ALGIERS — Thousands of people gathered Friday in Algeria’s capital and other cities amid heavy security for what could be decisive protests against longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Wearing Algerian flags on their backs and chanting "Bouteflika, Get Out," diverse groups thronged leafy boulevards in Algiers and converged on three public plazas that have become focal points for a month-long public uprising against the country’s shadowy leadership.
Algerians have barely seen Bouteflika in public since he suffered a 2013 stroke, and many are angry at a power structure widely seen as corrupt. Millions struggle to make ends meet despite the country’s gas wealth.
As Friday’s protests began, riot police fans lined side streets of Algiers and surveillance helicopters circled overhead, but the ambience on the ground was relaxed.
A group of young women delighted in taking selfies with smiling police officers. Shops along the march routes turned a brisk profit selling Algerian flags and pizza or honey-filled pastries. The diverse crowd included women with and without headscarves, and fathers carrying children on their shoulders.
The protesters want to send a mass message that they are rejecting Bouteflika’s attempt this week to defuse Algeria’s political crisis.
Bouteflika ceded to protesters’ demands that he abandon plans for a fifth term, and promised reforms addressing concerns of frustrated, struggling youth. But he also canceled the April 18 presidential election, a move that critics fear could allow him to cling to power.
Police surrounding the Algiers’ central post office appeared largely unarmed, and their plastic riot shields rested on the ground or in vans nearby. That could be a message from Algerian authorities — known for their heavy-handed security posture — that they want to avoid unrest or provoking public anger.
Among protesters’ chants were "gang of thieves" and "you ruined Algeria, we don’t want you." Others chanted "peaceful demonstration" in an effort to ensure that things don’t get out of hand.
Some protesters held signs reading "Army, People, Same Fight," in an apparent appeal to the powerful army not to crack down on demonstrations.
Students, teachers, judges and unions were among those planning to join Friday’s protests demanding that Bouteflika step down after 20 years in power.
So far the protest movement has been calm, with just a few incidents of violence on the sidelines. But the specter of past violence haunts many Algerians, notably a civil war in the 1990s between Islamic insurgents and security forces that left some 200,000 dead.
Bouteflika is credited with helping reconcile the nation after that, but is accused of becoming increasingly out of touch as his presidency dragged on.