ALGIERS, Algeria – Heavily outnumbered by riot police, thousands of Algerians defied government warnings and dodged barricades to rally in their capital Saturday, demanding democratic reforms a day after mass protests toppled Egypt’s autocratic ruler.
Protesters chanting “No to the police state!” and brandishing signs that read “Give us back our Algeria” clashed with baton-wielding police in helmets and visors. Organizers said more than 400 people were briefly detained.
The opposition said demonstrators’ bold defiance of a long-standing ban on public protests in Algiers marked a turning point.
“This demonstration is a success because it’s been 10 years that people haven’t been able to march in Algiers and there’s a sort of psychological barrier,” said Ali Rachedi, the former head of the Front of Socialist Forces party. “The fear is gone.”
Organizers said as many as 26,000 riot police were deployed to try to quash Saturday’s rally, but that an estimated 10,000 people succeeded in jostling, squeezing and jumping over the barricades and gathering in the city center before the protest was broken up. Officials put turnout at the rally at 1,500.
Algeria has long been ruled by a repressive government and beset by widespread poverty and high unemployment – factors that helped foment popular uprisings that ousted leaders of two other North African nations in the past month. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign Friday after 30 years in power, and a “people’s revolution” in Tunisia, Algeria’s neighbor to the east, forced autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on Jan. 14.
Tensions have been high in Algeria since early January, when five days of riots over high food prices left three people dead.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika hails from a single-party system that has loosened but remained in power since Algeria’s independence from colonial master France in 1962. He is credited with helping the nation recover from a brutal Islamist insurgency that ripped the country asunder during the 1990s, killing an estimated 200,000 people.
But opponents say he should have long ago ended a state of emergency declared at the start of that civil strife, and is doing too little to use Algeria’s vast oil and gas wealth to help the bulk of its 35 million people.