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Thousands of Algerians marched Monday in the capital and other cities to mark the second anniversary of the North African nation’s anti-government “Hirak” protest movement that convulsed Algeria before the Covid-19 pandemic forced it off the streets.

Chanting “A civilian state not a military state!”, “Enough is enough!” and “The people want independence!”, protesters walked through the center of the capital, waving national flags, watched by large numbers of police.

Some of the protesters hope to revive the twice-weekly Hirak protests that surged through Algerian cities from February 2019 for more than a year, regularly bringing tens of thousands of people to the streets until the global pandemic began.

“We are determined to continue our battle until victory,” said Djamel Habi, a student.

However, other protesters said the march was symbolic rather than a return to regular demonstrations, or that without a clear opposition leadership they were not yet sure whether to continue with protests.

The Hirak movement in April 2019 forced longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika into resigning, and Monday’s demonstration in Algiers was the largest since rallies were suspended in March last year due to the pandemic.

Heavy security presence in Algiers

Security checkpoints created traffic jams across the city, with identity checks carried out around key flashpoints, with several arrests made.

Police tried to block protesters from gathering around the Grand Post Office, which was at the heart of the mass protests that kicked off in Algiers and several other cities on February 22, 2019 to oppose Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term.

Elsewhere in the country, marches were being held Monday including in Annaba, Oran, Setif and Mostaganem, according to witnesses and accounts on social media.

‘Same old people’

On the eve of the Hirak second anniversary, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced a limited government reshuffle in a bid to head off renewed rallies.

The reshuffle saw few major changes by Tebboune, who was once a prime minister under Bouteflika.

Among those retained are Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad and Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati, seen as a symbol of Algeria’s judicial crackdown on protesters and opposition activists.

Tebboune also signed a decree dissolving parliament, clearing the way for early elections, for which no date has yet been set.

In a gesture of appeasement on Thursday, he announced pardons which have led so far to the release of almost 40 pro-democracy activists, including opposition figure Rachid Nekkaz and journalist Khaled Drareni, who has become a symbol of a struggle for a free press.

Tebboune returned to Algeria last week after spending most of the past four months in Germany receiving medical treatment after contracting Covid-19.

Zaki Hannache, a 33-year-old activist, said Hirak supporters were unimpressed by the president’s reshuffle and his call for early legislative polls.

“The reshuffle doesn’t interest me, it’s the same old people. Same thing with parliament, the new ones (deputies) will work, like the current regime, for their own interests, not for the people,” he said.

Last Tuesday, thousands of Algerians rallied in the northern town of Kherrata, where the first major protest erupted in 2019 against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth presidential term.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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