Several hundred demonstrators rallied in the Algerian capital Friday in defiance of a ban on demonstrations, and in other cities as well, against a bid by ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to win a fifth term.
“No fifth mandate,” chanted the mostly young demonstrators, many waving Algerian flags, as they started to march through central Algiers.
There was a heavy police presence, with a helicopter hovering overhead.
“Ouyahia, get out!” the crowd also cried around the capital’s landmark Grand Post Office, referring to Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, a Bouteflika loyalist heading the government for a third term.
Scuffles broke out between the demonstrators and helmeted security forces equipped armed with batons and shields. Tear gas was fired on the crowd, an AFP correspondent said, as police barred access to a group trying to head for the presidential palace, some four kilometres (2.5 miles) away.
Some demonstrators in Algiers scaled the outside of a building and tore down a poster bearing the portrait of the 81-year-old president.
An official ban on demonstrations in Algiers was imposed in 2001. But in February 2018, thousands of trainee doctors tried to hold a protest at the same venue. They were rapidly encircled and their path blocked by police.
Activists used social media to call for Friday rallies against Bouteflika across the country after the weekly Muslim prayers, also filling the main square in Annaba, 400 kilometres (250 miles) east of Algiers with demonstrators, the TSA news website said.
Other gatherings were reported in several other cities, including in Oran, Algeria’s second largest.
French-language daily El Watan, on its website, said crowds also gathered in Ourgla where it said “thousands of demonstrators chanted “the people want the fall of the regime”, the slogan of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
‘Routine medical tests’
Bouteflika, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, announced on February 10 that he will run for another term in April presidential polls.
He spoke of an “unwavering desire to serve” despite his health constraints and pledged to set up an “inclusive national conference” to address political and economic reforms.
His office has announced that Bouteflika will travel to Switzerland on Sunday for “routine medical checks” ahead of the April 18 election.
He has had a long battle with illness and frequently flown to France for treatment.
Bouteflika is Algeria’s longest-serving president and a veteran of its independence struggle, who has clung to power for two decades despite long years of ill health.
Even before his stroke, a year before the last presidential polls, Bouteflika had repeatedly shown himself to be a wily political survivor.
He came to power in 1999 with the support of an army battling Islamist guerrillas. He ran unopposed for the presidency in polls later the same year and has been re-elected since 2004 with an official tally each time of more than 80 percent of the vote.
“Boutef”, as many Algerians have nicknamed him, was instrumental in fostering peace after a decade-long civil war in the 1990s.
Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the north African nation’s stifling heat, he gained respect from many for his role in ending the war, which official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.
But he has also faced criticism from rights groups and opponents who accuse him of being authoritarian.
After his stroke, Bouteflika consolidated power in a country where the shadowy intelligence service has long been viewed as a “state within a state”.
When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, Bouteflika rode out the storm by lifting a 19-year state of emergency and using oil revenues to grant pay rises.
In early 2016, he dissolved the all-powerful DRS intelligence agency after dismissing its leader General Mohamed Mediene, known as “Toufik”, who had clung to the post for a quarter of a century.