Algerian protesters hold posters reading 'Give back our Algeria,' 'Bouteflika Out,' a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, during a demonstration in Algiers on Saturday.
Thousands of riot police tried to seal off the Algerian capital on Saturday to prevent activists from holding a banned pro-democracy rally a day after Egypt's authoritarian leader was toppled.
Police blocked off streets in Algiers and set up security barricades at strategic points along the march route and outside the city to try to stop busloads of demonstrators from reaching the capital. Armed police were also posted near newspaper headquarters.
Despite the massive deployment, thousands of people defied the government ban, flooding into downtown Algiers where they faced some skirmishes with police. Some arrests were reported as police tried to disperse the crowd.
Protesters chanted slogans including "No to the police state" and "Bouteflika out," — a reference to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has led this sprawling North African nation since 1999.
Under Algeria's long-standing state of emergency — in place since 1992 — protests are banned in Algiers, but repeated government warnings for people to stay away Saturday fell on deaf ears.
Still, news reports suggested security forces outnumbered demonstrators. The Algerian daily La Liberte said some 30,000 riot police had been deployed in the capital, while organizers estimated 10,000 came to march.
The march comes at a sensitive time — just a day after an uprising in Egypt forced Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in power and merely a month after another "people's revolution" in neighboring Tunisia forced longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile on Jan. 14.
The success of those uprisings is fueling hope for change in Algeria, although many in this conflict-scarred nation fear any prospect of violence after living through a brutal Islamist insurgency in the 1990s that left an estimated 200,000 dead.
Saturday's march focused on reforms pushing Algeria toward democracy but did not include a specific call to oust Bouteflika. It was organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, an umbrella group for human rights activists, unionists, lawyers and others.
Still, a markedly anti-government sentiment was in the air Saturday. Under the headline "Mubarak pushed from power," a cartoon in La Liberte showed the score Egypt-1, Algeria-0 and a fan waving an Algerian flag saying "we've got to tie the score."
The atmosphere in Algeria has been tense since early January, when people took to the streets in five days of rioting over rising food prices. In a bid to quell tensions, the government announced it would slash the price of sugar and cooking oil.
Poverty is endemic, despite Algeria's vast oil and gas reserves, and anger over unemployment and a lack of opportunities also helped fuel last month's riots.
Mindful of the Tunisian protests, Algerian authorities announced last week that the country's nearly two-decade-long state of emergency will be lifted in the "very near future." However, authorities warned that even then the ban on demonstrations in the capital would remain.
The army's decision to cancel Algeria's first multiparty legislative elections in January 1992 to thwart a likely victory by a Muslim fundamentalist party set off the insurgency. Scattered violence continued Saturday.