Conflicting Claims: Property Rights in Algeria

By Robert P. Parks
Submitted to Session P4927 (Occupying Space: Land, Religion, Power in Colonial North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Political Economy;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores the political history of property rights in contemporary Algeria. Specifically, it examines how colonial efforts to usurp land, as well as post-colonial attempts break with that order, have created a palimpsest of property rights in the country, each level with its own set of aggrieved claimants.

Colonial administrators in French Algeria went to great pains to mark their sovereignty over that land. Algeria was France and thus in addition to carefully demarcating territorial boundaries, the government sought to show a continuity of institutions and market practices from Paris to Tamanrasset. In order to draw a settler population to legitimize those claims, France needed land, a land market, and property laws. Customary and Sharia law, on which antecedent property regimes were based, needed to be erased in order to transform land from a socially-bounded asset into a commodity, what Henri Lefebre refers to as “abstract space” (1991).

French efforts to totally erase antecedent social and legal institutions were unsuccessful. France in Algeria existed, though it was fragmentary and variegated across space: the state had neither the administration nor the settler population to evenly occupy and transform Algerian space into “abstract space.” At independence, the government nationalized colonial land and property. Whereas France had tried to transform land into a commodity to be freely exchanged, unencumbered by social claims, the new regime transformed land into a collective, national good. Land was not restituted to its pre-colonial owners. The property market was frozen until the mid-1980s, when Algeria embarked on a pathway of economic liberalization.

Neither colonial France nor the post-colonial regime were able to fully erase antecedent property rights institutions or claims to land. Like a palimpsest, new property regimes have painted over older institutions at multiple periods. Whereas the institutions might have disappeared, claims to the land those institutions adjudicated have aggregated. Contention over land and property – over 30% of protest movements in 2011 were linked to land and property – is a stark reminder of the impact colonial legacies on issues viewed as ‘ancient’ have on contemporary politics in the MENA region.