Algiers police crack down as opposition defies ban on protests
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Police broke up an opposition march calling for democracy in the Algerian capital on Saturday, with troops out in force and streets barricaded to prevent protests in the wake of a popular revolt that toppled the president in neighbouring Tunisia.
Algeria’s capital awoke to a virtual state of siege on Saturday, with a heavy police presence and many streets blocked in order to prevent protesters from reaching the May 1 Square, where opposition groups planned to stage a pro-democracy march.
The opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) planned to defy a 19-year-old ban against marches in Algiers, despite warnings from the authorities and in the wake of a popular revolt that overthrew neighbouring Tunisia's long-time president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali only a week ago.
Sporadic violence flared in and around the city, with relatively small groups of protesters clashing with police.
Outside the headquarters of the opposition RCD party, some 300 people were reportedly encircled by police. The party says at least 42 people were injured in the clashes, including its parliamentary leader, Amazouz Othman. Algerian police reported seven wounded policemen, including two in critical condition, and five arrests.
According to the independent daily al-Watan, clashes also erupted in the outskirts of Algiers between security forces and protesters who tried to reach the capital. AFP reported that a local RCD leader, Boudraa Reda, was beaten with sticks in Bejaia, some 260 km east of the capital.
The RCD said the aborted march was organised to demand the release of people arrested during previous demonstrations, lift the existing state of emergency, restore the individual and collective liberties guaranteed by the constitution and dissolve the government it claims was elected through fraud.
Demonstrations are banned in Algeria because of a state of emergency in place since 1992, when the government was fighting an Islamist insurgency.
On Friday, city officials warned residents of Algiers against joining the march, which was scheduled to start at 11am at the May 1 square and end at the Parliament building.
"Citizens are asked to show wisdom and vigilance and not respond to possible provocation aimed at disturbing their tranquillity, peace of mind and serenity," the Algiers administration told state news agency APS.
In a statement it insisted that public gatherings were “considered a breach of public order".
Speaking to FRANCE 24, RCD chairman Said Saadi said some 15,000 Algerian security forces had been deployed in the capital. “This is not simply a political crisis,” Saadi said, “We have reached a historical impasse.”
Fears of more Tunisia-style unrest
Opposition groups in Algeria have closely monitored the popular revolt that overthrew Tunisia’s Ben Ali and continues to call for the departure of his old guard.
The country shares a 960-kilometre border with Tunisia and has had the same president for the past 12 years.
The revolution in Tunisia was set off by the self-immolation and death of a desperate street vendor. In copycat fashion, Algeria has seen at least seven immolation attempts over the past few days, plus its own isolated violent outbursts and peaceful demonstrations.
A small pro-democracy gathering in Algiers earlier this week startled residents and led to a handful of arrests. “At the police station the first question I was asked was whether we supported the unrest in Tunisia. For the authorities, our march is a call to violence,” said Sofia Djama, an Algerian filmmaker who participated in the demonstration.
According to Sorbonne scholar Burhan Ghalioun, who predicted Ben Ali’s fall, Algeria like Tunisia can no longer maintain a dysfunctional political and economic system under the guise of its war against Islamic terrorism.
The RDC’s Saadi, was also quick to draw a parallel between the situation in the two countries and the potential consequences: “If we cannot set off a peaceful process towards a transitional phase, the violence will be much more devastating in Algeria than it was in Tunisia.”