ALGIERS — Ever since late February, tens of thousands of Algerians have descended every Friday into the grand colonial boulevards of this capital and other cities.

Triggered by the prospect of a fifth presidential term for an ailing octogenarian rarely seen in public, the protests — entirely peaceful — have called for an end to the police state. They call it the “Revolution of Smiles,” a tidal wave of optimism and goodwill coursing through the streets demanding a new system of government and, in a sense, a new nation.

But there is an undercurrent of anxiety. Although Algeria is a young country, with about 70 percent of its people under 30, the grandparents and parents in the crowd remember its darker days — the broken promises of national liberation in the early 1960s, the “black years” of civil war in the 1990s — and worry things might take a similar turn this time around.

“Look at these people,” said Karim Tahar, 88, who fought in Algeria’s war of independence against France six decades ago. In a Panama hat and clutching a cane, he gestured at the crowds at a recent protest. “Even in ’62, it wasn’t like this. Now it’s stronger. The children. The elderly. Everyone. It’s another life.”

With a wistful sigh, he reflected on the broken promises of that earlier revolution. “We thought that to liberate Algeria was to liberate the people,” he said. “But in the end we were deceived.

“This gives me great pleasure,” he said, gesturing again to the masses. “I never believed that someday we would see this.”

On June 14, Algerian demonstrators gathered in the capital to demand not just a change in leadership but an entirely new system of government. (James McAuley/TWP)

The Revolution of Smiles has already altered the political landscape of Algeria in ways that were unthinkable when the grass-roots movement began. In April, ­Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 82, announced he would not seek reelection as president. One after the other, key members of the ruling elite, including a former prime minister and former finance minister, are facing prosecution for alleged corruption.

An era would seem to be over, and even Algeria’s state-run newspapers are now publishing interviews with academics about the best lessons to be drawn from democratic transitions in other countries.

“These are protests that were inevitable, because they come after 20 years of repressed liberties, 20 years of general corruption, 20 years of thwarting political organization, 20 years of violations to the law and the constitution,” said Mohcine Belabbas, the head of the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a secular party.

The question on everyone’s mind is how this revolution will end, and when. It is unclear whether the Algerian army, under the control of Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, will consent to the “new system” the masses are demanding.

On Tuesday, Gaid Salah delivered a speech decrying all who oppose the army as “enemies of Algeria” and accusing protesters of fostering “the destruction of the foundations of the Algerian national state.”

Political observers note Algeria might become another Egypt, a brief eruption of dormant optimism lost in a military coup.

'They have betrayed Algeria'

For now, however, the optimism in the streets shows no signs of abating, and it recalls the fervor of Algeria’s struggle for independence. Protesters regularly storm through the Place Maurice Audin, named for a storied revolutionary figure, toward what’s known as the Grande Poste, the iconic, monolithic post office that’s been a symbol of the city since colonial times.

In French and Arabic, the chants are uniform, echoing far down belle epoque thoroughfares thronged with women and men, old and young, secular and religious. “Dégagé! Dégagé! Dégagé!” went one of the tunes. Pronouncing that word on these streets would once have been grounds for arrest. Its meaning is simple: “Throw them out!”

But there have been relatively few arrests, and organizers say those have been temporary.

From the start, there has been a heavy police presence, including officers in civilian clothes who blend in among protesters. The demonstrators have gone to great lengths to deny the police any reason to strike. They do not taunt the officers or inspire public unrest. And the demonstrators pick up after themselves when they are done.

The protesters in the street are known as the “hirak,” the Arabic word for movement. But their specific objectives remain unclear and depend on who is asked. The hirak unites many factions — liberal, secular and Islamist.

“We are optimists, first,” said Aziz Ourabah, 65, a retired transportation worker who lives in Algiers. “What do we hope to see? The disappearance of the powers that have controlled Algeria since independence. That’s the essence. Corruption has proliferated in an exponential manner. It’s incomprehensible.”

Ourabah was joined in the streets by his 30-year-old daughter, Feriel Hami, who had flown in from Paris for the occasion. Hami had brought her small child in a stroller to the Place Maurice Audin.

“We want to be free of this band of thieves,” she said. “Free of individuals who should be punished. Individual liberties should be preserved, of religious practice — whether I am secular or a practicing Muslim.”

There have been as many women as men in the demonstrations. Many women wear headscarves; some wear the niqab, or full face-covering veil, a sign of religious conservatism.

“The role of women is next to men,” said Khichane Amel, 49, a veiled woman in the crowd, wielding an anti-government poster and an Algerian flag. “There needs to be radical change. They have betrayed Algeria. They have too much power. The people have none.”

The challenges ahead

On a recent Saturday, representatives of the various factions met in an Algiers high school to try to devise a list of demands acceptable to all, which could then be presented to army leadership during potential negotiations.

Tarek Hadjoudj, a doctor, helped organize the conference, which lasted well into the wee hours of the morning. The point, he said, was to get in front of criticisms by Bouteflika allies, who exploit divisions within the ranks of the protesters. “The politicians and the powers — which is the army — declare that we have no propositions, no consensus, no ideas,” he said. “We’d like to respond.”

But mustering a coherent response has proved remarkably difficult, he said. There have been two radically different proposals.

The liberal democratic factions are pressing for a constitutional convention to ensure that nothing like the Bouteflika regime could take power again. The Islamist factions are pushing for immediate elections, which they feel they could win, Hadjoudj said.

“The challenge is how we should remain together,” he said.

There is also the problem of whom they should negotiate with. Algerians refer to the ruling authorities not as “the government” or even as “the regime” but simply as “le pouvoir” — the power. Even if Gaid Salah, the chief military general, is calling the shots at the moment, he alone may not have the authority to acquiesce to the protesters’ demands and set the country on a new course.

And if a new generation of leaders does emerge from the revolution, they will inherit a deteriorating economy that could bleed them of popular support. Algeria, a major oil and natural gas exporter, has seen its foreign currency reserves plunge since oil prices fell five years ago, and the government has been struggling to maintain generous public subsidies, including for food and fuel.

'You have to negotiate'

For Kamel Daoud, the Oran-based novelist and essayist who is perhaps Algeria’s leading public intellectual, the radicalism of the protest has undermined its ­power.

“The radical ‘throw-them-out-ism’ is too much,” he said in an interview. “You have to negotiate. You have to negotiate an exit from the regime. If not, they will remain. In the end, between democracy and security, people will choose their security.”

As for whether Algerian army leaders would be willing to negotiate, Daoud insisted it was clear they had no choice. “The regime has a great weakness,” he said. “It’s old.”

Belabbas, the opposition leader, was skeptical that the resignations and arrests within Bouteflika’s circle would make a fundamental difference. “They understood that they should appease public opinion — it’s a form of concession,” he said, comparing it to “score-settling from within.”

“Another Bouteflika is possible,” he said. “Someone who himself will last another 20 years.”

On the Place Maurice Audin, Samia Lounis, a 58-year-old anesthesiologist, was among the demonstrators. She said that she had lost both of her parents in the war of independence.

“I keep many bad memories,” she said. “But I think this will go toward the positive. This is all Algeria. We are here to march toward the future.”

Asked if she believed that the Revolution of Smiles would end any differently than Algeria’s darker chapters of the past, she paused for a moment.

“Inshallah,” she said. “We hope.”