ALGIERS (Reuters) – Algerian authorities on Saturday ordered an early start to the spring university holiday, an apparent attempt to weaken two weeks of student-led protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The Higher Education Ministry’s decision came a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators packed central Algiers to challenge the veteran leader’s 20-year-old rule in the biggest protests in the capital in 28 years.
Without giving a reason for the move, the Ministry said in a decree that the spring break would be brought forward by 10 days, starting on Sunday instead of March 20.
Algerians desperate for jobs and angry at unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite seen as out of touch with the young have taken to the streets since Feb. 22 to protest the 82-year-old’s plans to seek a fifth term in an April 18 election.
Many of the demonstrations — the largest since 1991 when the army canceled elections Islamists were poised to win — started at university premises before spilling out onto the streets.
The ailing Bouteflika is in hospital in Geneva and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.
On Thursday he issued his first warning to protesters, saying the unrest, now entering its third week, could create chaos in the oil- and natural gas-producing North African country.
Bouteflika has offered to limit his term after the election and has vowed to change the “system” that runs the country, but the protest movement has galvanized discontent among different sectors, particularly students and young families.
Some long-time allies of Bouteflika, including members of the ruling party, have expressed support for the protesters, revealing cracks within a ruling elite long seen as invincible.
Friday’s protests were largely peaceful but some clashes between youths and police broke out in the evening and state media said 110 protesters and 112 policemen had been hurt in the unrest.