Algeria Braces for Second Pro-Democracy Rally

Pro-democracy protesters in Algeria vowed to hold a march Saturday even though thousands of police blocked their path a week ago.

The new march comes amid weeks of strikes and scattered protests in the North African country, which has promised to lift a 19-year state of emergency by month's end in a nod to the growing mass of disgruntled citizens.

University students and nurses are among those who have held intermittent strikes, joined by the unemployed. Even the richest region, around the gas fields of Hassi Messaoud, was not spared as around 500 jobless youth protested Wednesday, the daily El Watan reported.

Rising food prices led to five days of riots in Algeria last month that left three people dead.

An estimated 25,000 police blocked marchers from their route in a similar protest in Algiers a week ago. But organizers, the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, still called it a success, claiming 10,000 people took part. Officials put the number at 1,500.

The plan for a second march comes as the pro-democracy fervor sweeping the Arab world is gaining ground, moving from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, where longtime autocratic leaders were forced from power, to protests in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya.

In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised the lifting of a state of emergency by the end of the month. The state of emergency, put in place to combat a budding insurgency by Islamist extremists, bans large public gatherings.

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia acknowledged Wednesday that Algeria "cannot ignore events taking place in Arab and Islamic countries."

Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, on a visit to Madrid, said Friday that the coming march has not been officially banned, but only because no one has requested authorization to hold it. He praised the work of police a week earlier, noting that they did not carry firearms and that no one was injured.

However, the foreign minister said in a French radio interview earlier this week that the protesters were but a minority.

"Algeria is not Tunisia. Algeria is not Egypt," he said in an interview with France's Europe 1 radio.

Algeria has many of the ingredients for a popular revolt. It is riddled with corruption and has never successfully grappled with its soaring jobless rate among youth despite its oil and gas wealth. Still, experts say that this country's brutal battle with Islamist extremists that peaked in the mid-1990s, but continues with sporadic violence, has left the population fearful of a new confrontation. The violence has left an estimated 200,000 people dead.

Even a group of communal guards, citizens armed by the state to fight the two-decades-long Islamist insurgency, protested Wednesday in front of the governor's office in Medea, around 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Algiers to demand a variety of social benefits.

Referring to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Medelci said in Madrid the change of leadership "is an option we respect, obviously."

"They are people who are close to us, they are neighbors and speak our language and for various reason Algeria wishes them much success," he said.


Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.