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Why Algeria’s ‘Black October’ in 1988 defined its role in the Arab Spring

October 6, 2016 at 4:30 pm

It is 28 years since Algeria’s “Black October” that has defined Algeria’s socio-political discourse ever since. Accepted as Algeria’s second most defining date after independence in 1962, 5 October 1988 also holds the answer to the question why Algeria did not succumb to the Arab Spring that ignited the Arab world in 2011.

The death of President Houari Boumediene in 1978 unveiled the extent to which Algeria’s socio-economic standing had worsened. By the time President Chadli Bendjedid had taken office his promises of free market and socio-economic reforms saw the emergence of a new business elite that contrasted heavily with the deprived masses forced into austerity. Young graduates could no longer expect jobs in state-owned industries, and their industry-specific qualifications were rendered useless by the onset of the capitalist labour market.

Algeria’s new post-independence population had more than doubled between 1966 and 1987, with 57 per cent of Algeria’s population under the age of 21, and with them a new fire uninfluenced by the anti-colonial struggle of the fifties and sixties. Hit by the collapse in oil and gas prices, Algeria’s tepid economy only hastened its social demise. Coupled with unemployment that had increased to over 25 per cent, Algeria’s generationally-fractured society erupted with young Algerians directing their anger towards the elite. They called for the democratisation of the corrupt and autocratic one-party system of the National Liberation Front (FLN) that had held power since independence from France in 1962.

For young Algerians, the system constantly prevented them from becoming social and collective actors and forced them relentlessly to be excluded from the socio-economic discourse and marginalised. Known as “Hogra”, this feeling coupled with increased rage with the expired social system that had caused existential anxiety, injustice and lack of socialisation forced the youth to adopt one path. Such cathartic frustrations were tunnelled by new ways of expression that had seeped past the private sphere into new forms of public articulation.

The only way to convey the frustration of the young population was to riot, but by 1988 the rioting took on a new scale of urgency. Thousands took to the streets in central Algiers as shops were ransacked and offices and symbols of the FLN targeted. The army declared a state of emergency and resorted to violence to curb the protests. After five days, up to 500 young men had been killed, with hundreds more arrested in the worst bout of violence seen since independence.

The Algerian population had broken the barriers of enforced stagnation and their demands had to be met. The FLN was revered for its resistance against the French colonialists but its reputation was damaged. In order to save the regime, Bendjedid was forced to initiate reforms which began with the introduction of the country’s first multi-party system. He also formulated a new constitution that would allow for the participation of all Algerians and where political parties could call for reforms to the existing framework and constitution.

For Bendjedid, the political liberalisation process was built around the hope of maintaining the FLN’s dominance and initiating a new democratic chapter in Algeria’s history. However, any hopes behind the reforms were soon quashed by the election process in 1992 where the main beneficiary of the amended constitution was the advent of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The elections saw the FIS appeal amongst the angry youth almost succeed in winning the first round of the elections in 1991. However, threatened by the near victory of the FIS, the army annulled the country’s first multi-party legislative elections and banned the party in 1992. Nothing could have prepared the post-independence generation for the next decade of violence that would see around 200,000 people killed and thousands more disappear, at the hands not only of the Islamists but also the army.

The frustrations of the 1980s, that encapsulated the dichotomy of the political elite with the military and the marginalised majority, still defines much of the framework of Algerian politics today. The fear of overthrowing a president evoking the same degree of violence that defined the nineties is also marred by the belief that his swift replacement would be a continuation of the authoritarian system.

The riots of 1988 and the decade-long violence that followed has moulded the attitudes to socio-political stagnation that Algerians have come to adopt and is believed to be one of the reasons why Algeria did not follow suit during the Arab Spring. Much analysis has focused on Algeria’s concept of fear when understanding the absence of nationwide movements of protest; more particularly, fear of a return to the violence that plagued the 1990s.

However, this reasoning becomes problematic once you look at the demographic of those who took part in the initial protests of 2011. Like Egypt and Tunisia, those who led the short-lived protest movement did not live through the nineties and so would not have been influenced by the fear evoked by memories of Algeria’s recent dark period. Compared with Algerians older than 30 and influenced by the traumatising social memory, Algeria’s young generation has no crippling template with which to measure the risks of their expressions to current frustrations.

What October 1988 defines above all for Algeria’s depoliticised society is the expectation that popular aspirations will automatically entail greater social freedom. The disappointment that followed the protests of 1988, which failed to bring about any tangible reforms, mirrors the manipulation of revolutionary efforts, whether in 1954 or 1988, which dictates past social narratives. As opposed to Algerians surrendering hope in the forms of popular protest, the fear comes from the belief that such means of expression will be confiscated by the higher powers that be for whom change becomes a process to be treated with caution.

The problem also lies with the young generation who use protests to weak effect. Many of the demonstrations stem from the marginalisation that seems to be a permanent fate of the youth protesting against certain conditions as opposed to formulating visions for the future. They become too marginalised and too dominated to define their sense of domination, and too dependent or too indifferent to regulate mobilisation to an effective end.

Nevertheless, recent figures have shown just how common protesting and sit-ins are for Algerians expressing regular frustrations. Around 112,878 interventions by riot police were made in 2010, and as many as 18 interventions per day happened in the first six months of 2011. Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation shocked Tunisia and the Arab world enough to spark the Arab Spring, but Algeria had already seen its first self-immolation case, in May 2004, when a 40-year old man from Djelfa set himself alight after the seizure of his assets by the courts. In October 2009, a father set himself and his family on fire outside the council offices when their home was demolished after it was deemed to be an illegal construction.

Regular sit-ins or small pockets of localised protests that happen every week have arguably become part of the fabric of political discourse that has moulded the relationship between state and society. However, the protests that took place during the onset of the Arab Spring, for example, were simply not unique or faith-inducing enough to evoke the same public impact as they did in Tunisia or Egypt.

For Algerians, stability that was attained post-2000 is too difficult to give up for the uncertainty that revolutionary movements would bring and the risks of unbridled violence.  Even so, it would be incorrect to equate those left crippled by fear to those wishing to depart from the dark past and to simply move forward with their lives.

For Algerians utilising protests and sit-ins, they become more effective as a response to internal socio-political issues rather than calling for the overthrow of the current regime. They are also driven largely by the emancipatory promises made by postcolonial nationalism and the post-independence populist politics that still drives Algerians to expect social reforms and justice. What needs to be addressed, though, is the contradiction of protests accepted as the only channels for pushing real change with the scepticism that such civil action can produce any long-term political change.

The frustrations that sparked the riots of the eighties are exactly the same conditions that Algerians have normalised to ill-end. As the current generation departs from the social memories that have largely caused its crippling stagnation, it is inevitable that the uncontained frustrations will eventually spill over. It is a risk that the new generation will have to decide is a price worth paying for the social justice and political reforms from which Algeria is so very far removed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.