ALGIERS (Reuters) -A heavy police presence smothered central Algiers on Friday, effectively blocking a resumption of a weekly protest movement that the authorities have decided they can no longer tolerate.
A Reuters journalist saw about 20 security forces vehicles in the city centre, six police sitting inside one as it stood by a cafe where people drank coffee at tables outside. Nearby, police stood next to barriers closing off the side streets.
One regular protester who gave only his first name Amarouche for fear of reprisals after a wave of arrests, had initially said he planned to demonstrate as usual. But later on Friday he said he had not been able to.
"It was simply impossible. Too many police out there," he said.
Reuters on Friday afternoon viewed several parts of the capital where protests normally took place, but all were quiet - and with a large police presence.
After bringing hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in 2019 to oust a veteran president, the "Hirak" protest movement continued with weekly marches seeking to stop the army interfering in politics.
The Interior Ministry said this month that any new protests would require an official permit that named the organisers and included start and finishing times.
It appeared aimed at the leaderless, unorganised Hirak, which had stopped protesting in March 2020 when the global pandemic struck, but returned to the streets in February with thousands demonstrating each Friday since then.
Two protesters who had returned to the streets in February, Ahmed Abdiche and Mohamed Badji, had decided before Friday that they would not try to march, expecting a crackdown, though both said it would not end their quest for change.
ECONOMY IN DEEP TROUBLE
"Hirak will continue, whether through marches or other methods. But we will stick to peaceful ways," said Abdiche.
"Using force to stop our marches will change nothing because we are determined to achieve our goals and will not step back," said Badji.
Hirak's 2019 protests represented a political earthquake in Algeria, posing the hardest test in decades to be faced by a ruling elite that had been in place since independence from France in 1962.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced from office after two decades and numerous senior officials were jailed on corruption charges.
However, protesters said the changes were largely cosmetic and sought a more thorough purge of the ruling elite and the army's withdrawal from politics.
The movement boycotted the election of Bouteflika's successor, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in December 2019 and a referendum he held on changes to the constitution in November 2020 that was passed with a dismal turnout of 25%.
However, with the economy in deep trouble thanks to declining energy revenue and the global pandemic, and after some of Hirak's immediate goals were met, many of its initial supporters have since decided to stop protesting.
"The time has come to opt for dialogue and end this crisis. Marching and shouting slogans won't solve our problems," said one, Ali Bachiri.
(Reporting by Lamine Chikhi and Hamid Ould Ahmed, writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)