Algerian police break up pro-reform rally

February 19, 2011 7:29:35 AM PST
Algerian police thwarted a rally by thousands of pro-democracy supporters Saturday, breaking up the crowd into isolated groups to keep them from marching.

Police brandishing clubs, but no firearms, weaved their way through the crowd in central Algiers, banging their shields, tackling some protesters and keeping traffic flowing through the planned march route.

The gathering, organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, comes a week after a similar protest, which organizers said brought an estimated 10,000 people and up to 26,000 riot police onto the streets of Algiers. Officials put turnout at the previous rally at 1,500.

The new protest comes on the heels of uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt that toppled those countries' autocratic leaders.

Police presence at Saturday's march was more discrete than the week before, when huge contingents of riot police were deployed throughout the capital the night before the march. On Friday night, by contrast, the capital was calm, with police taking up their positions only Saturday morning.

Still, by breaking up the crowd, the police managed to turn the planned march into a chaotic rally of small groups.

Opposition lawmaker Tahar Besbas, of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, RCD, party, was hospitalized with an apparent head injury after he was clubbed by police. Besbas' supporters said police initially refused to take him to a hospital, though he was eventually taken away in an ambulance.

It was not immediately clear how serious Besbas' injury was.

Human rights advocate Ali Yahia Abdenour, of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, was undeterred by the police. The frail elderly man cried out, "We want democracy, the sovereignty of the people."

Another demonstrator, 23-year-old Khalifa Lahouazi, a university student from Tizi Ouzou, east of the capital, said he "came here to seek my legitimate rights.

"We're living an insupportable life with this system," said Lahouazi, a university student from Tizi Ouzou, in the Kabylie region 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Algiers. "It's the departure of the system, not just Bouteflika, that we want," he said, referring to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

The new march comes amid weeks of strikes and scattered protests in the North African country, which has promised to lift a 19-year state of emergency by month's end in a nod to the growing mass of disgruntled citizens.

University students and nurses are among those who have held intermittent strikes, joined by the unemployed. Even the richest region, around the gas fields of Hassi Messaoud, was not spared as around 500 jobless youths protested Wednesday, the daily El Watan reported.

A group of communal guards - citizens armed by the state to fight the two-decades-long Islamist insurgency - joined the protest Wednesday in front of the governor's office in Medea, around 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Algiers to demand a variety of social benefits.

Rising food prices led to five days of riots in Algeria last month that left three people dead.

The second march comes as the pro-democracy fervor sweeping the Arab world is gaining ground, moving from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, where longtime autocratic leaders were forced from power, to protests in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya.

In Algeria, Bouteflika has promised the lifting of a state of emergency by the end of the month. The measure, put in place to combat a budding insurgency by Islamist extremists, bans large public gatherings.

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia acknowledged Wednesday that Algeria "cannot ignore events taking place in Arab and Islamic countries."

Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, on a visit to Madrid, said Friday the march has not been officially banned, but only because no one has requested authorization to hold it. He praised the work of police a week earlier, noting that they did not carry firearms and that no one was injured.

He said in a French radio interview earlier this week that the protesters were only a minority.

"Algeria is not Tunisia. Algeria is not Egypt," he said in an interview with France's Europe 1 radio.

Algeria does have many of the ingredients for a popular revolt. It is riddled with corruption and has never successfully grappled with its soaring jobless rate among youth despite its oil and gas wealth. Still, experts say that this country's brutal battle with Islamist extremists that peaked in the mid-1990s, but continues with sporadic violence, has left the population fearful of a new confrontation. The violence left an estimated 200,000 people dead.