Tens of thousands of Algerians marched on Friday to denounce President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term in power in the biggest protest in the capital for eight years.
The gathering, like other demonstrations around the large north African country, was mostly peaceful, but police fired tear gas on one occasion to try to disperse demonstrators assembling in Algiers after Friday prayers.
Chanting “Bye, bye Bouteflika”, “peaceful, peaceful” and some carrying roses, the crowd vented frustration at a plan by the 81-year-old leader to extend his 20-year rule in April elections.
Within one hour of starting, the protest quickly drew tens of thousands, including young people, families and some elderly, the largest gathering since 2011 “Arab Spring” demonstrations.
“We have delivered a message that is ‘No to more Bouteflika’,” demonstrator Khaled Amrani, 38, told Reuters.
“Look at the Algerian youth, all it is demanding is a valid president who can talk to the people,” said Hamdane Salim, a 45-year-old public sector worker. “Twenty years are enough,” said Khadidja, a woman accompanied by her husband and children.
Among the crowd was Djamila Bouhired, 83, a heroine of the 1954-1962 independence war against France, who told reporters: “I’m happy to be here.”
There were also demonstrations in other cities such as Oran, Constantine, Setif, Tizi Ouzou and Bouira, residents said.
Bouteflika has not directly addressed the protests. The authorities said last he would travel to Geneva for unspecified medical checks, although there was no official confirmation he had travelled.
Since last Friday thousands have taken part in rarely seen anti-government protests. Bouteflika suffered a stroke in 2013, has been seen in public only a few times since and has given no known speeches in years.
Many Algerians for years avoided politics in public fearing trouble from the omnipresent security services or disillusioned as the country has been run by the same group of veterans since the 1954-1962 independence war with France.
There appeared to be few such inhibitions on Friday.
“People want to overthrow the regime,” some chanted, using a slogan from the 2011 “Arab spring” turmoil which toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
Bouteflika himself has ruled since 1999 and stamped out a decade-long Islamist insurgency early in his rule. Many Algerians have long tolerated a political system with little space for dissent as a price to pay for peace and stability.
But the new protest waves appears to have broken the long taboo on public discussion of politics.
According to Bouteflika’s opponents, there is no evidence he is fit enough to lead the country and that it is being ruled in his name by advisers. Authorities say he retains a firm grip on public affairs despite the rarity of his appearances.
A weak and divided opposition faces high hurdles in mounting an electoral challenge. Since the long-ruling FLN party again picked Bouteflika as its presidential candidate, several parties, trade unions and business groups have endorsed him.
Lower oil prices in recent years have damaged Algeria’s economy, rekindling discontent.