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Massive Crowds Protest Against Algerian President Bouteflika


For a sixth straight week, Algerians have taken to the streets to protest President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The demonstrations have been growing since he announced a fifth run for re-election after being in office for 20 years. Jake Cigainero joins us now from Paris. Jake, thanks so much for being with us.

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: What have these protests been like?

CIGAINERO: Well, the protests have grown week by week in the capital, Algiers and, around the country. Yesterday, police said there were a million people in the streets. And demonstrations have been peaceful with very few incidents. However, police did use tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds yesterday. Even then, there was no rioting or clashes between protesters and police. And there seems to be a joyful, hopeful feeling in these protests. Algerians have persisted in their protests, and each week, they see progress, especially now that even the president's allies one by one are calling for him to step down.

SIMON: And what are some of the reasons Algerians want Bouteflika to leave? He is, of course - he's been in power 20 years, and he's 82 years old.

CIGAINERO: Right. So there's that, and he's also very ill. He suffered a stroke in 2013, and he hasn't even given a public speech since then. Actually, he's rarely even seen in public and is often represented just by a framed portrait at official events. First, they protested because Bouteflika was going to run for a fifth term. Then the president said he wouldn't run again but just canceled elections completely. And he said he would leave office once he has rewritten the constitution. But protesters say he's already had two decades to make change. Also there's the economy, which has tanked despite Algeria being rich in oil and gas. Protesters claim Bouteflika and his entourage have stolen the country's wealth for themselves.

SIMON: Of course, France is home to millions of Algerians. I know you've been speaking with some of them. What do they tell you?

CIGAINERO: Right. The Algerian diaspora in France is the largest in the world. They've also been protesting here. I met Kadar Kassasia (ph) at a recent demonstration. He's a medical student born in France to Algerian parents. This is what he told me.

KADAR KASSASIA: In my life, I only remember Bouteflika as the president. Can you imagine that? You Americans had Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Barack Obama, now Donald Trump, and during all this time, we only had one president who concentrate all the powers in Algeria.

CIGAINERO: And, Scott, Kadar told me he wants to be a doctor in Algeria one day but only if the system will change.

SIMON: What about reaction from politicians of the ruling party, the president's own party?

CIGAINERO: The Algerian president's own party, which is the National Liberation Front, have called for him to step down and have expressed their support for protesters. And the military chief, who is a longtime friend of Bouteflika, has even called for a constitutional intervention to have the president declared unfit to rule. But a lot of protesters aren't buying this. They see it as a cynical move to try to hang on to power as long as possible. Algerians have demonstrated week after week, and they've said that they want a complete overhaul of the government.

SIMON: But I gather they don't like these protests to be compared to the Arab Spring movement of 2011. How is this different?

CIGAINERO: Right. They see that as a dangerous move to compare this movement to the Arab Spring movement in 2011 because the Arab Spring got quite violent for Tunisia and Egypt when the military stepped in and cracked down. Algerian protests have mostly been peaceful, and they want to stay that way. Protesters, though, they also don't have any leaders to take their demands to the government, especially since they don't want to associate with any party currently in power. They say they want every trace of Bouteflika and his regime gone.

SIMON: Jake Cigainero in Paris, thanks so much for being with us.

CIGAINERO: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jake Cigainero