Defying a ban, protesters rally in heavily policed Algiers
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In the Algerian capital of Algiers on Saturday, riot police scuffled with anti-government protesters who were defying a ban on demonstrations, inspired by recent historic events in Tunisia and Egypt.
Braving a massive police presence, thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of the Algerian capital of Algiers Saturday, defying an official ban on demonstrations and briefly forcing through a police cordon in the centre of the city.
Reporting from Algiers, FRANCE 24’s Tahar Hani said protesters had gathered at May 1 Square chanting, “Free and democratic Algeria”.
Saturday’s protests came a day after Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down from office, thereby reinvigorating the long-planned for demonstration in Algiers.
Protesters held signs saying, “After Mubarak, it will be Bouteflika,” referring to the 74-year-old Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in office since 1999.
Skirmishes broke out between riot police preventing protesters from reaching central Algiers, reported FRANCE 24's Hani.
While police said about 800 protesters had taken to the streets, journalists and opposition members put the figure at 2,000.
Police presence turns Algiers into a ‘city of blue’
Security was tight ahead of the protests with police blocking access to the capital.
“Hassiba Ben Bouali Street, the main road leading to May 1 Square, is virtually under siege by policemen equipped with riot shields and batons,” said Hani. “Access to Algiers has been blocked with a heavy police presence on the roads linking the city with the rest of Algeria. Train services between central Algiers and the eastern and western suburbs have been cancelled.”
The Algerian capital famed for its luminous white walls had turned into a city of blue, said Hani, referring to the massive police presence. Opposition groups say 35,000 police officials had been deployed, including reinforcements that arrived from other parts of the country.
Saturday’s march was organised by an umbrella group of human rights activists, trade unionists, lawyers and political parties, including the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) party.
Four senior RCD officials were arrested Saturday morning along with about 60 other members, according to RCD spokesman Mohsen Belabas.
Reporting from Algiers earlier Saturday, Hani said the RCD headquarters on the main Didouche Mourad Street had been “surrounded by police”.
The impressive police presence succeeded in intimidating some residents. Yacine, a 25-year-old Algiers resident, told FRANCE 24 that he woke up early to get his supplies of bread and milk in case things go wrong during the day.
Seeking a 'rupture' and 'genuine democracy'
In an interview with FRANCE 24 earlier this week, Fodil Boumala, a writer and member of the CNCD (National Coordination for Change and Democracy) the umbrella group organising Saturday’s demonstration, said the purpose of the march was to achieve “a rupture, the departure of the current government and the establishment of genuine democracy”.
Boumala was one of the many opposition activists arrested on Saturday.
Demonstrations have been banned in Algeria because of a state of emergency that has been in place since 1992 when the military cancelled free elections, sparking Algeria’s descent into a brutal civil war.
Last week, President Bouteflika announced that he would lift the state of emergency “in the very near future”, following a spate of copycat suicide attempts mimicking that of the 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in protest at unemployment sparked the Tunisian uprising that led to the overthrow of the president. Bouteflika has also promised to allow more democratic freedoms and generate more jobs.
But organisers of Saturday’s march have dismissed the president’s promises, demanding an actual end to the state of emergency and calling for Bouteflika himself to step down.