Anti-government protests have spread to Djibouti, the tiny, but strategic country that hosts the only U.S. military base in sub-Saharan Africa. Demonstrators are demanding that the president step down.
Protesters marched down a Djibouti street Friday after Muslim prayers, demanding that President Ismail Omar Guelleh give up plans to run for a third term.
The 63-year-old president came to power in 1999 after replacing his uncle as head of Djibouti’s ruling party. He is nearing the end of his second six-year term in office, but the country’s constitution was recently amended to allow him to run again in elections set for April.
Independent observers estimated the size of Friday’s demonstration at between 1,000 and 2,000. But Mohamed Daoud Chehem of the opposition Djibouti Party for Development said the numbers were much larger. He told VOA by phone from the protest site that demonstrators hope to follow the Egyptian example of staying on the streets until their demands are met.
"We have come to stay here," said Chehem. "[This] freedom place. Like Egypt. We want to stay here."
Djibouti is a small Horn of Africa nation of about 750,000 people between Eritrea and Somalia, strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen.
It is considered a frontline state in anti-terrorism efforts, and is home to Camp Lemonnier, the only U.S. military installation in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a small French base.
Opposition leader Chehem said Friday’s demonstration was modeled after the political rallies currently sweeping Northern Africa and the Middle East.
"This is not a strong regime," he said. "The people don’t like this regime. Now we give encouragement to [kick] out this regime."
Chehem said the protests had been peaceful, and that police at the scene had not used force.
There are no foreign journalists operating in Djibouti, and reporters who arrived at the airport this week seeking visas to cover the demonstration were denied entry.