stave off further economic decline, the government implemented a number of changes to move the economy away from a centrally-planned system. These reforms, however, were ultimately unsuccessful, and only exacerbated the country’s unemployment problems, particularly for the Algerian middle class (Chhibber 1996).

The economic crisis of the 1980s precipitated widespread discontent, which eventually culminated in large riots against the Algerian government in October 1988. To stem the political upheaval, the regime enacted a new series of liberalizing political reforms. This included the promulgation of a new constitution in 1989, as well as calls for new competitive elections. For the first time, Algerian elections would be multi-party contests, and political opposition groups would be able to participate.

In June 1990, Algeria held its first set of contested local and provincial elections. Though the party had formed mere months before, the Islamist FIS successfully mobilized voters and trounced the ruling FLN. In the 1991 national elections, the FIS offered a repeat performance, winning almost half of all the votes in the first round of elections and twice as many votes as the FLN, including 188 of the 430 parliamentary seats outright.

However, the Algerian military was unwilling to tolerate the prospect of losing power and cancelled the runoff, triggering protests that were met with severe army and police repression. In March 1992, the FIS was banned, and the ensuing confrontation between Islamist insurgencies and the military degenerated into a bloody guerrilla war. The violence continued through 1999, and peace was brokered in 2002, but not before some 100,000 Algerians had been killed. The regime gradually restructured itself from military rule toward nominally-civilian government and eventually adopted a semi-competitive multi-party electoral system. However, it was understood that there would be no more experiments with full democratic governance in Algeria.

Trends in education after the Algerian civil war

Political scientists have analyzed the determinants of social welfare and public goods investment across a variety of environments. Increasingly, scholars are considering how patronage and clientelism, as well as class and cultural linkages, drive the distribution of public goods and services across the Middle East (Cammett 2014, Corstange 2016). Blaydes (2011), for example, demonstrates that improvements in infrastructural allocations in water and sewerage were relatively smaller in areas that did not vote for Mubarak’s ruling party in the decade following the 1984 legislative election. She consequently argues competitive election results provide essential information to authoritarian leaders; they now have a map of the areas where opposition support is concentrated, and can penalize these voters for their lack of loyalty accordingly.

Studies that specifically address education provision in autocratic contexts have demonstrated that electoral losses for regime parties can sometimes lead them to make policy concessions in response, such as increases in spending on education (Miller 2015). Still other scholars have found evidence for the argument that non-democratic regimes sometimes choose to invest in educational systems to augment political loyalties and, in the aftermath of civil wars, may specifically expand access to schooling with the hope of instilling values that might dissuade future mass rebellions (Paglayan 2017).

However, few studies have examined the consequences of political or social divisions for educational provision, and none have considered whether the events of the 1990s shaped the Algerian regime’s mode of educational investment. Yet the results from the first round of the 1991 legislative contest, because it was a relatively free election, provide a useful map of the distribution of political loyalties and the variation in disaffection with the FLN prior to the civil war.

How did education change in Algeria following the Black Decade? The below map demonstrates the improvements in total educational enrollments across Algerian wilayas (provinces) over the period of 1998 to 2008, measured as the percent of the total population age 6 to 14 enrolled in school in 1998 subtracted from the 2008 figure. I drew these data were from the 1998 and 2008 Algerian censuses, which both include several housing, demographic, and population indicators for all 48 wilayas and 1,551 communes (census districts). The data demonstrates quite significant variation in expansion to education access over this period. Interestingly, these patterns do not appear entirely regionally determined (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Educational enrollment by wilaya, 1998-2008

Partial results of the first round of the December 1991 parliamentary election were published in the January 4, 1992 issue of the Journal Officiel de la République Algérienne. The electoral results were matched to the census district data based on the 1991 electoral law, which was published in the October 19, 1991 issue of the JORADP. The census data on changes in educational enrollments were matched with the voting data from 1991. Figures 2 and (below) also reveal striking patterns. The basic correlation between FIS and FLN vote shares in 1991 and the percent change in educational enrollments show that more oppositional (FIS) districts experienced relatively smaller improvements in educational enrollments over 1998-2008 compared to districts containing more FLN voters. What’s more, as the vote share of the FLN increases, so to do educational improvements.

Figure 2: 1991 FIS vote share and changes in educational enrollment (1998-2008)

Figure 3: 1991 FLN vote share and changes in educational enrollment (1998-2008)


How should one interpret these patterns, given the history of educational expansion in Algeria and the findings of previous studies on patterns of public goods provision and educational outcomes in autocratic political contexts? The significant differences between FIS and FLN-dominated areas are noteworthy. Districts that more strongly backed the FLN, Algeria’s primary regime party, in the first round of the legislative elections of 1991 experienced greater improvements in educational enrollment between 1998 and 2008. By contrast, FIS (oppositional) voting does not seem to be strongly (or positively) correlated with these changes.

Given the continued degree of centralization of Algerian education policy, it looks as though the post-war Algerian regime has chosen to make more significant educational investments in areas where its supporters concentrate. It is unsurprising for governments (especially authoritarian ones) to make welfare investments in a targeted manner, and Algeria is no exception. Despite the socialist orientation of the state, therefore, the Algerian regime seems to be pursuing political goals and disproportionately promoting the welfare of the most loyal elements of its citizenry through the adoption of a strategy of clientelist educational expansion.

This finding is in line with the expectations of prior work that evaluates the determinants of public goods provision in autocratic contexts and considers how hegemonic parties reward their core supporters for their loyalty (Blaydes 2010). Beyond evidence of clientelist motives, the results suggest that a political logic may shape allocation decisions in regards to social welfare and other kinds of public goods in Algeria, beyond educational outcomes.


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——– “Resultats des Elections Legislatives du 11 décembre 1991.” January 4, 1992.

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Noh, Yuree. “Politics and education in post-war Algeria.” October 2018.

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