Algeria/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Ammar Kessab, Makhlouf Boukrouh

Socio-cultural perspective

Algeria is a republic in western North Africa with a population of 35 million. It is the second largest country in Africa by area (2,381,741km2) and has the third largest GDP ($ 171 billion in 2008), after South Africa and Nigeria.
Blessed with a strategic location geographically, Algeria has been shaped by demographic movements from various areas amidst troubled historical eras.

The key era in the country's modern history is undoubtedly the war for independence, which marked the end of a 132 year struggle against one of the cruelest colonization projects in history.

Indeed French colonizers, driven by an agenda of domination, implemented an extensive acculturation policy designed and reflected at the highest state circles [Riesler, 2004].

However, attempts to acculturate the whole Algerian nation created a cultural resistance that defined and consolidated the foundations of the Algerian identity.

The Islamic component established itself as the core of this identity, reflected in the founding text of the Algerian nation: “The establishment of the sovereign democratic social Algerian state within the framework of Islamic principles” [The Declaration of November 1, 1954].

The Arabic linguistic component is considered another foundation of Algerian identity. The Tripoli Charter of 1962 states: “The role of national culture shall be primarily represented in making Arabic, which is the expression of the cultural values of our country, its dignity and efficacy as being the language of civilization”.

Having declared its affiliation to the Arab World, Maghreb and North Africa, Algeria confirmed its affiliation to the “black continent” just one year after independence. The Algerian constitution of 1963 states: “Algeria is an integral part of Maghreb, the Arab World and Africa”.

The state’s cultural policy is underpinned by conceptions of Algeria as an Islamic, Arabic, and African nation, determined at the country’s independence.

In 1996, another key component that was previously ignored and even erased by policy makers was added to the Algerian constitution: the Tamazight (Berber identity) affiliation. The Algerian constitution of 1996 states: “The basic components of the identity of Algerian people are Islam, Arabism and Tamazight”.

Thus the sociocultural specificities of today's Algerians are all acknowledged in the Algerian constitution.

Having just arisen from a long, dark night of colonization, Algeria remains a third world country still striving to find the path to prosperity and development.

Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments 

Since a sovereign cultural policy may only spring from the nethermost of national identity, independent Algeria’s cultural policy originates from the fundamental components of Algerian identity (see 1.1.), which were official defended and consolidated during the struggle against the French.
The broad outlines of the independent Algerian state were drawn up during the Cultural Revolution led by Houari Boumedienne (Algerian president between 1965-1978) a few years after independence. “The Cultural Revolution finds its principles and vitality in an invested and scientifically developed national heritage and thus will be the product of our openness to the universal heritage and the space of the civilization we belong to: the Arabic Islamic region. These are the conditions conducive to the achievement of the cultural revolution and only the cultural revolution”. (see 3.2.) [A. Mehri, former Minister of Culture, 1978].

From the beginning, Boumedienne’s imagined policies were faced with problems of managing implementation.

The newly independent Algeria, which inherited several cultural structures, suffered from a lack of cohesive oversight. As a result, cultural structures began to deteriorate immediately. For example, today there are only around 10 movie theatres compared to 424 movie theatres before 1962.

The Algerian cultural policy faced issues of geographic remoteness.

Since independence, Algiers has hosted the vast majority of cultural activities despite the many efforts exerted since the 1970s to decentralize the country's cultural activities.

Weak attempts at decentralizing the theatre sector began in 1968, which are considered the start of the cultural decentralization process.
However, the decentralization process quickly became subsumed by the struggle between charismatic figures in the world of Algerian theatre rather than efforts to produce a national cultural policy. Some of the most influential theatrical figures were living in certain areas and they wanted, at any expense, to have the regional theatres they were managing to become independent [A. Kessab, 2008].

The creation of the Directorate of Information and Culture in three Wilayas (governorates)—Algiers, Oran and Constantine—in 1974 represented the first move towards national decentralization carried out by the Ministry of Culture (Inter-ministerial Decision of 8 October, 1974).

This experiment was expanded to cover the entire country in 1992, featuring the creation of the directorates of culture and information (Executive Decision 92-281 dated 6 July, 1992), which were replaced in 1994 by the current directorates of culture (Executive Decision 94-414 dated 23 November, 1994). The jurisdictions of the Director of Culture were expanded in 2003 by virtue of an executive decision made on 12 August, 2003.
Decentralization of cultural directorates was accompanied by creating culture houses in every governorate across the country (Decision 74-244 dated 6 December, 1974).

Staged in 1978, the National Festival for Folkloric Arts was the first attempt at a national, decentralized cultural activity. The experiment was generalized across all governorates through the work of local officials in each.

The then Minister of Cultural Affairs coined the slogan “Arts shall come from the people and shall aim at people” [A. Mehri, 1978], indicating that decentralization was intended to help develop folkloric arts, which in turn confirmed national cultural identity.

Cultural exchange between all the country's areas was a prime target for the Minister of Cultural Affairs during that period: “Cultural exchange between all the nation's areas shall be developed in order to attain better knowledge by allowing the expression of various types of culture, taking part in forming the sense of diversity and popularizing national history via developing folkloric arts” [A. Mehri, 1978].

Despite decentralization efforts since the 1970s, Algiers is still the country’s cultural center, while the other governorates (with the exception of Oran, Annaba and Constantine) continue to suffer from severe cultural recession.

Chapter published: 06-01-2014