Protesters have rallied in Algeria on the final Friday before a contentious presidential election many see as an attempt by the ruling elite to cling to power despite months of demonstrations seeking an overhaul of the country’s political system.
Algeria is scheduled to hold the poll on December 12 but the thousands rallying every week have long demanded the departure of the political class linked to former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – who quit in April following mass protests – before any vote takes place.
Protesters say all five candidates seeking the presidency either supported the former leader or participated in his government. Two served as prime ministers during Bouteflika’s two-decade tenure.
“No to voting, we swear we will not stop!,” crowds chanted in the capital, Algiers.
“I am not against voting (per se), I am against this election because it is only serving to recycle Bouteflika figures,” Fatiha Bendahmane told AFP news agency.
“We will have a new name but the same policies that destroyed the economy of this country. I will march today to say no to voting with this regime,” Bendahmane, a 55-year-old teacher, said as she prepared to march in Algiers.
“I will march today to say no to voting with this regime.”
No official tally has been released on the numbers involved in Friday’s demonstration, but AFP reported that the rally appeared to be the biggest since November 1, when citizens took to the streets and demanded a second “liberation” on the 65th anniversary of the start of the war for independence from France.
Checkpoints outside the capital were only letting in vehicles registered in Algiers, an AFP correspondent reported on Friday morning.
Busloads of plain-clothed and anti-riot police were deployed to the city centre, equipped with water cannons.
According to Amnesty International, Algerian authorities have “escalated their pre-election crackdown on protests” in recent weeks, “carrying out waves of arbitrary arrests”.
Protesters on Friday also shouted their support for a general strike set for Sunday and demanded civilian – rather than military – rule.
Since Bouteflika stepped down, army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah has emerged as the country’s main powerbroker.
A firm and consistent proponent of elections, the army chief on Tuesday called for a massive turnout in the poll, criticising what he dubbed efforts by detractors’ “plotting against the fatherland”.
But the crowds on Friday shouted a sharp rebuke: “Gaid Salah, forget the vote!”
Friday marks the 42nd consecutive week the “Hirak” protest movement has organised marches across the country.
Angry at unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite seen as out of touch with the country’s youth, Algerians have taken to the streets since February 22 to protest, initially against the ailing Bouteflika’s plans to remain in office, and then for the removal of all remnants of a secretive political and military establishment that has governed the country for decades.
Youcef Bouandel, a professor of political science and international relations at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera that the scheduled elections are “simply a smokescreen” for the old guard to maintain their grip on power.
“At the moment [there] is some sort of inertia, it gives the impression that something is happening … but in reality, nothing changes,” he said.
“The current regime is going to stay and changing Bouteflika [for] another person will not change the type and the nature of this authoritarian political system that [has] existed.”