ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algerians are watching to see whether a global epidemic will do what the ruling authorities they describe as le pouvoir - the powers that be - have failed to achieve, and quell a year of mass protests.
The street demonstrations in Algiers and other cities take place on Fridays and Tuesdays, and protesters contacted by Reuters were divided over whether to march this week.
On Thursday, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune ordered schools and universities to close after health authorities said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had risen to 26 with two people dead.
The government has already decreed measures to stop the disease spreading, including a ban on spectators at sports events, and on political, social and cultural gatherings.
However, the authorities have not said whether this includes the mass protests that have taken place in Algiers and other cities since early 2019, forcing out veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The leaderless protest movement - known as Hirak - has also brought down many powerful officials with its demands for the removal of the governing elite, the withdrawal of the army from politics and an end to corruption.
However, it could not prevent an election in December to elect a new president, though it opposed any vote before the ruling hierarchy quit. The winner, Tebboune, formed a government in January.
Protester Mourad Amrani, 27, said the movement was not ready to back down.
“Hirak must continue until the system is uprooted, and it has not been yet. If we stop now, the system will be re-born. I understand there is a risk from coronavirus, but I will march tomorrow,” the taxi driver said.
However, Djamila Belaid, a 43-year-old mother of three who describes herself as a longstanding supporter of the protest, said she and her family would no longer attend.
“If Hirak goes on, this could let coronavirus spread and more people will be infected. I am very worried ... I will not let my children go to the Hirak,” she said.
Although the government and military have praised the protests as a moment of national renewal, they have also tried to damp them down by combining a heavy police presence and arrests with a series of concessions.
On Tuesday, Tebboune’s prime minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, said the “multidimensional crisis” facing Algeria as oil prices collapse should move people to make fewer demands of the government and reduce their presence on the street.
Reporting by Lamine Chikhi; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by John Stonestreet and Giles Elgood