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Heightened tensions with police leave Algerians worried as protests continue

Demonstrators fear planned elections in July may only serve to cement country's corrupt political elite's hold on power
Algerian women wave a national flag during a demonstration for the independence of the judiciary outside the Justice Ministry headquarters in the capital Algiers on 13 April (AFP)

Algerian police detained nearly 200 people on Friday as hundreds of thousands of protesters, demanding the departure of Algeria's ruling elite, rallied in the North African nation's capital.

Police in anti-riot gear fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred youths in the centre of Algiers, witnesses said, after an otherwise largely peaceful march whuch was joined by families throughout the day.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down on 2 April, bowing to pressure from the army and weeks of demonstrations calling for an end to the 20-year rule of the elderly and ailing head of state.

But the protests, which began on 22 February, have continued as many call for the removal of an elite - ominously referred to as le pouvoir (the power) or le systeme (the system) - that has governed Algeria since independence from France in 1962, and for the prosecution of people they see as corrupt.

Tensions with police

Reuters correspondents at the scene estimated the crowd size at hundreds of thousands of people as on previous Fridays, although there was no official count.

News agency AFP reported that tensions between police and demonstrators were higher than in previous days of protests, leading many to fear that security forces were becoming less amenable to the demonstrations.

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For the first time in eight weeks, police officers closed off access to the Grande Poste Square in Algiers for several hours.

Officers nonetheless failed to remove several hundred protesters who had been camped out at the square, the epicentre of demonstrations, since dawn.

AFP reported that police had fired tear gas and used water cannons to try and disperse protesters at dusk on Friday.

Individuals then began to throw stones, bottles, and bins towards security forces, before protesters stepped in, chanting "silmiya!" - "peaceful," one of the key words of the movement - and cleaning up the streets after the clashes subsided.

AFP correspondents said that some protesters were wounded by rocks or suffered from tear gas inhalation, while others were injured when the crowd jostled and dispersed during the altercations.

Police arrested 180 people after clashes with "infiltrators" among the demonstrators who injured 83 policemen, a police statement said.

Officers said they had arrested members of an unspecified "terrorist group" and also some foreigners who had planned to incite protesters to violence. The statement gave no further  details

Those who confronted the police "weren't demonstrators," Mustapha, a 50-something lawyer, told AFP. "They were just people sowing chaos."

"But... we feel a hardening from the police, the demonstration was much more nervous today," he said.

"Every new decision [from le pouvoir] is more contempt [towards the protesters]. We are beside ourselves, but we need to stay peaceful."

Clinging to power

In accordance with the Algerian constitution, Bouteflika has been replaced by Abdelkader Bensalah, head of the upper house of parliament, as interim president for 90 days until a presidential election scheduled for 4 July.

But the interim president is widely seen as a central figure of le pouvoir, as he stood as Bouteflika's representative for years after the president suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013.

Demonstrators have expressed their fear that any upcoming elections organised under the leadership of the country's political elite would not be fair nor free, and would only provide a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy to the "system".

Bensalah has received the implicit support of the army - including its leader, General Ahmed Gaid Salah - who publicly abandoned Bouteflika despite being a loyal supporter of the president for some 15 years.

Gaid Salah has deemed a transition outside of the institutional framework to be "unreasonable," but vowed that the army would guarantee "transparency and integrity" in the upcoming election.

However, demonstrators on Friday were largely unconvinced.

"We want the prosecution of all corrupt people" and "no to the gang," said banners held up by the protesters on Friday.

"The people are bigger than the constitution," another banner read, while another said "Leave Bensalah, and take Gaid [Salah] with you".

'Elections will be rigged'

Ali Badji, a 52-year-old grocer holding his son on his shoulders, told Reuters: "We are still sticking to our demands. We want a radical change."

Hamid, a 24-year-old student, told AFP: "It's clear that elections will be rigged with them. We don't trust them."

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Louisa Dris-Ait Hamadouche, a political science professor at Algiers 3 University, said she believes the planned election is "legal, but not legitimate," adding that le pouvoir was likely counting on popular mobilisation to weaken in the upcoming months.

"Three months is long for a popular movement, but for the moment it is standing strong," she said.

Rachid Grim, a political science professor at the Superior Institute of Management and Planification (ISGP), was more cautious.

"Three months is short" to transform a popular drive into an organised political alternative, Grim told AFP, as he assessed that such a change "won't happen in a day".