Hundreds of demonstrators, in defiance of a ban of protests, rallied in the Algerian capital against a bid by ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term in office.
The protesters chanted pro-democracy slogans at a rally on Friday in Algier’s May 1 Square amid a heavy police presence, witnesses said.
Security forces cordoned off the square and prevented other protesters from entering it, the witnesses added.
“No fifth mandate,” chanted the mostly young demonstrators, many waving Algerian flags, as they started to march through central Algiers.
Earlier this month, Bouteflika, who has ruled the North African country since 1999, announced his intention to seek a new five-year term in the elections scheduled for April 18, despite concerns over his health.
The 81-year-old head of state uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.
“Algerians’ dignity has been infringed by the current president’s bid to rule Algeria for five more years despite his ill health,” a protester told dpa news agency on Friday in the capital.
An official ban on demonstrations in Algiers was imposed in 2001.
Activists used social media to call for Friday rallies against Bouteflika across the country after the weekly Muslim prayers, also filling the main square in Annaba, 400 kilometres east of Algiers with demonstrators, the TSA news website said.
Other smaller gatherings took place in other provinces including Oran in north-western Algeria and Setif in the north east, Algerian newspaper Elkhabar reported online.
The protests came after mosque preachers had cautioned in Friday prayers against demonstrating, warning of violence.
Bouteflika’s re-election bid comes after the ruling FLN party picked him as its official presidential candidate. Several political parties, trade unions and business organisations have already said they would support his re-election.
In announcing his bid, he spoke of an “unwavering desire to serve” despite his health constraints and pledged to set up an “inclusive national conference” to address political and economic reforms.
Bouteflika is expected to easily win the vote as the opposition remains weak and divided.
On Wednesday, leaders from the country’s diverse opposition parties failed to agree on a joint presidential candidate.
Bouteflika remains popular with many Algerians, who credit him with ending a long civil war by offering an amnesty to former Islamist fighters.
But many young people feel disconnected from an elite made up of veteran fighters from Algeria’s 1954-1962 independence war with France.
Bouteflika is the only president in North Africa who was spared in the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring that started in neighbouring Tunisia in 2010.
At the time, his government contained pro-democracy protests with promises of reform and pay raises, financed by the country’s revenues from oil and gas.
In recent years, Algeria’s finances have been hurt by the global drop in oil prices, prompting cuts in state subsidies.
The president’s office announced on Thursday that Bouteflika will travel to Switzerland for “routine medical checks” ahead of the April 18 election.