Algeria protesters call for 'new independence' on revolution anniversary

Abdelhafid Daamache with Aymeric Vincenot in Paris
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Anti-government protesters flooded the streets of Algiers on Friday in numbers resembling those of rallies at the peak of the movement that started in February

Demonstrators converged on Algiers in their thousands for a massive anti-government rally called to coincide with official celebrations of the anniversary of the war that won Algeria's independence from France.

Protesters flooded the streets in numbers resembling those of rallies at the peak of the movement that started in February, though no official figures are available.

The streets around the Grand Poste building at the heart of Algiers -- the epicentre of weekly Friday protests -- swarmed with demonstrators chanting "Algeria will take back its independence" and "the people want their independence".

"You have sold the country, you traitors," demonstrators shouted, addressing authorities that have run the country since the demand for longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika's resignation was met in April.

Instead of waning when the ageing president stepped down, the protest movement turned its focus on the whole regime, amping up calls for an overhaul of the political system in place since 1962.

Algerian social media has been inundated with calls in recent days to fill the streets of the capital on the 65th anniversary of the start of the war for liberation to demand a "new independence".

November 1 is a national holiday in Algeria to commemorate the start of the war in 1954 that led to the North African country's independence after 132 years of French colonial rule.

Police were deployed in force, blocking protesters on an avenue near the Grande Poste and making several arrests in the morning, according to witnesses.

The Algiers metro was closed and all trains to the capital cancelled, apparently in a bid to keep numbers down.

- 'History repeating itself' -

Participation in the weekly demonstrations had depleted over the summer due to high temperatures and school vacations, before regaining some force in September, but short of the turnout seen Friday.

Calls to join protests on Friday drew parallels between the fight for independence and the current demonstrations.

"History is repeating itself," one flier read. "November 1, 1954-2019. The 48 provinces in the capital to remember the start of the glorious liberation revolution."

"This concerns everyone. Call the Algerian people to come out, to march and storm the capital by the millions, from all provinces, on Friday, November 1, until all the crooks are brought down," said another.

The call appeared to have been answered, with reports of massive traffic jams at the entrances to the capital on Thursday and Friday, attributed to the influx of protesters into Algiers and numerous police roadblocks.

"Closing off Algiers will do nothing, France did it before and it did not stop the revolution," one Twitter user Kamal Cherif posted.

"A huge influx of protesters is coming to Algiers. They are coming by road, despite the slowed traffic, by train, by air and even on foot," reported the French-language news site Interlignes.

- Protests 'exaggerated' -

Despite fierce opposition from the streets, authorities have been pushing forward with presidential elections set for December 12.

Activists are demanding sweeping reforms in the oil-rich country before any vote takes place, and say Bouteflika-era figures still in power must not use the presidential poll to appoint his successor.

On Wednesday, powerful army chief General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has led the push for presidential polls by the end of 2019, said the election had the "full support" of the Algerian people.

But the streets contradict him, with the slogan "no vote!" resonating every week at demonstrations.

"Get out Gaid Salah! There will be no vote this year", was among the slogans shouted in Algiers on Friday.

Many have also come out in support of the protests by taking part in an online "challenge" using the hashtag #I_am_part_of_Hirak, as the movement has been dubbed.

They filmed themselves, alone or in groups, saying simply: "I am Algerian and I am part of Hirak".

Algerians' anger had also been piqued by recent remarks by interim president Abdelkader Bensalah, who told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the impact of the protests was overstated.

"The media has exaggerated the reality of what is happening in Algeria... although it is true that some elements are out on the streets each week" protesting, he said.

Footage of the comments broadcast on RT television went viral on social media, with Algerians saying they felt "humiliated" by Bensalah's comments.