Algerian police swamp capital, seeking to end weekly protests


A heavy police presence smothered central Algiers on Friday, aimed at blocking any resumption of a weekly protest movement that the authorities have decided they can no longer tolerate.

A Reuters journalist saw about 20 security forces vehicles in the city centre, six police sitting inside one as it stood by a cafe where people drank coffee at tables outside. Nearby, police stood next to barriers closing off the side streets.

After bringing hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in 2019 to oust a veteran president, the “Hirak” protest movement continued with weekly marches seeking to stop the army interfering in politics.

“I will try to march this Friday but I will not confront the police,” said one of the protesters, who gave only his first name, Amarouche, for fear of reprisals after a wave of recent arrests.

The Interior Ministry said this month that any new protests would require an official permit that named the organisers and included start and finishing times.

It appeared aimed at the leaderless, unorganised Hirak, which had stopped protesting in March 2020 when the global pandemic struck, but returned to the streets in February with thousands demonstrating each Friday since then.

Two protesters who had returned to the streets in February, Ahmed Abdiche and Mohamed Badji, said they did not intend to march on Friday, expecting a crackdown, though both said it would not end their quest for change.

“Hirak will continue, whether through marches or other methods. But we will stick to peaceful ways,” said Abdiche.

“Using force to stop our marches will change nothing because we are determined to achieve our goals and will not step back,” said Badji.

Last Friday, the first since the Interior Ministry ruling, fell on the Eid al-Fitr holiday so few protesters attempted to come out. Those who did were quickly dispersed by riot police.

Hirak’s 2019 protests represented a political earthquake in Algeria, posing the hardest test in decades to be faced by a ruling elite that had been in place since independence from France in 1962.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced from office after two decades and numerous senior officials were jailed on corruption charges.

However, protesters said the changes were largely cosmetic and sought a more thorough purge of the ruling elite and the army’s withdrawal from politics.

The movement boycotted the election of Bouteflika’s successor, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in December 2019 and a referendum he held on changes to the constitution in November 2020 that was passed with a dismal turnout of 25%.

However, with the economy in deep trouble thanks to declining energy revenue and the global pandemic, and after some of Hirak’s immediate goals were met, many of its initial supporters have since decided to stop protesting.

“The time has come to opt for dialogue and end this crisis. Marching and shouting slogans won’t solve our problems,” said one, Ali Bachiri.