Yesterday was the thirty-third Friday of protests in Algeria, which continued the popular rejection of elections currently scheduled for 12 December. A new slogan also emerged: protestors chanted “Bye Bye Gaïd Salah, this year there will not be a vote,” addressed to the chief of staff of the army. But this vendredire (the compound term that has become regularly used for the Friday protests) was not like the thirty-two others that came before it for one main reason: it occurred around the anniversary of 5 October 1988, a date that comes with a heavy history in Algeria. On this date, massive protests against the Algerian state broke out, as Algerians denounced the lack of economic opportunities, corruption, and the one-party state. Moreover, several RAJ (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse) militants were arrested or taken into custody by men in civilian clothing. This organization, which has expressed a clear commitment to peaceful protest, thus continues to be targeted by the authorities. Police repression continues to intensify today in response to protests that commemorate 5 October and social media has reported that several journalists and citizens have been taken into custody.
The brutal police repression of the protests that began on 5 October 1988 left up to five-hundred Algerians dead, however. These events were followed by political and economic liberalizations under the government of Mouloud Hamrouche. Yet this opening also brought extreme violence to Algeria, a period that often goes under the name of the “Dark Decade” and remains the subject of intense debate (the other moniker “civil war” remains polemical). Thus, 5 October conjures up a range of emotions. Moreover, a popular amnesia regarding these years was encouraged by the state, which instituted a policy of national reconciliation in its aftermath. In 2011, when the region was undergoing the turmoil of the “Arab Spring,” the regime claimed that this democratization had already taken place Algeria, suggesting that there was no reason for popular discontent to swell up in the country as it had in Egypt and Tunisia. Yet rather than silencing the hopes and aspirations expressed by Algerians in 1988, the Algerian people are once again appropriating the past in order to dictate the future. RAJ has repeatedly expressed a commitment to commemorating the events of 5 October 1988, thereby continuing the struggle for democratic expression that 5 October has come to symbolize.
Signs of political discontent and a rejection of the historical narrative of the ruling party were simmering long before October 1988. The period ushered in by the death of the third-wordlist president, Hourai Boumédiène, in 1978 featured multiple signs of protest—notably the 1980 “Berber Spring,” when a wave of protests emerged in response to the canceling of a talk by the writer and anthropologist, Mouloud Mammeri. Opposition forces included not only Berber activists, but also Islamists and leftists who had been operating in semi-clandestine conditions. Many of these groups came together for the first time on 5 October 1988, occupying public spaces in an unprecedented fashion. The discontent that had been expressed in football stadiums emerged in full force in city streets. Watching the Hirak in 2019, all of this feels eerily familiar.
RAJ was created in 1992 and has become a key association that encourages debate and exchange, committed to spreading the principles of solidarity and human rights among the youth. This is precisely the generation whose creativity and steadfastness poses a threat to the regime. While Friday protests receive most coverage in Algeria, Tuesday is when the students protest, and they have formed the backbone of this movement. Thus, it is not surprising that RAJ has faced repression since the start of the Hirak. In late August, the prefecture forbade a summer school organized by RAJ from taking place. While some RAJ militants were taken into custody and released, others remain in prison. Achene Kadi, was arrested on 29 September and celebrated his twenty-second birthday yesterday, deprived of his liberty. His mother used social media not only to wish her son a happy birthday, but to express that she was proud of him. Other RAJ militants, like Hakim Addad, are scheduled to stand before a prosecutor tomorrow. The search for justice, human rights, and economic transparency thus continues thirty-one years after 5 October became a symbol of popular expression.