Although neo-patrimonialism has played a negligible role in modern Algeria, in the same way that neo-patrimonialism exists as a strong, pre-colonial influence in modern, particularly sub-Saharan African politics, Islam in Algeria has retained great influence in the shape of the modern Algerian state and its policies therein. Further, it was this strong, Islamic influence and the specific character of French colonization in Africa that have shaped the modern Algerian state and its foreign policy.
The first component of the shape of modern Algeria, its ties to Islam, first developed during the 7th century, when Arabs conquered Algeria with little resistance from the local population. Control of the region shifted between various entities several times over the course of the next eight centuries, but, in 1516, the Ottoman Empire brought the region, particularly Algiers, firmly, though not completely, under its control for the next three centuries. Nonetheless, over the from the 7th century until French colonial rule, much of the administrative style, institutions, and political culture of the state remained unchanged. First, Islam acted as a uniquely unifying force on the continent of Africa, eventually helping to establish in Algeria what Carolyn Warner calls “a community willing and able to define itself against a ‘non-self.'” While Islam in Africa often times was not crucial in forming the crucial aspects of a modern state from a Western perspective (i.e., strong, centralized state with definite territory and ability to exercise legitimate use of force), it created a community of the faithful, the umma, whose fidelity lied with their caliph, the individual successors of Muhammad as head of the umma, common throughout the Muslim world. The same since, for these religious reasons, continued under Ottoman rule; caliphs and sultans, the actual administrators in Islamic polities, were essentially autonomous, deferring to the Ottomans almost exclusively in matters of foreign policy, while remaining free to establish domestic policy for their umma as they desired. Crucially, in this pre-colonial understanding of the Islamic polity, those who were not among the faithful were not subject to the will of the caliph or sultan, a testament to what Warner sees as the difficulty of divorcing Islam from the state.
Because French colonial rule began in 1830 and, therefore, before the “Scramble for Africa,” the character of the colony was not only different from other French African acquisitions, but also much different from the acquisitions of their counterparts, Great Britain, Germany, and Belgium. Unlike the Belgian Congo, whose governance functioned almost exclusively to facilitate the extraction of raw materials from the region, French Algeria was closely held not just for its resources, but for the grander design of an expansion of French civilization. To use the parlance of the time, the French sought to “civilize” Algeria, and, by 1848, had made it a départment of the French state.
Unlike much of sub-Saharan Africa, Algeria’s status as a closely held territory gave the apparatus of a modern European state, and strong Arab-Islamic influence laid the basis for nationhood in creating a polity united by Islam and anti-colonialism. The country’s Islamic inheritance has had a two major effects. In domestic politics, it resulted in an massive policy of “Arabisation,” directly linked to the dictator nationalist-socialist economic initiatives at the time, including the nationalization of oil production and agriculture. Similarly, its ties to Islam have affected its foreign relations. Its ties are to similar repressive Islamic regimes, like Saudi Arabia, but not to newer strands of Islamic fundamentalism like the ISIL. Because of these factors, Algeria is a member of OPEC, and a crucial trading partner with Europe as a part of the EU’s European Neighborhood policy, which aims to increase and incentivize greater trade and cooperation. However, Algeria’s ties with Islam have led it to conflict with Europe, such as in 2009, when Algeria ended an arms deal with France, claiming the arms had Israeli parts.
The Rise of the State System in Africa, Carolyn M. Warner