CAIRO — Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Algiers on Friday to denounce Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term, and police fired tear gas into the crowds.
In a country still controlled by veterans who fought for and won independence from France 57 years ago, where security and intelligence operatives are everywhere, few Algerians have dared to express their political views openly.
But the decision by the ailing 81-year-old Bouteflika, who is rarely seen in public and who uses a wheelchair, and his loyalists to try to prolong his 20-year-rule in elections next month touched off a collective frustration kindled by an anemic economy and high rates of unemployment among the young.
On Friday, massive crowds of protesters — ranging from teens to the elderly — poured into the squares and boulevards after the midday mosque prayers, chanting and singing, carrying placards and taking cellphone videos and uploading them on social media.
The protests have been dubbed by some as Algeria’s “Million Man March.” Some chanted “Bye-bye, Bouteflika,” while others shouted patriotic slogans.
“Look at the Algerian youth, all it is demanding is a valid president who can talk to the people,” Hamdane Salim, a 45-year-old public sector worker, told Reuters.
“Twenty years are enough,” added Khadidja, a woman who came with her husband and children.
There were protests in other cities, too. Together, they were reminiscent of the Arab Spring revolts that spread across North Africa and the Middle East and led to the toppling of autocrats in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Some protesters Friday chanted that they wanted to “overthrow the regime.”
Few observers expect the government to fall. But the demonstrations do represent the biggest challenge to Bouteflika’s authority since he came to power in 1999.
Bouteflika has not publicly addressed the populist tensions; he has reportedly traveled to Switzerland for medical treatment. He has been seen in public only a handful of times since he suffered a stroke in 2013.
Bouteflika “has been incapacitated for most of his fourth term,” according to a post this week by the Council on Foreign Relations. “The president is so enfeebled that he was unable to announce his own candidacy. Algerians are angry that they had no voice in Bouteflika’s decision to stand for office again.”
His opponents say the country is actually being ruled by Bouteflika’s close advisers, who include his younger brother Said. The government has denied the allegations, saying Bouteflika remains firmly in control.
His supporters, who include influential business executives and trade unions, have supported the ruling FLN party’s decision to select Bouteflika as its presidential candidate in the elections scheduled for April 18. Many Algerians have not forgotten that Bouteflika ended a long civil war in the early 2000s, in part by giving amnesty to Islamist fighters.