Hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding an end to the 20-year presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika flooded the streets of Algerian cities on Friday in the greatest challenge to the North African nation’s leadership in three decades.
The protests, following midday prayers and concluding largely peacefully several hours later, marked the largest and perhaps broadest anti-government action in the country since a wave of demonstrations and unrest in the late 1980s triggered a brief democratic opening before the country descended into a decade-long civil war.
“We have woken up, so get ready,” they chanted. “We want the riches of the country divided equally.”
They came amid signs of fissures within the ruling elite with symbolic acts of protest by lawmakers, politicians and community leaders in support of the anti-government wave, which began last month.
“For days, Algeria has been witnessing an unprecedented peaceful revolutionary situation led only by the people,” wrote Mokrane Ait Larbi, a campaign manager for one of the presidential candidates running against Mr Bouteflika. Mr Larbi resigned from his post and dismissed the process as a sham.
“It would not be possible at this historic crossroads to achieve a breakthrough via elections.”
Protesters on Friday turned out under grey skies and blustery weather, despite a message attributed to Mr Bouteflika, issued through his minister of communications, warning of potential violence.
“The democratic pluralism, for which we tirelessly campaigned, is now a tangible reality,” said his statement, which was issued on Thursday.
“However, we have the duty to urge vigilance and caution against any possible infiltration of misleading parties, either internal or external, in this peaceful expression. Such parties may cause [sedition] and provoke chaos, with all they can trigger – crises and woes.”
The bulk of those protesting on Friday appeared to be young Algerians raised in the post-conflict era. They took to the streets to oppose a fifth term for the ailing, 82-year-old Mr Bouteflika in upcoming 18 April elections, viewed by many Algerians and independent analysts as a pro forma extension of his rule.
The most well-known candidates running against Mr Bouteflika, including former prime minister Ali Benflis, the Islamist Abderrazek Makri and the leftist Louisa Hanoune, have dropped out of the election and thrown in their lot with the protesters. Describing the elections as pre-ordained, protesters on Friday booed Ali Ghediri, one of the minor candidates running against Mr Bouteflika.
Key organisations dating back to the 1952-1962 war of independence from France such as the National Organisation for the Children of Martyrs, the National Organisation of Mujahideen, workers’s unions and several members of the politically well-connected Forum des Chefs d’Entreprises, a business lobby, have edged towards the protest movement.
Ahmed Ferroukhi, a lawmaker and member of the National Liberation Front (FLN) party, along with a handful of other elected officials, have stepped down to show support for the protesters.
International journalists have been largely barred from entering Algeria in recent years. But Algerian media has been reporting aggressively on the protests.
“People are not afraid and there’s a lot of solidarity,” one journalist employed by a major media outlet in Algiers told The Independent.
“All categories of people, from all ages and social groups in major cities ... They’re determined to keep things peaceful. There is a big awareness among the population. Everyone is calling for restraint and calm.”
Video footage posted online showed demonstrations all around the country of 42 million, the largest nation by land mass in Africa, and a key player in Arab, Mediterranean, and African affairs. The electronic news outlet Tout Sur Algerie, with a million followers on Twitter, reported protests in the capital Algiers, in Boumerdes, a satellite city of the capital, Bouira, southwest of the capital, Constantine and Souk Ahras, in the country’s northeast, Mascara in the northwest, the Sahara oasis city of Ghardaia as well as the number two city of Oran.
Protesters in Tizi Ouzou, an important city in the largely ethnic Berber region of Kabylie, waved the blue, green and yellow flag of the Amazigh movement for cultural and political rights.
In the capital, authorities throttled the internet to slow communications and reporting on the protests, and blocked public transport access to protest venues, tactics used by Arab regimes during the 2011 uprisings against long-standing dictatorships.
Police tried to block protesters from the main squares and fired tear gas, but showed restraint: Algeria’s police are better trained and paid than counterparts in other Arab autocracies, and the journalist who attended the protests said they mostly stood on the sidelines despite a years-long ban on protests in the capital.
Beyond the election and the disconnect between Mr Bouteflika’s entourage and the country’s youthful population, Algerians of all political leanings have long been angry at the country’s ruling elite over perceived corruption and the squandering of the country’s vast hydrocarbon wealth.
According to Swiss media outlets, Mr Bouteflika is currently in a Geneva hospital where he is recovering from respiratory and neurological medical complications that apparently leave him unable to speak. Once a dynamic politician who guided the country into an era of relative stability following the civil war, he has been wheelchair bound, largely quiet and mostly absent from public view since suffering a stroke nearly six years ago.
Many Algerians suspect his brother Caid Bouteflika and a clique of shadowy business and military figures are pulling the strings of government, divvying up the country’s spoils and mismanaging the nation’s affairs without any accountability.
The Algerian uprising is being closely watched across the Middle East and North Africa. Financial analysts have cautioned that any major unrest or violence could badly damage a fragile economy.
For decades, the country was seen by westerners and Arab autocrats as an example of how Arab autocracies could employ security forces to squelch popular demands for change. But the expanding protests suggest Algeria’s stability – which has benefited western oil and gas firms doing business in the country – has been a chimera.
“Instead of ending unrest by addressing the underlying problems, they propose more repression,” wrote Hassan Hassan, a scholar. “This approach is reinforced by deteriorating economic conditions and dwindling resources, which make the regimes less capable of resolving the underlying issues.”
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