Thousands of people protested in Algeria’s capital Friday in the face of riot police and tear gas over ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in power.
“Regime murderers,” chanted groups of flag-waving demonstrators as riot police used tear gas to try to prevent them from reaching key central locations in Algiers, AFP journalists reported.
Men and women of all ages marched along one of the main avenues of the city, where protests are banned, as people looking to converge at the Place de la Grande Poste shouted that the demonstrations were peaceful.
“The people want the fall of the regime,” some of those gathered shouted, in an echo of the Arab Spring that swept parts of North Africa eight years ago.
A photographer and journalist from local media were briefly detained by police and removed from the protest area before being released, an AFP journalist reported.
Algerian news website TSA reported demonstrations at other locations around the country, including in the second city Oran, Tizi-Ouzou east of the capital and Bouira and Setif to the southeast.
The protests came a week after tens of thousands of people rallied in the North African state against 81-year-old Bouteflika’s decision to stand in the April 18 election.
The scale of the protests has surprised many in Algeria and represents the biggest challenge in years to the authorities.
Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, has used a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in 2013 and is rarely seen in public.
Protesters have been mobilised by calls on social media and say the latest demonstrations are aimed not only at Bouteflika’s bid to extend his 20-year tenure, but also against the ruling elite as a whole.
The head-of-state flew to Switzerland on Sunday for what the presidency called “routine medical checks” and has not yet returned.
Officials have warned that the protests risk dragging Algeria into instability, some two decades after Bouteflika helped foster peace after a civil war in the 1990s.
Calls to demonstrate have resonated with young Algerians, many of whom struggle for employment in a country where half the population is under 30.
Since the major demonstrations that took place last week, smaller protests have seen students, lawyers and journalists vent their ire.
Reporters at state radio have complained that their bosses have imposed a blackout on coverage of the protests.
Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the north African nation’s stifling heat, Bouteflika gained respect from many for his role in ending the war, which official figures indicate killed nearly 200,000 people.
When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, he rode out the storm by lifting a 19-year state of emergency and by using oil revenues to grant pay rises.
After his stroke, Bouteflika consolidated power in a country where the shadowy intelligence service has long been viewed as a “state within a state”.
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.
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