Thousands of Algerian activists mark second year of protest

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Thousands of protesters marking the second anniversary of Algeria’s pro-democracy movement took to the streets Monday in the Algerian capital where a wall of security forces stepped aside to let marchers pass.

The protesters of the Hirak movement helped force long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in 2019. Scores of marchers were arrested, but after marching peacefully for 53 consecutive Fridays, it was a formal ban on demonstrations with the arrival of the coronavirus that forced protesters off the streets a year ago.

The reappearance of protesters came days after President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in a conciliatory gesture, freed more than 30 jailed protesters, though dozens remain behind bars. The president also dissolved parliament to pave the way for new elections, among the demands of the Hirak movement.

In what sounded like a sign of goodwill, government spokesman Amar Belhimeur said the second anniversary of Hirak “carries the mark of the cohesion of the Algerian people and the army,” the single most important force in the North African nation. But it was unclear if the statement was window dressing.

“We didn’t come to celebrate but to set ourselves free,” was among the cries of marchers.

“Even more important than the number of people present is the continuation of the demands,” said Nacer Djabi, a political scientist and Hirak activist. “We are facing the same problems, same demands that have not been solved yet. This is what Algerians want to say.”

The activists are pressing for a full makeover of the opaque system governing Algeria, with the military in the shadows. The powerful army has been at the helm since Algeria won its independence war against France in 1962. The boldness of protesters defying the system when spontaneous marches began to protest Bouteflika's bid to extend his 20-year mandate had caught authorities by surprise.

Protesters took to the streets in numerous other towns Monday after a large demonstration Sunday in Bejaia, a coastal city east of Algiers.

Police blocked main streets in the center of Algiers early Monday before stepping onto sidewalks as marchers arrived. The stream of activists, men, women and children, filled the capital's streets, recalling the height of the Hirak movement.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International issued a statement Monday criticizing the “arbitrary” arrests over two years of 73 journalists, Hirak militants and demonstrators, including convictions. The tactics “point to a deliberate strategy aimed at crushing dissidence,” the statement said.

It wasn't immediately clear if the protest movement would again take up its weekly Friday marches.

“Demonstrating is a right (in) our constitution, but because of COVID-19, special measures are needed,” Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum said on Algerian state radio, in apparent reference to the heavy security and the year-long halt to the marches.