Coronavirus threat to Algerian protest movement

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Algerians are watching to see whether a global epidemic will do what the ruling authorities they describe as le pouvoir – the powers that be – have failed to achieve and quell a year of mass protests.

Street demonstrations in Algiers and other cities are on Fridays and Tuesdays and protesters contacted by Reuters were divided over whether to march this week.

On Thursday, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune ordered schools and universities closed after health authorities said confirmed coronavirus cases had risen to 26 with two people dead.

Government has decreed measures to stop the virus spreading, including a ban on spectators at sports events and on political, social and cultural gatherings.

Authorities have not said if it includes mass protests since early 2019, forcing out veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The leaderless protest movement –  Hirak – brought down powerful officials with its demands for removal of the governing elite, withdrawal of the army from politics and an end to corruption.

It could not prevent a December election  to elect a new president, though it opposed any vote before the ruling hierarchy quit. The winner, Tebboune, formed a government in January.

Protester Mourad Amrani (27) said the movement was not ready to back down.

“Hirak must continue until the system is uprooted and it has not been yet. If we stop now the system will be reborn. I understand there is a risk from coronavirus, but I will march,” the taxi driver said.

Djamila Belaid, a 43-year-old mother of three who describes herself as a longstanding supporter of the protest, said she and her family would no longer attend.

“If Hirak goes on, this could let coronavirus spread and more people will be infected. I am worried. I will not let my children go to the Hirak,” she said.

Although government and the military praised the protests as a moment of national renewal they have tried to damp them down combining a heavy police presence and arrests with concessions.

Tebboune’s Prime Minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, said the “multi-dimensional crisis” facing Algeria as oil prices collapse should move people to make fewer demands on government and reduce their presence on the streets.