Algeria shuts universities as rallies pile pressure on Bouteflika

In an apparent bid to halt growing student-led demonstrations, authorities bring scheduled university holiday forward.

People protest against Algeria''s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers
The ministry's decision came a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators packed central Algiers to challenge Bouteflika's rule [Ramzi Boudina/Reuters]

Universities across Algeria will close two weeks before a scheduled holiday, authorities have announced, in an apparent attempt to defuse student-led protests against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is seeking a fifth term in office.

The Ministry of Higher Education’s decision on Saturday came a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the centre of Algiers to challenge the ailing leader’s 20-year rule in the biggest rallies the capital has seen in decades.

Without giving a reason for the move, the ministry said in a decree that the spring break would be brought forward by 10 days – now to run from Sunday to April 4.

Students have been at the heart of the mass protests – which began on February 22 – to denounce the 82-year-old Bouteflika’s plans to extend his rule in an April 18 election.

Teachers and students at several universities have gone on strike, while others had vowed to begin striking on Sunday.

While Friday’s rallies in Algiers and elsewhere were mostly calm, police reportedly used tear gas in several areas of the capital, including to block the road to the presidential palace.

State media also said security forces had detained 195 protesters, citing offences including looting as grounds for the arrests.

Algeria protests explained (7:33)

‘This time it’s different’

Bouteflika has been in Geneva, Switzerland, for the past two weeks for what his office has termed “routine medical tests”.

The president, who is confined to a wheelchair, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, prompting critics to question whether he is being used as a puppet candidate by a faction of civilian and military figures.

On Thursday, he issued his first warning to protesters, saying their movement – now entering its third week – could create chaos in the oil- and natural gas-producing North African country.

Bouteflika has offered to limit his term after the election and has vowed to change the “system” that runs the country. The promises, however, have failed to quell public anger, galvanising discontent among different sectors, particularly students and other young people.

Some long-time allies of Bouteflika, including members of the ruling FLN party, have expressed support for the protesters, revealing cracks within a ruling elite long seen as invincible.

“This time it’s quite different. What we see now is a momentum that is building up across Algeria,” Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, who has covered the region extensively, said of the ongoing demonstrations.

“Many people believe that if this momentum continues for the next two weeks, it could be a game-changer,” Ahelbarra added.

Looking ahead, Ahelbarra said a key date for the country was going to be March 13, when Algeria’s constitutional committee is due to determine the legitimacy of the presented candidacies for next month’s elections.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies