Algerians protest, demand reforms and defy the north African-Arab government
Algiers (AP) – 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 a day after similar protests toppled Egypt’s authoritarian leader.
Heavily armed police tried to seal off Algiers, blocking streets, lining up along the march route and setting up barricades outside the city to try to stop busloads of demonstrators from reaching the capital.
But despite the heavy security, thousands flooded into downtown Algiers, clashing with police who outnumbered them at least three-to-one. A human rights activist said more than 400 people were arrested.
Tensions have been high in this sprawling North African nation of 35 million since five days of riots in January over high food prices. Despite its vast gas reserves, Algeria has long been beset by widespread poverty and high unemployment, and some have predicted it could be next Arab country hit by the wave of popular protests that have already ousted two longtime Arab leaders in a month.
Ali Yahia Abdenour, head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, said women and foreign journalists were among those detained Saturday.
He estimated that up to 28,000 riot police were deployed in the capital, where they charged the crowd in a bid to disperse demonstrators. Organizers said 10,000 people took place in the protest, but officials put the turnout at around 1,500.
Protesters chanted “No to the police state!” and “Bouteflika out!” – a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has led the nation since 1999. They jostled with riot police to get through the barriers set up across the city.
Under Algeria’s nearly two-decades-long state of emergency, protests are banned in the capital, but repeated government warnings for people to stay away fell on deaf ears. Some called Saturday’s protest a key turning point.
“This demonstration is a success because it’s been 10 years that people haven’t been able to march in Algiers and there’s a sort of psychological barrier,” said Ali Rachedi, the former head of the Front of Socialist Forces party. “The fear is gone.”
The protest came just a day after an uprising in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in power and 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 pressed for democratic reforms 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.
A markedly anti-government sentiment was in the air. Under the headline “Mubarak pushed from power,” the Algerian paper La Liberte published a cartoon Saturday showing 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, authorities said the state of emergency – in place since 1992 – will be lifted in the “very near future.” However, they 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.