Algerian opposition changes tactics ahead of presidential elections

Mouwatana has sought to take its message to the streets, warning the public of the risks Algeria faces if Bouteflika seeks to extend his 20-year stay in office.
Sunday 16/09/2018
At crossroads. A man walks past posters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Ain Ouassara, south-west of Algiers. (Reuters)
At crossroads. A man walks past posters of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Ain Ouassara, south-west of Algiers. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The Algerian government took no chances with political opponents who attempted to march against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s potential bid for re-election, deploying a heavy police presence to block the protest.

Police blocked roads and turned back people suspected of heading towards the rally September 8 in Constantine. Police vans and plainclothes police occupied public spaces and garbage trucks were parked in areas that could be used for the demonstration.

The protest, organised by the Mouwatana (Citizenry) civic group, was to include prominent opposition figures, including writer Yasmina Khadra and former Prime Minister Ahmed Benbitour, who have called on Bouteflika to step down when his current term ends.

 

Police effectively shut down the protest and detained many activists, including Mouwatana’s spokeswoman Zoubida Assoula, a university teacher and columnist Saad Bouakba.

Algerian writer Kamel Ghimouze said that “not a single corner or spot in the city or the path of the planned march or even public places was left without police deployment or surveillance.” Even “the city’s garbage collection company moved all its material resources (to block) public places, leaving no space for a possible gathering,” he added.

Police surrounded the hotel where Mouwatana leaders, including lawyer Salah Dabbouz and Soufiane Djilali, leader of the opposition Jil Jadid (New Generation) group, were staying to stop them from reaching the gathering.

“The authorities are frightened by our movement and they feel insecure as they are moving the country in the wrong direction,” Assoula said after her release.

Dabbouz said: “We, as Algerian citizens, have been barred from enjoying our constitutional rights by illegal orders from government officials to deploy police force and even garbage trucks in huge numbers against us.”

Mouwatana, in contrast to previous opposition movements that have been largely ineffective, has sought to take its message to the streets, warning the public of the risks Algeria faces if Bouteflika seeks to extend his 20-year stay in office.

It planned its rally for Constantine, Algeria’s third largest city, because street protests are banned in Algiers. The group’s leaders said they plan another rally this month in Paris.

Some of the group’s members sent an open letter to Bouteflika last May outlining their concerns with his leadership and calling on him to renounce a fifth term in office.

“We, as signatories of this letter, appeal for you to embrace the sole and unique decision that will open a new era for the country where the common good will prevail above the interests of men: you renounce a fifth mandate,” read the letter.

Bouteflika, 81, has suffered two strokes since 2013 and makes few public appearances. While he has yet to announce whether he will stand for re-election, his supporters have sought to make it a political certainty.

The day after Bouteflika returned from a medical check-up in Switzerland on September 1, his supporters announced the formation of a “popular front” comprised of 16 political parties supporting his re-election.

Authorities’ reaction to the recent protest shows how strictly the government intends to limit the opposition ahead of presidential elections next April.

Many Algerians are wary of radical politics after a decade-long war in the 1990s that pit Islamists against the government, killing an estimated 200,000 people and setting the economy back billions.

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