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Algerians throng the streets for ‘Million Man’ anti-Bouteflika march

Ryad Kramdi, AFP | Algerians march with signs reading ‘peaceful’, and ‘leave means leave’, during a rally against Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term, in Algiers on March 1, 2019

Algerians on Friday thronged the streets in rare protests – dubbed the 'Million Man March' – against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in power.

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"Regime murderers," groups of flag-waving demonstrators chanted as riot police used tear gas to try to prevent them from reaching key central locations in Algiers, several independent news outlets reported.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the centre of the capital after Friday's noon prayers. Early in the evening, Agence France-Presse journalists reported witnessing at least 10 people injured after clashes between police and groups of youth on the fringes of the demonstrations in Algiers. According to a police toll, 56 police and seven demonstrators were hurt and 45 arrests were made in the capital, AFP reported.

The scale of the protests has surprised many in Algeria and represents the biggest challenge in years to the authorities. Protesters have been mobilised by calls on social media and say the demonstrations are aimed not only at Bouteflika's bid to extend his 20-year tenure, but also against the ruling elite as a whole.

Such anti-government protests are unusual in Algeria, where questions are growing about Bouteflika's fitness for office after a 2013 stroke that left him largely hidden from public. His opponents say he is not fit to lead and that Algeria is ruled in his name by his advisers.

Police helicopters circled overhead as the protesters gathered in the streets and parks of Algiers. Riot police vans lined the boulevard leading to the presidential headquarters and deployed around the march route.

Demonstrations were also planned in other Algerian regions.

Protest organisers issued an appeal for demonstrators to keep calm and stay two metres away from police cordons, to bring families and to clean up after the march.

It's the latest of several protests in recent days against Bouteflika's candidacy for the April 18 election, with tens of thousands taking part in the first protests that were staged last Friday.

Afraid of a crackdown

FRANCE 24’s Franco-Algerian journalist Meriem Amellal said: “The most important thing for protesters today is to repeat the episodes of last Friday: They want the demonstrations to be peaceful, that’s the most important thing for them.”

Amellal said she had spoken to some protesters ahead of Friday’s march and that they had insisted that “we must show to the world that Algerian people are not violent, that we want to get rid of the regime peacefully”.

“Some of them told me that they are afraid that the demonstrations will descend into violence. They are afraid that the regime will organise a chaos to stop the electoral process, to declare a state of emergency and that they will keep President Bouteflika in power.”

'No to censorship'

The new mobilisation comes a day after Algerian police briefly detained several journalists at a protest in the capital, calling for the right to cover the rarely seen anti-government demonstrations that began a week ago

Shouting "No to censorship" and "Fourth estate, not a press that follows orders", the journalists took to the streets in central Algiers. But as the demonstration got underway, police arrested a dozen journalists, an AFP reporter said, and sparking angry reactions from their colleagues who banged on the police vans that drove them away. "Free our colleagues," the remaining demonstrators shouted. Car drivers who witnessed the arrests honked their horns in solidarity and shouted "Free press".

Two hours later police, including some in anti-riot gear, broke up the protest that had gathered at the "Place de la liberte de la presse" (Press Freedom Square) in central Algiers.

The demonstrators then tried to regroup at the Tahar Djaout Press House where several private newspapers have their offices, but they were again dispersed by the police.

State media only started covering the protests on Tuesday after journalist employees publicly complained they were being prevented from doing so. At the same time both the state broadcaster and private channels owned by media magnates close to the government have kept silent about the protests. State radio journalists said they had been ordered by management not to cover them.

PM compares protests to Syria

Addressing the parliament on Thursday, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia compared the growing protest movement to the peaceful demonstrations that erupted in Syria and sparked a war that is now nearing its ninth year.

Speaking in parliament Ouyahia said some "demonstrators offered roses to the policemen. But we should recall that in Syria it also began with roses", he said. His remarks sparked ire from a number of lawmakers who stormed out of parliament, while others applauded the prime minister.

Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia compares protests to Syria

Syria's war broke out in March 2011 after the brutal repression of nationwide anti-regime protests that demanded civil liberties and the release of political prisoners. It has since evolved into a complex conflict involving world powers, regional factions and jihadists that has left more than 360,000 people dead, according to a war monitor, and millions displaced.

Ouyahia told parliament peaceful protests are among the rights enshrined in the Algerian constitution, but he warned against the possibility that outside forces he did not name could "manipulate" demonstrators.

The scale of the protests have taken many by surprise and since last Friday students and lawyers have also demonstrated against Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term.

'Protestors might be able to prevent Bouteflika’s fifth term,' says GWU Professor William Lawrence

Omnipresent military, one party rule

For years, many Algerians avoided involvement in politics or in demonstrations for fear of the omnipresent security services or due to disillusionment, considering the country has been run by the same group of veterans since the 1954-1962 independence war with France.

Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999, is credited with helping to bring about the end in 2002 of a decade-long civil war that pitted the government against Islamist militants and in which around 200,000 people were killed.

Because of the extreme brutality of that conflict, many Algerians have long tolerated a restrictive political system in return for peace and stability. But the new protests appear to have broken the taboo on public dissent.

The opposition is not seen as an alternative to Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front (FLN) as it is weak and divided and faces high hurdles in mounting an electoral challenge. Since the FLN again picked Bouteflika as its presidential candidate, several parties, trade unions and business groups have endorsed him.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)

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