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Pressure mounts in Algeria as protests gain momentum with general strike

media People protest against Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Algiers. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Discontent in Algeria and among the Algerian diaspora has ratcheted-up from weekly protests to a general strike across the country since Sunday. President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's return to the country has not restored calm.

Protests across Algeria and overseas are gaining momentum as demonstrators demand that the 82-year-old President withdraws his candidacy for a fifth term.

Bouteflika returned to Algeria on Sunday following two weeks of medical treatment in Switzerland, as a general strike got underway with shops in Algiers and other cities closed down.

More than 1,000 Algerian judges said they would refuse to oversee the country's election on April 18 if President Abdelaziz Bouteflika contests it. The judges also said that they were forming a new association.

The government reacted, with the minister for justice urging judges to remain neutral.

On Monday, lawyers in their black robes gathered in front of courthouses to join calls for Bouteflika to abandon his bid for a fifth term.

They joined the strike action and launched a 48-hour walkout to demand that the Constitutional Council reject Bouteflika's re-election bid on the grounds of "incapacity" to carry out the role.

Clerics tell government to stop meddling

Meanwhile, Algerian clerics have called on the minister of religious affairs to stop interfering and pressuring them to issue sermons in favour of the government.

In a significant turnaround, army chief of staff Ahmed Gaid Salah, who initially threatened the protesters, declared on Sunday that "the people and the army share friendship, solidarity and a future vision for Algeria."

"The national patriotic army takes pride in being a part of this defiant nation, and cherishes sharing the same values and principles" with the people, he said during a speech to engineering students.

The call for a general strike, which began on Sunday, received diverse reponses across the country but met with overwhleming support in the northern coastal city of Bejaia in Kabylie.

"All the workers in all sectors, private and public, were on strike. We haven't seen something like that in a long time," said Samir Larabi, sociology lecturer at the University of Bejaia.

"This city has always had a rebellious streak since the Berber movement. If the rest of the country joins in, we can expect major changes on the political scene," he told RFI.

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