Tens of thousands protest in Algiers against ailing leader
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in hospital in Geneva as protesters challenge 20-year rule
Algerians gather for a demonstration in Algiers on Friday against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s hold on power. Photograph: Fateh Guidoum/AP
Tens of thousands of Algerians packed central Algiers to capacity on Friday to challenge President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year-old rule in the biggest protests in the capital in 28 years.
While the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, police used tear gas to block the road to the presidential palace and also used it in several other areas of the capital.
In its latest edition, quoted by the state news agency, the army magazine described the relationship between the military and Algerians in positive terms. “Both belong to one country, no alternative to it,” said Djeich magazine. Both the people and the army had the same vision and destiny, it said.
It did not mention the unrest but the army chief of staff has said the military would not tolerate any threats to the stability of the country.
Unusually, one of the most popular imams, or prayer leaders, in Algiers did not pray for the president as he does every Friday, and only wished the best for Algeria and its people.
Algerians fed up with unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite seen as out of touch with the young have taken to the streets for the past two weeks to protest against the 82-year-old’s plans to remain in office. “Tear gas is becoming more frequent,” said a witness, as teenagers on rooftops monitored police movements on the streets.
Underscoring frustrations with the entire Algerian political system, protesters put signs on the heads of donkeys with the names of ruling party figures and a member of the opposition.
Several lawmakers of the ruling FLN party have resigned to join the mass anti-government protests, the private Ashourouq TV station said on Friday. No details were immediately available.
Train and metro services in Algiers were suspended without explanation before protesters gathered in the capital and several other cities including Constantine, Annaba, Skikda, Bouira and Tizi Ouzou to press Mr Bouteflika to step down.
The ailing Mr Bouteflika is in hospital in Geneva and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. On Thursday he issued his first warning to protesters, saying the unrest, now entering its third week, could create chaos in the North African country, an oil and gas producer.
The demonstrations, the largest since 1991 when the army cancelled elections Islamists were poised to win, pose the most substantial threat ever faced by the president, who is standing for re-election on April 18th. His candidacy has angered many Algerians tired of the dominance of elderly veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France.
Mr Bouteflika has offered to limit his term after the election – and even to change the “system” that runs the country – but people from different classes of society, including students and young families, are still on the street.
Some long-time allies of Mr Bouteflika, including members of the ruling party, have expressed support for the protesters, revealing cracks within a ruling elite long seen as invincible.
Older Algerians with dark memories of a civil war in the 1990s have tolerated crackdowns on dissent in exchange for stability, and Mr Bouteflika avoided the kind of uprising that toppled Arab leaders in 2011 because the state had enough foreign reserves to boost state spending.
But the young want jobs and are tired of what they perceive as widespread corruption. More than a quarter of Algerians under 30 are unemployed.
Algerians have been urged to stage a “March of 20 Million” on Friday by an anonymous party on social media. “Bouteflika, go!” read one banner. “Algeria is a republic, not a kingdom”, “No elections until the gangs are brought down”, said others.
Riot police have been deployed in growing numbers in recent days, but the military has so far stayed in its barracks. “Today will be a decisive day,” said Mohamed, a teacher in Algiers. – Reuters