Algerians mix protest and football with eyes on Africa cup

Abdelhafid Daamache with Aymeric Vincenot in Paris

Algiers (AFP) - Protesters took to the streets of Algiers Friday for a rally boosted by hopes that their national team would beat Senegal to win the Africa Cup of Nations.

Demonstrators, many of them wearing the national football team's kit, poured onto the streets following weekly midday prayers, despite a heavy security presence.

The protests have been held every week since they flared in February over veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term in office.

Bouteflika's departure on April 2 failed to stem the protest movement, which has continued to demand the departure of key regime figures and an overhaul of the North African country's political system.

Retired protester Amar, 71, held up a sign reading "today we will party twice. We'll win the cup and topple the gang!" -- referring to Bouteflika-era officials still in office.

"This morning we have a match against the 'gang' and in the evening against Senegal," he said. "God willing, we'll win both matches."

An uninterrupted row of police vehicles lined a major avenue in Algiers, severely reducing the space for protest marches, but AFP journalists at the site did not witness any arrests, unlike at previous marches.

As kickoff loomed in Cairo for Algeria's bid to lift the African Cup for the first time in 29 years, free public buses waited to ferry fans to the capital's July 5 Stadium, where the final is to be shown on a big screen.

- 'We will win' -

Algerian authorities have also organised an "air bridge" to deliver some 4,500 supporters to the Egyptian capital for the match.

But the move sparked cynicism among protesters.

"The national team gives us a lot of joy and pride, but we can't forget the most important thing: the departure of all (senior Bouteflika-era) officials," said Amina, a civil servant.

"Many are already in prison, and so they should be -- they stole the money of the people."

A series of prominent politicians and businessmen linked to Bouteflika have been detained or questioned over alleged graft since the ailing president stepped down.

Former cabinet minister Amar Ghoul was placed in preventive detention on Monday, state media reported.

The official APS news agency said he was being investigated over cases involving powerful businessmen Ali Haddad, CEO of Algeria's top construction company, and Mahieddine Tahkout, whose group dominates the higher education and urban transport sectors.

Facing accusations of benefitting from their connections to Bouteflika to win large public contracts, Haddad and Tahkout have already been imprisoned.

With the detention of Ghoul, the leaders and former leaders of the four pro-Bouteflika parties are now all in provisional detention on allegations of corruption during their time in government.

As the protestors dispersed late on Friday afternoon, many headed to venues where the Africa Cup of Nations final is to be screened.

"I'm going to watch the match, then God willing we'll celebrate victory until the morning," said Ahmed, a security guard.

Crowds packed venues across the capital as kickoff approached, their eyes glued to the giant television screens broadcasting the game from Cairo.

As the match got underway, the mood grew tense. But an explosion of joy erupted when the national team scored a goal in the second minute of the game.

Many fans also voiced their excitement online. One photo doing the rounds on social media shows a young woman holding up a sign reading: "We will win the cup, you will lose power."