Spring in October
Mohammed Yefsah - 04/01/2012
It was fall when the first Arab Spring painfully blossomed. This was in Algeria, in October 1988, and it ended with bloodshed a few years later. The October Riots were probably the most significant event since the country’s independence in 1962. To this day, no political responsibility has been claimed for the tragedy that threw the Algerian youth into the streets. Peaceful rallies and demonstrations were followed by violent attacks on key buildings and government landmarks and state symbols. The streets were barricaded and filled with burning tires, cars were set on fire. Women chanted and cried with joy from atop the balconies, from where they would throw objects towards the repressive police forces. Bullets scared the walls of buildings, ambulances rushed to carry the wounded. These were days of mourning.
This “children’s racket”, as one minister called it, was soon to become a big hurricane of anger. On October 6, a siege was proclaimed. Khaled Nezzar lead military interventions with tanks and heavy machinery taking over strategic spots in the main cities. The official death toll amounted to 169 people, but according to medical sources, more than 500 people died and several thousands were wounded. During the clashes, a large number of people were imprisoned and torture was widely used. The repression was unexpectedly severe and violent, shocking people profoundly and contaminating the wave of protests for good.
In the eighties, the Algerian government launched its program of Infitah , or opening. Liberalism gradually started taking over the Algerian economy, and several economic sectors, for example the fruits and vegetables industries, were privatised. This was coupled by a demographic explosion – then, 75% of the population was below 25. Failing social and economic reforms and rapid urbanisation lead to the growth of unofficial associations and democratic movements that eventually fomented the climate of regime contestation.
As a response to the oil crises of 1983 and 1986 and the ensuing worldwide recession, the Algerian regime started imposing austere policies. Algeria was a country getting 97% of its revenues from oil and gas. This meant that people living in already meagre conditions now had to survive on even less.
The deteriorating living conditions, the shortage of basic goods such as sugar, coffee, cigarettes, and cooking oil, and the housing crisis (large families were crammed in tiny spaces; some described it saying “we slept in turns”), triggered riots. In 1983, demonstrators rose up in Oran, in 1985 in Constantine and Sétif. Many of these riots took place after football games, where poor masses would face the police and attack markets to get a hold of food supplies.
As a result of the repression and the ever-present fear of the Sécurité Militaire, countless jokes about the president started becoming a means of resistance. This was an early indication of the coming October revolt, and opened up for a democratisation. At that time, the country was obsessed with the thought of freedom. Associations were created, thousands of opposition newspapers saw the light of the day. The system was even criticised in the only TV station at the time. Against this backdrop, the masses remained poor while the rich were getting richer, as was evident from the ever-growing number of luxury cars on the streets.
There are a few conspiracy theories on these revolts that Algeria’s political and intellectual elites are especially fond of. Some say that President Chadli Bendjedid’s close circle of friends worked to bring out the people to the streets, trying to force reforms that the conservative wing of the FLN was against.
Others believe that the chaos was instigated by foreign forces. Within the regime, a strife between reformers and bureaucrats about the pace of political and economic reforms, obstructed the most important cause of the revolts: a mix of growing frustration, injustice, and political confinement.
In these theories, one can observe a contempt towards the popular movement. It appears minor and unable to pull themselves together. This same analysis is still made today, partly due to the lack of an autonomous intellectual field. The rise of Islamism and the tragedy Algeria has lived through lately did not make it any better. October of 1988 is still seen as a curse by those from the elite who believe that fundamentalism grew stronger thanks to the boom of political parties. The sixty-or-so new parties that were legalized by the government are considered a manipulation; a way of thinking that implicitly questions democratic principles. But the number sixty is not a lot by any measure; in France for instance, nearly 300 parties make up the political spectrum. Every time the event is commemorated, this same manipulative language comes back like a motto, in everything from democratic parties’ statements to the words of experts and newspaper articles.
Instead of taking care of the country’s social crisis, the regime gave in to political pluralism and allowed the creation of religious organisations. Initially on a small scale, fundamentalists started taking advantage of the revolt and formed their own political force, the Islamic Salvation Front, or ISF, to take charge of the radical side of the upheaval. The party’s discourse became more popular right at a time when the global socialist dream was crumbling and the East bloc was falling apart. The first Algerian multi-party elections confirmed ISF’s influence. In June 1990, during the local and regional (wilayale) elections, the party almost got 3.5 million out of 12 million registered votes. In Algeria’s majority electoral system, this meant that the ISF won 833 communes out of the total 1551, and 31 departments out of 48. The coming year, despite losing 1 million of these votes in the legislative elections, the party still managed to keep their parliamentary majority.
An affiliated Islamic Syndicate of Workers was created, but the ISF never managed to infiltrate the labour arena. It did however remain the most influential party amongst the working class. Confident of its power and radical to the core, the ISF sparked general insurrectional strikes. They were backed by several administrative sectors including the communes in their demand for elections. The rise of a working class consciousness and an increased willingness to fight for women’s rights, as well as the emergence of large political movements, could all have led to major changes on the political scene.
But, the government put a halt to these changes, choosing to cancel the electoral process. So the curtain fell suddenly, and all those spaces of political expression that had emerged with such optimism, soon disappeared. In 1992, a state of emergency was declared. The army took hold of the country, supported by a faction of the democratic political class. The clashes that followed were traumatising, with great human losses and heavy political consequences.
The article was translated from French by Mashallah News Babemed’s partner