Thousands of Algerians took to the streets on Friday, in a show of strength for their final weekly protest ahead of a presidential election they reject as meaningless.
Protesters demonstrated twice a week since February to demand the shadowy ruling elite controlling Algeria since independence in 1962 quits power.
On Friday in central Algiers they chanted “We will not vote” and held banners reading “The people are fed up.”
The army, the major force in the Algerian state, sees the December 12 election as the only way to restore normality after nine months of demonstrations that in April ousted the veteran leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The leaderless opposition movement casts the election as pointless if the ruling hierarchy, including the army, continues to wield power and wants it put off until more top officials step aside and the military quits politics.
“We will stick to our position. We don’t care about next Thursday. We need change,” said post office employee Aissa Baha’i.
As the last protesters were leaving, state television began broadcasting a debate between the five men running for president, all former senior officials.
“These candidates are part of the same system. They don’t have new ideas. It’s a shame,” said Mohamed Tabi, a taxi driver.
The first question was about Algeria’s political system and candidates tried to mollify the opposition.
Candidate, Abdelaziz Belaid, said he would hold a referendum to change the constitution and another, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, said he would grant all the freedoms sought by protesters.
The debate is the first in an Algerian election and some watching said they were interested and planned to vote.
Farid Hamiti, a state bank employee, said the election was “the only way to stop the situation from getting worse”.
Though the protest movement, which was regularly bringing hundreds of thousands of people out, has so far been peaceful, there have been signs of growing tension as the election nears.
Earlier authorities detained dozens of protesters for waving flags with Berber symbols, as they put more pressure on the marches. Many were sentenced to year-long prison terms for undermining national unity.
On Thursday, the security services accused a Berber separatist movement of planning to disrupt the election using agents provocateurs among the protesters to incite police violence, saying a student in the banned group confessed.
Government arrested opposition figures and journalists, charging some with attacking army morale.
State media reported thousands of people joined marches in towns in western and eastern provinces in support of next week’s vote.
In recent weeks, opposition protesters marched more frequently and demonstrated against candidates by hanging bags of garbage in public spaces reserved for electioneering.
Government sought to appease protester anger over corruption, arresting senior officials and former officials and businessmen, many associated with Bouteflika, and sentencing some to long prison terms.