Algeria opponents call for mass march, protestors gather

Representatives of the National Coordination for Democratic Change preparing for a banned rally slated for February 12 (AFP)

About 50 people shouted anti-government slogans in a square in Algeria's capital on Saturday but they were encircled by hundreds of police trying to stamp out any attempt to stage an Egypt-style revolt.

Government opponents called for a mass protest march to demand democratic change and jobs, but most local residents so far stayed away and thousands of police in riot gear were moved to the capital to enforce a ban on the march.

"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 is helping organise the protest.

The small knot of protesters on May 1 Square, near the centre of the city, shouted "Bouteflika Out!" -- a reference to the Algerian president -- and some waved copies of a newspaper front page with the headline "Mubarak has fallen!"

The resignation on Friday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and last month's overthrow of Tunisia's leader, have electrified the Arab world and led many to ask which country could be next in a region where an explosive mix of authoritarian rule and popular anger is the norm.

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.

The protest march is scheduled to begin at May 1 Square at 11 a.m. (1000 GMT). When a handful of protesters arrived there two hours in advance, police arrested some of them and encircled the rest.

A small counter-protest started up nearby, with people chanting "We want peace not chaos!" and "Algeria is not Egypt!"
 
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A police helicopter hovered over the neighbourhood and about 200 officers in helmets and armed with batons were at the square. Dozens of police vehicles were parked nearby.

Thousands more police were on stand-by in other parts of Algiers, a city of densely packed whitewashed buildings on a steep hillside sloping down to the Mediterranean Sea.

Near Kennedy Square, about 3 km (1.8 miles) from the centre, police outnumbered local residents. They milled around in riot gear, drinking coffee, smoking and reading newspapers.

Other Arab countries have also felt the ripples from the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. Jordan's King Abdullah replaced his prime minister after protests and in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised opponents he would not seek a new term.

Protest organisers in Algeria -- who say they draw some of their inspiration from events in Egypt and Tunisia -- said police were turning people away before they could reach the march, or parallel protests planned for other cities.

"Algerians must be allowed to express themselves freely and hold peaceful protests in Algiers and elsewhere," the rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.

The government says it refused permission for the rally for public order reasons, not because it is trying to stifle dissent. It says it is working hard to create jobs and build new homes, and has promised more democratic freedoms.

Saturday's protest is not backed by Algeria's main trade unions, its biggest opposition parties or the radical Islamist groups which were banned in the early 1990s but still retain grassroots influence.

The march "is likely to be violent, but unlikely to destabilize the regime," said Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

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