Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets for a ninth successive Friday in Algeria to demand a complete political overhaul in the wake of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation.
The protesters gathered in multiple cities throughout the country, including the capital Algiers, to call for root-and-branch reforms and the departure of the military’s powerful chief of staff, General Ahmed Gaid Salah.
Bouteflika’s April 2 exit has failed to placate many Algerians, who instead want to remove the entire clique historically aligned to the ailing ex-leader and a political elite that has dominated the country since its independence from France in 1962 and is widely perceived as corrupt.
Algeria’s parliament has tried to no avail to appease the demonstrators by naming an interim president, Bouteflika loyalist Abdelkader Bensalah, and announcing an election to be held on July 4.
‘The B’s must go’
Earlier this week, Bensalah himself appointed a new head of Algeria’s Constitutional Council after the former chief, Tayeb Belaiz, quit under pressure from protesters.
Belaiz was one of three figures in the interim government whose removal had been demanded by pro-democracy protesters. They are seen as part of the discredited group that surrounded Bouteflika, who stepped down after six weeks of nationwide demonstrations calling for an end to his two-decade rule.
“They must go. The B’s must go,” one banner at a protest in Algiers on Friday read, Reuters news agency reported.
The “B’s” refer to Bensalah, interim Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui and Moad Bouchareb, head of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party.
Protesters, whose numbers swelled following Friday prayers, meanwhile shouted slogans including “Down with the System!” or “You ate the country, you bunch of thieves”, The AssociatedPress news agency reported.
On Tuesday, Salah said the military was considering all options to resolve the ongoing political crisis and warned “time is running out”.
He did not specify what measures the army could take, but said military leaders “have no ambition but to protect our nation”.
HRW warns of ‘arbitrary detentions’
The army has largely patiently monitored the mostly peaceful protests that at times swelled to hundreds of thousands of people.
But on Friday, international NGO Human Rights Watch warned police have been “forcibly dispersing peaceful demonstrations and arbitrarily detaining protesters” in Algiers as part of a “government crackdown” on the pro-democracy movement.
“Algerians have continued to assert their right to peaceful assembly in recent weeks despite growing police efforts to crack down on them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director.
“Protesters report being arrested, strip searched, handled roughly, and detained for hours,” Whitson added.
Mustapha Bouchachi, a veteran lawyer and human rights activist, meanwhile told The Associated Press news agency that protesters’ efforts and “the peaceful mobilisation should continue until the departure of all the system’s faces”.
“The movement should remain united to achieve the dream of a democratic Algeria with equal rights for all,” Bouchachi said.
Algeria’s upheaval began in late February when Bouteflika, 82, announced his intention to seek a fifth term in office despite being rarely seen in public since a stroke in 2013 rendered him nearly incapacitated.
Youcef Bouandel, a professor of political science at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera demonstrators were unified by their ambition to “get rid of the system”, but cautioned there was little agreement on who should head any new government in a post-Bouteflika era.
“Protesters all over the country are saying the same thing, but I don’t think they are united in terms of who is going to lead them,” Bouandel said.