Hundreds of lawyers in black robes took to the streets of downtown Algiers on Thursday to press President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down after 20 years in power, adding momentum to the biggest protests there since the 2011 Arab Spring. Security forces were deployed to monitor the demonstration, but as with previous protests, they did not intervene.
“The people want to overthrow the regime,” lawyers shouted.” Republic, not a kingdom,” others chanted.
Tens of thousands of Algerians, tired of the dominance of elderly veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France, have taken to the streets to urge the ailing president not to stand in an election scheduled for 18 April. He has submitted his candidacy papers.
The unrest poses the biggest challenge yet to Bouteflika and his inner circle, which includes members of the military, intelligence services and big business figures.
He has not spoken in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 and remains in a hospital in Geneva.
The national association of lawyers has demanded that the authorities postpone the election and set up a transitional government.
An anonymous call for a general strike has gone largely unheeded, but the leadership faces another test, an online call for a “March of 20 Million” this Friday.
On Wednesday, the influential Algerian war veterans association expressed support for the so far peaceful protests. Two branches of powerful Algerian labour union UGTA, representing tens of thousands of workers, also opposed the re-election plan.
Some officials from Bouteflika’s ruling FLN party have turned up at demonstrations. Several public figures have announced their resignations in a country where personnel changes normally take place behind closed doors.
Protesters have praised the military, which has stayed in barracks throughout the unrest, but analysts and former officials say the generals are likely to intervene if the protests lead to instability in one of Africa’s biggest oil producers.