Demonstrators want root-and-branch political reform and the departure of the country’s ruling elite.
Algiers, Algeria – Thousands of students have thronged the streets of the capital, Algiers, to call for authorities to cancel a contentious presidential election scheduled for December 12.
In the last of a series of weekly protests before the vote, the young demonstrators, who want root-and-branch political reforms and the departure of the country’s ruling elite, were joined by workers, retired employees, and homemakers accompanied by their children.
Algerian youth have been at the forefront of the peaceful anti-government movement since it erupted in February, when longtime ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term in office.
Marching through the main streets of the Algerian capital amid a heavy police presence on Tuesday, they chanted “No vote with the mafia”, and “Generals into the garbage cans”. Many held aloft red banners reading “no election”, and “we don’t stand against our nation”.
The protesters have rejected the vote, the first since former President Bouteflika was forced out by the military amid nationwide demonstrations in April, citing fears that the election is a mechanism for the political elite to retain power.
“We are not against an election but we stand against this vote as it is nothing else than a masquerade since it is organised and monitored by Bouteflika’s close allies,” Anissa, a 21-year-old mathematics student told Al Jazeera.
Abdelhak, a 23-year-old French language student, agreed.
“We are aware that this election is a strategy of the ruling elite to cling to power, despite months of protests. We can’t take part to any election as long as they continue to wield power,” he told Al Jazeera.
Over the past nine months, the leaderless movement has insisted that members of the ruling elite, including army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, must resign before any election take place.
“The election should be put off until top officials step aside and the military quits the political scene”, Djamila, a 46-year-old homemaker told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t want to live in a military state any longer”, she added, pointing to the long lines of anti-riot security forces deployed in the capital.
According to the rights groups, authorities have intensified pressure on the pro-democracy movement since September, prosecuting some prominent leaders, such as Karim Tabbou, and detaining dozens of protesters, including journalists, a cartoonist, as well as labour and civil rights activists.
Although the army, which emerged as the key arbiter of power in the country after the resignation of Bouteflika, has pledged that it will not back any candidate, many protesters said they feared that the outcome could be rigged.
“The winner has already been chosen by the military forces. There can be no transparent and fair vote under the current military rule,” Souhila Tahar, a professor of mathematics at Boumerdes University, told Al Jazeera.
The five candidates competing to replace Bouteflika, are also considered by protesters as too close to the deposed president, even though some of the presidential hopefuls had spoken out against Bouteflika or opposed him in previous votes.
Two of them, Ali Benflis and Abdelmajid Tebboune, served as prime minister during Bouteflika’s two-decade presidency.
“None of them represent the peaceful movement who wants an overhaul of the leadership which has governed Algeria since 1962. All the five candidates have been complicit in the system, either by joining the government or by publicly endorsing Bouteflika’s tenure,” Abdelhak said.
Among the crowd, many protesters predicted that a low turnout would make the election “a total fiasco”.
“Only the supporters of the regime will cast a ballot. It is a tiny minority of Algerian voters. Thus, the next president will not have legitimacy,” Samia, a 65-year-old law professor, told Al Jazeera.
When asked about their plans for election day itself, many said they would take to the streets again.
“The vote won’t mark the end of the movement. We will continue to march against the military-backed regime until the end of the status quo,” Anissa concluded.