Coronavirus sees Algerian protests banned

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Algeria banned street protests over the coronavirus, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said, in a bid to end a year of  mass demonstrations that brought down a veteran president and convulsed the state.

Speaking in a televised address after meeting government ministers and security officials, Tebboune said gatherings and marches were prohibited.

“The lives of citizens are above all considerations even if this requires restricting some freedoms,” he said.

It was not immediately clear if all protesters would agree to suspend their movement. One, school teacher Mohamed Hachimi, said the demonstrations would not stop.

“The system is trying to use coronavirus as an argument to end our revolution. Tebboune and his men will fail because marches will continue,” he said.

Algeria confirmed 60 cases of coronavirus including five deaths, mostly in Blida, south of the capital, restricted foreign travel and closed mosques.

The protest movement, known as the Hirak, exploded onto the streets in February 2019 when became clear octogenarian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika would seek another term as president after 20 years in power.

Demonstrators moved from demanding he step aside to insisting the entire ruling elite that had run Algeria since independence from France in 1962 also quit.

In April, as thousands continued to march through the streets of major cities, Bouteflika gave in. He resigned hours after the powerful army chief, Ahmed Gaed Salah, said he should go.

With Bouteflika out of power, authorities detained many close allies on corruption charges in the biggest purge of the ruling class for decades. Protesters viewed the reforms as cosmetic and would not yield.

They started to demand the army’s withdrawal from politics and Gaed Salah’s resignation, the army chief pushed for a new election to replace Bouteflika.

Protesters opposed that, saying any vote would be illegitimate while the old elite held sway. The election went ahead in December, putting Tebboune into power.

Days later, Gaed Salah died of a heart attack, meaning all Algeria’s most prominent figures from a year before, men who dominated power for decades, were gone.

Tebboune offered talks with protesters and promised to change the constitution, but street demonstrations continues in smaller numbers.

As the coronavirus arrived in North Africa this month, some protesters said they would no longer march for the sake of public health with thousands still in the streets.

They now face a pandemic and police opposition. “I think Tebboune said something reasonable. Health is our top priority in these circumstances,” said Djamel Aziz, a student who has been marching every week.