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article imageAlgerians flood streets to mark protest movement's first birthday

By AFP     Feb 21, 2020 in World

Algerians flooded the capital's streets Friday to mark the first anniversary of a protest movement that has forced the president to quit but still clamours for the complete overhaul of the political system.

Protesters had called on Algerians to mobilise to "disqualify the system's agenda of self-renewal and to lay the foundations for a new republic".

A year ago on February 22, Algerians took to the streets to demonstrate against ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term and have kept up their protests since.

By noon on the 53rd consecutive Friday of demonstrations, thousands of protesters, including women and children, gathered in front of the Grande Poste in central Algiers before marching in the capital.

Anti-riot police were deployed, but did not disperse the crowd, which chanted "we're not going to stop", AFP journalists reported.

A huge crowd of demonstrators linked up with the rally outside the central post office after setting off from the working class district of Bab El Oued, reporters said.

"We have not come to party, we have come to get rid of you," they chanted, in reference to politicians deemed corrupt and inefficient.

"The people want the fall of the regime."

Checkpoints were installed on roads into the city, according to social media posts, complicating access to the commemoration for Algerians outside the capital.

But this did not stop Bashir, 50, from travelling 150 kilometres (95 miles) from Ain Defla "to celebrate the first anniversary of (the protests) and to renew the movement's demands".

Algeria's anti-government protests
Algeria's anti-government protests

More demonstrations are expected on Saturday and the size of marches across the country will represent a key test of the spontaneous, leaderless and youth-dominated movement, known as "Hirak".

Protests were also taking place in major cities across Algeria, according to reports on social media.

- 'Continued mobilisation' -

Bouteflika, debilitated by a 2013 stroke, resigned in April last year less than six weeks into the protest movement after losing the support of the army amid mounting pressure from the street.

But despite hordes -- diplomats said "millions" -- turning out after he quit to demand an overhaul of the entire system, the military maintained a political stranglehold in the months that followed.

The election of Abdelmadjid Tebboune, once a prime minister under Bouteflika, as president in December appears to have reinforced the regime's hand and further stalled the protest movement.

Algerian security forces encircle an anti-government demonstration in Algiers on February 18
Algerian security forces encircle an anti-government demonstration in Algiers on February 18

But many boycotted the poll -- the official turnout was below 40 percent -- and demonstrators remain numerous.

On Thursday, Tebboune paid homage to the protest movement in an interview with local media, promising to implement "all of its demands" after it prevented the "total collapse" of the country.

But in a manifesto published Thursday, organisations close to the Hirak called for "continued mobilisation" to force out members of the old guard, arguing that they could not oversee the process of reform.

They denounced the state taking "repressive measures" against journalists, activists and protesters.

Algerians "want their country ruled and managed with transparency" by "accountable officials, an independent judiciary and a parliament that is not a rubber stamp body", they wrote.

- Challenges -

Dalia Ghanem, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center based in Beirut, argued little had changed in oil-rich Algeria since the presidential election.

"Soldiers have returned to their barracks, civilians are in power, so there is a democratic and constitutional facade," she said.

"Tebboune is just the civilian face of a regime that remains in the hands of the military" but "the capacity of the regime to adapt without really changing, and its resilience, will be tested in the coming years," she added.

Algeria's anti-government protests face mounting challenges ahead
Algeria's anti-government protests face mounting challenges ahead

Ghanem expected the government to dole out political handouts through limited reforms, but said an economic crisis caused by low oil prices will limit its largesse and hence its scope to maintain social peace.

The protest movement, meanwhile, has plenty of rethinking ahead, if it is to maintain momentum, analysts say.

Will it grasp Tebboune's extended hand and risk being swallowed up by the regime?

Or does it need to gear up for an institutional game, with the risk of exposing its own divisions and contradictions?

Whatever the challenges ahead, the movement has already forced change on Algeria's political order in a context where real opposition was consistently hindered, gagged and co-opted during Bouteflika's two decades at the helm.

And above all, in maintaining an overwhelmingly peaceful line, the movement has "succeeded in ensuring there has been no bloody confrontation or brutal repression", said historian Karima Direche.

"A wall of fear... has been destroyed by this new, heavily politicised generation, which knows what it wants," she said.

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