Thousands of Algerians hit streets on 'Hirak' protest anniversary

Thousands of Algerians hit streets on 'Hirak' protest anniversary
Algerians marched in the capital and other cities to mark the second anniversary of the North African nation's anti-government "Hirak" protest movement.
3 min read
22 February, 2021
The Hirak continues despite government crackdown [Getty]

The protest movement in April 2019 forced longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika into resigning, and Monday's demonstration in Algiers is the largest since rallies were suspended in March last year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Police were deployed in force in Algiers, with helicopters hovering overhead.

"We are not here to celebrate, but to demand your departure," the protesters shouted, referring to a regime that they see as being little changed from the one headed for two decades by Bouteflika.

"The fateful hour has arrived," read one banner brandished by demonstrators.

Security checkpoints created traffic jams across the city, with identity checks carried out around key flashpoints, with several arrests made.

Police tried to block protesters from gathering around the Grand Post Office, which was at the heart of the mass protests that kicked off in Algiers and several other cities on February 22, 2019 to oppose Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term.

Elsewhere in the country, marches were being held Monday including in Annaba, Oran, Setif and Mostaganem, according to witnesses and accounts on social media.

'Same old people'

Demonstrators kept up their action after Bouteflika's resignation, demanding a sweeping overhaul of a ruling system in place since Algeria's independence from France in 1962.

They only suspended marches last March due to coronavirus restrictions, but calls circulated on social media for a return to the streets from Monday.

On the eve of the anniversary, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in December 2019 on a very low turnout in a poll boycotted by the protest movement, announced a limited government reshuffle, in a bid to head off renewed rallies.

The reshuffle saw few major changes by Tebboune, who was once a prime minister under Bouteflika.

Among those retained are Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad and Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati, seen as a symbol of Algeria's judicial crackdown on protesters and opposition activists.

Tebboune also signed a decree dissolving parliament, clearing the way for early elections, for which no date has yet been set.

In a gesture of appeasement on Thursday, he announced pardons which have led so far to the release of almost 40 pro-democracy activists, including opposition figure Rachid Nekkaz and journalist Khaled Drareni, who has become a symbol of a struggle for a free press.

Zaki Hannache, a 33-year-old activist, said Hirak supporters were unimpressed by the president's reshuffle and his call for early legislative polls.

"The reshuffle doesn't interest me, it's the same old people. Same thing with parliament, the new ones (deputies) will work, like the current regime, for their own interests, not for the people," he said.

Last Tuesday, thousands of Algerians rallied in the northern town of Kherrata, where the first major protest erupted in 2019 against Bouteflika's bid for a fifth presidential term.

The first nation-wide protests were held a week later.

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