March 10, 2020 / 7:23 PM / a month ago

Racked by protests, Algeria bars political gatherings over virus

ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria’s government has canceled political gatherings because of the coronavirus, it said on Tuesday, though it was not immediately clear if this would entail a ban on the mass protests that have convulsed the state for more than a year.

Health Minister Abderrahmane Benbouzid said in comments broadcast on state television that the government was acting to slow the spread of the disease, with 20 confirmed cases in the country.

“All sports, cultural, political and economic gatherings are canceled. We do not take any risk,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from leading figures in the political opposition, known as the Hirak, over the move.

However, one student demonstrator, Riad Mekrez, 25, said: “I disagree with it. Hirak must goes on even if I acknowledge that we need to protect people from corona.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad said the country faced an unprecedented “multi-dimensional crisis” and urged people to make fewer demands of the government and reduce their street presence.

The demonstrators are demanding wholesale changes in the political establishment, including the departure of the entire ruling elite and the army’s withdrawal from politics.

The protests forced the ousting last April of Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years as president, and the arrest of many senior figures on corruption charges.

Algeria’s authorities have publicly praised the protest movement as a moment of national renewal and pledged to meet its demands, while using a big police presence and arrests to put pressure on demonstrators.

In December, the authorities held a presidential election to replace Bouteflika despite vehement opposition from the protest movement, which said any vote held while the old ruling elite remained in power would be illegitimate.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected in the vote, has promised to change the constitution in order to satisfy public demand for change.

Algeria’s 20 confirmed coronavirus cases so far are mostly from one family in the town of Blida south of the capital.

Reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed and Lamine Chikhi, writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Sandra Maler, Editing by William Maclean

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