Algiers protest takes place despite ban

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A planned pro-democracy protest took place Saturday in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, despite a standing government ban on protests in the capital. Massive police presence reduced the event from its planned scope, and dispersed it after a few hours, but did not prevent it.

The demonstration, planned for some time, was to be a march through Algiers, from May First Square, about five kilometers (three miles) to Martyrs Square. Instead, protesters demonstrated in May First Square for a few hours.

Algeria has been officially in a state of emergency for nineteen years. Early this month, following recent pro-democracy events in Tunisia and Egypt, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said the state of emergency will be lifted "soon". At the same time he also said marches would be allowed everywhere in the country except in Algiers. Leading up to this protest, riot police closed all entrances both to Algiers and to May First Square.

The number of demonstrators who gathered in May First Square despite the police cordons was estimated by officials at 1500, and by demonstration organizers at around 10,000. The number of riot police in the city — with body armor, armored vehicles, and water cannons — was anticipated by officials as high as 30,000, and estimated by organizers as high as 26,000.

The protest was organized by the National Co-ordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD), an umbrella group of Algerian organizations formed in late January. Protesters demanded democratic freedoms, an end to government corruption, and relief from economic hardships. Some protesters called for removal of President Bouteflika, although that was not a stated goal of the organizers.

Several hundred protesters were arrested, at least briefly. Algerian activist Elias Felali, who blogged from within the demonstration, claimed the police wanted to provoke violence, but the protesters were pointedly non-violent.