Thousands Defy Ban To Protest In Algeria
Thousands of Algerians defied a government ban on protests and a massive deployment of riot police to march in the capital Saturday, demanding democratic reforms just a day after the same demands toppled Egypt’s authoritarian leader.
Heavily armed police tried to seal off Algiers, blocking off streets, lining up at strategic points along the march route and setting up barricades outside the city to try to stop busloads of demonstrators from reaching the capital. They also deployed in a neighborhood where many newspapers have their headquarters.
Despite the heavy security, thousands of people defied the government ban on street demonstrations, flooding into downtown Algiers. Some arrests were reported as police charged the crowd in a bid to disperse protesters.
Tensions have been high in this sprawling North African nation of 35 million since it saw five days of riots in early January over high food prices. Despite its vast gas reserves, Algeria has long been beset by widespread poverty and high unemployment. Some observers have predicted Algeria could be next Arab country hit by the wave of popular protests that have already ousted two longtime Arab leaders in a month.
Protesters chanted “No to the police state!” and “Bouteflika out!” — a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has led the nation since 1999.
Under Algeria’s long-standing state of emergency — in place since 1992 — protests are banned in Algiers, but repeated government warnings for people to stay away Saturday fell on deaf ears.
Still, news reports suggested security forces outnumbered demonstrators. The Algerian daily La Liberte said some 30,000 riot police had been deployed in the capital, while organizers estimated 10,000 came to march.
The demonstration comes at a sensitive time — just a day after an uprising in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in power and merely a month after another “people’s revolution” in neighboring Tunisia forced autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on Jan. 14.
The success of those uprisings is fueling activists’ hope for change in Algeria, although many in this conflict-scarred nation fear any prospect of violence after living through a brutal Islamist insurgency in the 1990s that left an estimated 200,000 people dead.
Saturday’s marchers urged reforms pushing Algeria toward democracy but did not specifically call for Bouteflika to resign. The rally was organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, an umbrella group for human rights activists, unionists, lawyers and others.
Still, a markedly anti-government sentiment was in the air Saturday. Under the headline “Mubarak pushed from power,” a La Liberte cartoon showed the score Egypt-1, Algeria-0 and a fan waving an Algerian flag saying “we’ve got to tie the score.”
To quell tensions after the food riots, the government announced it would slash the price of sugar and cooking oil. Last week, mindful of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, Algerian authorities also announced that the country’s nearly two-decade-long state of emergency will be lifted in the “very near future.” However, authorities warned that the ban on demonstrations in the capital would remain.
The Islamist insurgency was set off by the army’s decision to cancel Algeria’s first multiparty election in January 1992 to thwart a likely victory by a Muslim fundamentalist party. Scattered violence continues.