Tough tactics ordered by army chief test Algeria's grassroots protests demanding constitutional changes, radical reforms.
ALGIERS – Security forces have erected roadblocks on major entrances into the Algerian capital to prevent citizens from taking part in the weekly protest, underscoring the authorities’ tougher stance towards street protests.
Friday’s protest, the first major protest day since the announcement on Sunday that an election would go ahead on December 12 and the 31st since February, comes days after army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah ordered the police to stop people from entering Algiers to protest, and seize buses and other vehicles transporting protesters into the capital.
Protesters on Friday were also marching despite several high-profile arrests of opposition activists over the past week.
Despite the clampdown by authorities, the grassroots protests demanding a full overhaul of the regime have shown no sign of waning, and key groups demand constitutional changes and other reforms before a legitimate election can be held.
Demonstrators have so far rejected any election until there is a more thorough purging of the ruling elite, which they say is the only way to guarantee a free and fair vote.
On Friday demonstrators gathered near the capital’s main post office square, the epicentre of Algeria’s protest movement that forced longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down in April, this time calling for the ouster of Salah.
“The people want the fall of Gaid Salah,” they chanted. “Take us all to prison, the people will not stop.”
The army chief has led the push for polls by the end of 2019, despite protesters’ insistence that he himself is one of the former president’s loyalists that must be removed before any vote.
In the runup to the latest rally, as on previous Fridays, police made several arrests near the square, witnesses said.
Police stopped vehicles on main streets in the capital and an AFP correspondent reported seeing officers in plainclothes ask for identity papers, before some people were led off to nearby vans.
As a police helicopter scoured the skies, security forces also stopped cars headed towards the city centre from its southwest entrance, where a dozen anti-riot police vans were stationed.
Said Salhi, deputy head of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, condemned the heightened security measures as “illegal”.
Demonstrations have officially been banned in Algiers since 2001 but the prohibition had been ignored since rallies started on February 22 against the ailing Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term.
“We will not stop marching. It is a unique opportunity to change this corrupt system,” Adlene Kada, a 23-year-old protester, said at Friday’s march.
The authorities have used a dual approach to containing the protest movement in recent months, combining increasing pressure on the demonstrators with arrests of senior people in the ruling elite on corruption charges.
With the election now called, there seems little change in that strategy. The chief of the former ruling FLN party was arrested on Thursday, while at least 37 student protesters, political and other civil society activists have been arrested since 11 September, including three prominent activists that were detained over the past week.