Some 10 000 people flooded into down town Algiers, organisers estimated, where they skirmished with riot police attempting to block off streets and disperse the crowd. Some arrests were reported. Protesters chanted slogans including “No to the police state” and “Bouteflika out,” a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power in this sprawling North African nation since 1999.
Under Algeria’s long-standing state of emergency – in place since 1992 – protests are banned in Algiers but the government’s repeated warnings for people to stay out of the streets apparently fell on deaf ears. The march comes at a sensitive time – just a day after an uprising in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to abandon the presidency after 30 years in power. It also comes merely a month after another “people’s revolution” in neighbouring Tunisia that forced long-time autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on January 14.
The success of those uprisings is furling the hopes of those seeking change in Algeria, although many in this conflict-scarred nation fear any prospect of violence after living through a brutal insurgency by Islamist extremists in the 1990s that left an estimated 200 000 dead.
Saturday’s march aimed to press for reforms to push Algeria toward democracy and did not include a specific call to oust Bouteflika. It was organised by the Co-ordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, an umbrella group for human rights activists, unionists, lawyers and others.
Police beefed up their presence in Algiers ahead of Saturday’s march. Buses and vans filled with armed police were posted at strategic points along the march route and around Algiers, including at the “Maison de la Presse,” where newspapers have their headquarters.
Friday’s El Watan daily said roads leading into Algiers were barricaded, apparently to stop bus loads of demonstrators from reaching the capital.
In a bid to placate militants, Algerian authorities announced last week that a state of emergency which has been in place since 1992, at the start of the Islamist insurgency, will be lifted in the “very near future.” However, authorities warned that even then the ban on demonstrations in the capital would remain.
Authorities offered to let Saturday’s demonstrators to rally in a meeting hall.
The army’s decision to cancel Algeria’s first multi party legislative elections in January 1992 to thwart a likely victory by a Muslim fundamentalist party set off the insurgency. Scattered violence continues.