On this day in 1988, young people in the Algerian capital of Algiers took to the streets to protest high unemployment, rising prices and political autocracy. In the days that followed, the protests spread to several cities across the country and within the week some 500 people had been killed and over 1,000 injured in the ensuing chaos. Thirty years later, the Arab world faces the same socioeconomic conditions that prompted the demonstrations, but Algerians look back on the cost of their demand for freedom.
What: "Black October" Riots
When: 5 to 11 October 1988
Where: Numerous cities across Algeria
Some 25 years after independence Algeria in 1988 was struggling to cope with a burgeoning youth population and liberal economic policies ill-suited for its fledgling economy. 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. Rising prices of basic foodstuffs and school equipment at the start of the new academic year had led to rising tensions on the streets in the weeks before. Generationally fractured, anger became focused on the corrupt and autocratic one-party system of the National Liberation Front (FLN) that had held power since independence from France in 1962.
In the midst of increasing socioeconomic despair, demonstrations erupted first in Algiers. On 5 October protesters took the streets shouting "Rise up youth" and carrying banners stating "We want our rights". Demonstrators targeted shops, offices, official vehicles and buildings, many of which were set on fire. State symbols such as the offices for Air Algeria and the expensive Riad Al-Fatih shopping mall were also scenes of violence. On one public building the national flag was torn down and replaced with an emblematic empty couscous sack.
Inspired in part by the forms of Palestinian resistance being used against Israeli forces in the ongoing First Intifada, popular protests continued to spread to other cities across the country. Tiaret experienced the worst violence after Algiers, with law courts in the city of Bilda also torched and the town centre occupied by protesters.
Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid was also a target of ridicule in the protests, with slogans ridiculing and condemning his rule. The president came to be seen as the living embodiment of the privilege, inequality and corruption the protesters were fighting against.
On the second day of the protests, military General Khaled Nezzar declared a state of emergency, enforcing a military curfew and banning all demonstrations. The protesters were presented as mindless rioters and looters, and the army were given free rein to shoot, arrest and torture those involved.
But the crackdown on the protests had the reverse effect; instead of quashing demonstrators, state violence renewed public anger with thousands taking to the street calling for political change. On Monday 10 October, a protest of some 20,000 people led by Islamist leader Ali Belhadj found its way barred by a military barricade; some half an hour later, the military had fired indiscriminately into the crowd killing over 50 people. Dozens more were killed at a similar shooting outside a mosque. Public outrage surged: "They are worse than Zionists! Zionists do not fire on mosques," fleeing demonstrators told reporters.
What happened next?
With the death toll at over 500 people, on 11 October President Bendjedid finally broke his silence and delivered a 20 minute address on television. He promised political reforms and an elimination of the monopoly of the state, alongside subsidised goods and expanded opportunities.
Although many were sceptical, the president's speech made an impact and protests subsided and the country's state of emergency was lifted.
A new constitution was subsequently submitted for a national referendum the following year, paving the way for the country's first national election. However, any hopes behind the reforms were soon quashed when a military coup stopped the ascension of the Islamist party Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) that had secured the first round of the elections in 1991. The army banned the party in 1992 and the country quickly descended into a brutal civil war that led to the deaths of more than 200,000 Algerians by 1999.
The Black October protests have been remembered as the most important event in Algeria's history after the independence war. The demonstrations led to the fall of the country's one party system, but the subsequent instability also left a resounding impact on Algerian society, which many have cited as the reason that Algeria did not fall victim to the 2010 uprisings experienced in neighbouring Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world.
Yet protests still remain a frequent feature of Algerian popular resistance, with varying forms of civic action held against socioeconomic conditions, which increasingly look the same as the circumstances of 1988. Whilst history has shown Algerians that demonstrations alone cannot bring about systemic change, "Black October" is a reminder that increasing frustration at political and economic stagnation across the region will inevitably spill over, in the absence of structural change.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.