Numbers dwindling for Algerian protest movement

ALGIERS Sat Feb 26, 2011 11:51am EST

ALGIERS (Reuters) - About 50 protesters attended a banned rally in the Algerian capital on Saturday, a drop in numbers indicating that opposition hopes of emulating popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world were fading.

The protest in Martyrs Square in the center of the city was the third in three weeks and on each occasion the numbers attending have fallen -- while thousands of police in riot gear have lined the streets.

Protesters led by the small RCD opposition party chanted "Algeria, free and democratic!" and "The regime must go!" Police stopped them from marching through the city, and dispersed them after two hours, with no clashes.

Algeria's government has bowed to some demands by lifting a 19-year-old state of emergency and giving the opposition airtime on state television and radio for the first time in years.

"The government is fooling us. On one hand it is saying that the state of emergency has been lifted. On the other hand, it is still using its police to prevent us from expressing our views," said Mohsen Belabes, spokesman for the RCD.

RIOT POLICE

But the government's concessions have polarized the coalition behind the protests. Some want radical change while others say the latest measures are a positive signal.

On the streets approaching Martyrs square, near the historic Casbah, police were lined up along the road while riot-control vehicles with water cannon were on standby and a police helicopter hovered over the center of the city.

Some pro-government demonstrators carrying pictures of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika staged a small counter-protest, but most of the people in Martyrs' Square were onlookers.

"Saturday is a day of business, and the protesters and the police are a hurdle," said Massoud Alel, 24, who sells Chinese-made carpets in the nearby Casbah souk, or market.

Unrest in Algeria could have implications for the world economy since it is a major oil and gas exporter, but analysts say an Egypt-style revolt is unlikely because the government can use its energy wealth to placate most grievances.

Algeria's biggest opposition forces have not take part in the protests, and they have also failed to attract large numbers of ordinary people -- many of whom fear new turmoil after nearly two decades of a violent Islamist insurgency.

"Obviously, the street is still not ready, and as long as you don't have the masses backing you, you can't do anything," Mohamed Lagab, political analyst and teacher at Algiers university, told Reuters.

Bouteflika, who is 73, will remain under pressure, including from some inside the ruling establishment, to deliver more change and to explain to the public what he plans to do.

(Editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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