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Thousands defy police, protest anyway in Algeria

Heavily outnumbered by riot police, thousands of Algerians dodge barricades to rally in their capital.
Image: Plainclothes policemen detain a protester during a demonstration in Algiers
Plainclothes policemen detain a protester during a demonstration in Algiers on Saturday.Louafi Larbi / Reuters
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Heavily outnumbered by riot police, thousands of Algerians defied government warnings and dodged barricades to rally in their capital on Saturday, demanding democratic reforms a day after Egypt's popular revolt toppled the president there.

Internet providers were shut down and Facebook accounts were deleted across Algeria, the Telegraph newspaper reported. Protesters using the Internet to organize were credited with helping to bring about revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Protesters chanting "No to the police state!" and brandishing signs that read "Give us back our Algeria" clashed with baton-wielding police in helmets and visors Saturday. Organizers said more than 400 people were briefly detained, but aside from some jostling between police and protesters no violence was reported.

Organizers said as many as 26,000 riot police were deployed to try to quash Saturday's rally, but that an estimated 10,000 people succeeded in jostling, squeezing and jumping over the barricades and gathering in the city center before the protest was broken up. Officials put turnout at the rally at 1,500.

The opposition in Algeria said demonstrators' bold defiance of a long-standing ban on public protests in Algiers marked a turning point.

"This demonstration is a success because it's been 10 years that people haven't been able to march in Algiers and there's a sort of psychological barrier," said Ali Rachedi, the former head of the Front of Socialist Forces party. "The fear is gone."

Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Egypt and last month's overthrow of Tunisia's leader have electrified the Arab world and led many to ask which state could be next in a region where an explosive mix of authoritarian rule and popular anger is the norm.

Widespread unrest in Algeria could have implications for the world economy because it is a major oil and gas exporter. But many analysts say a revolt is unlikely because the government can use its energy wealth to resolve most grievances.

Responding to opposition pressure, government officials say they are working hard to create more jobs and improve housing, and they have promised more democratic freedoms including the lifting of a state of emergency in force for 19 years.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika hails from a single-party system that has loosened but remained in power since Algeria's independence from colonial master France in 1962. He is credited with helping the nation recover from a brutal Islamist insurgency that ripped the country asunder during the 1990s, killing an estimated 200,000 people.

But opponents say he should have long ago ended a state of emergency declared at the start of that civil strife, and is doing too little to use Algeria's vast oil and gas wealth to help the bulk of its 35 million people.

Last week, mindful of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, Bouteflika said the state of emergency would be lifted in the "very near future." But the government says the ban on demonstrations in the capital would remain, and as word of Saturday's rally officials repeatedly warned people to stay away.

Billed as a 5-kilometer- (3-mile-) long march through the city center, the event was reduced to an hours-long gathering at the First of May Square by the heavy police presence and barricades erected throughout Algiers and on thoroughfares leading to the capital.

Said Sadi, who heads the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy, RCD, said the scale of the police deployment was evidence of "the fear of this government, which is in dire straits."

"We're going to continue to demonstrate and to defy the authorities until they fall," Sadi vowed.

Ali Yahia Abdenour, head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, said foreign journalists were among those detained Saturday. Abdenour, who is 83 years old, said he was himself jostled by security forces who surrounded him and tried to persuade him to go home.

The rally was organized by an umbrella group for human rights activists, unionists, lawyers and others. Organizers called it to press for democratic reforms without specifically calling for Bouteflika to resign, though some protesters chanted, "Bouteflika out!"

Many Algerians see the 73-year-old president as too old and out of touch, but he handily won a third term in 2009, garnering 90.24 percent of the vote in a race that pitted him against five low-profile challengers.

Critics charge that corruption is widespread under Bouteflika, with officials often siphoning off energy profits for personal use instead of investing them in the economy and jobs.