ALGIERS (Reuters) - Thousands of police in riot gear blocked off the centre of Algeria’s capital on Saturday and stopped government opponents from staging a protest march that sought to emulate Egypt’s popular revolt.
Small groups of demonstrators angry at President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gathered in May 1 Square in the centre of Algiers shouting “Bouteflika out!.” They waved newspaper front pages reporting Friday’s overthrow of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak.
But riot police hemmed them in, stopping them from carrying out a plan to march through the city. Other protesters trying to reach the square found their way blocked and at least one of the protest organisers was arrested.
“It is a state of siege,” said Abdeslam Ali Rachedi, a university lecturer and government opponent.
After about three hours, hundreds of people left the square quietly, with police opening up gaps in their cordon to let them through. Some 200 young men from a poor neighbourhood nearby stayed on the square. Some threw objects at police.
Mubarak’s resignation 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 with an explosive mix of authoritarian rule and popular anger.
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.
Officials had banned Saturday’s protest, citing public order concerns. A massive police mobilisation, which started on Friday afternoon, appeared to have stifled it.
“I am sorry to say the government has deployed a huge force to prevent a peaceful march. This is not good for Algeria’s image,” said Mustafa Bouchachi, a leader of the League for Human Rights which helped organise the protest.
The protest was not backed by the main trade unions or the biggest opposition parties. Nearly all members of Algeria’s radical Islamist groups, which were banned in the 1990s but still have grassroots influence, stayed away.
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.
Reuters reporters at the demonstration said there was a hardcore of about 150 protesters and probably substantially more but it was hard to determine how many because they were mingled with onlookers.
They said they saw police detaining a handful of protesters. There was also a small counter-protest nearby, with people chanting “We want peace not chaos!” and “Algeria is not Egypt!”
Estimates given by police and protest organisers for the numbers involved diverged greatly.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement: “An attempt to organise a march was recorded today at May 1 Square by a crowd estimated at 250 people. Fourteen people were detained and immediately released.”
Officials with the opposition RCD party, which helped organise the protest, told Reuters the demonstrators totalled between 7,000 and 10,000 and that 1,000 people were arrested.
Editing by Maria Golovnina