9 Mar 2019

Big anti-Bouteflika protest fills Algerian capital

2:02 pm on 9 March 2019

Tens of thousands of Algerians packed central Algiers to capacity on Friday to challenge President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's 20-year-old rule in the biggest protests in the capital in 28 years.

Algerian protesters demonstrate against their ailing president's bid for a fifth term in power

Algerian protesters demonstrate against their ailing president's bid for a fifth term in power Photo: AFP

While the demonstrations, the latest in two weeks of marches and rallies against the veteran leader, were mostly peaceful, police used tear gas to block the road to the presidential palace and also used it in several other areas of the capital.

In its latest edition, quoted by the state news agency, the army magazine described the relationship between the military and Algerians in positive terms.

"Both belong to one country, no alternative to it," said Djeich magazine. Both the people and the army had the same vision and destiny, it said.

It did not mention the unrest but the army chief of staff has said the military would not tolerate any threats to the stability of the country.

Unusually, one of the most popular imams, or prayer leaders, in Algiers did not pray for the president as he does every Friday, and only wished the best for Algeria and its people.

In another change, state news agency APS said protesters had demanded "regime change". The agency had said in previous coverage of the event that the protesters wanted "political change". Its news service ignored the first few days of protests entirely.

Algerians fed up with unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite seen as out of touch with the young have taken to the streets since 22 February to protest against the 82-year-old's plans to remain in office.

"Tear gas is becoming more frequent," said a witness, as teenagers on rooftops monitored police movements on the streets.

Underscoring frustrations with the entire Algerian political system, protesters put signs on the heads of donkeys with the names of ruling party figures and a member of the opposition.

Several lawmakers of the ruling FLN party have resigned to join the mass anti-government protests, the private Ashourouq TV station said on Friday. No details were immediately available.

Train and metro services in Algiers were suspended without explanation before Algerians gathered in the capital and several other cities including Constantine, Annaba, Skikda, Bouira and Tizi Ouzou to press Bouteflika to step down.

The president is in hospital in Geneva and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

On Thursday he issued his first warning to protesters, saying the unrest, now entering its third week, could create chaos in North African country, an oil and gas producer.

Algerian protesters chant slogans and sit down at a demonstration against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's fifth term in Algiers, Algeria

Algerian protesters chant slogans and sit down at a demonstration against Abdelaziz Bouteflika's fifth term in Algiers, Algeria Photo: AFP

The demonstrations, the largest since 1991 when the army canceled elections Islamists were poised to win, pose the most substantial threat ever faced by the president, who is standing for re-election on 18 April.

His candidacy has angered many Algerians tired of the dominance of elderly veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France.

Bouteflika has offered to limit his term after the election - and even to change the "system" that runs the country - but people from different classes of society, including students and young families, are still on the street.

Some long-time allies of Bouteflika, including members of the ruling party, have expressed support for the protesters, revealing cracks within a ruling elite long seen as invincible.

Older Algerians with dark memories of a civil war in the 1990s have tolerated crackdowns on dissent in exchange for stability, and Bouteflika avoided the kind of uprising that toppled Arab leaders in 2011 because the state had enough foreign reserves to boost state spending.

But the young want jobs and are tired of what they perceive as widespread corruption. More than a quarter of Algerians under 30 are unemployed.

Algerians have been urged to stage a "March of 20 Million" on Friday by an anonymous party on social media.

"Bouteflika, go!" read one banner. "Algeria is a republic, not a kingdom", "No elections until the gangs are brought down", said others.

Riot police have been deployed in growing numbers in recent days, but the military has so far stayed in its barracks.

"Today will be a decisive day," said Mohamed, a teacher in Algiers.

- Reuters