(CNN) -- Thousands of people marched in protest through Djibouti on Friday, rallying against the ruling elite as well as economic stagnation within the small African nation.
"The march was peaceful and diverse," said Aly Verjee, director of the international election observation mission to Djibouti, who witnessed the event.
But riot police charged the crowd after the call to evening prayers, shooting canisters of tear gas at the demonstrators, he said.
Protests in Djibouti, located along the Horn of Africa, began in late January and echo many of the same sentiments brewing among demonstrators protesting governments across North Africa and the Middle East.
Protesters have called for President Ismail Omar Guelleh -- whose family has ruled the country since its independence from France in 1977 -- to step down ahead of the elections scheduled in April. On Friday, protesters marched to the main stadium in the city-state. Guelleh has held the post since 1999 and is seeking a third term.
'It was much larger than previous protests," Verjee said.
Djibouti is a tiny country, but important to Western interests as it houses a U.S. Navy and French Navy base vital for the fight against Somali piracy and for monitoring neighboring Somalia.
Djibouti's strategic importance to the United States is substantial. It's home to Camp Lemonnier, the only U.S. military base on the continent. The 88-acre former French military barracks is used as a staging ground for U.S. counterterrorism efforts including, reportedly, CIA drone attacks on al Qaeda terrorists.
The facility is the headquarters for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
More than 2,000 military personnel are stationed at Camp Lemonnier. They include members of the U.S. Army 218th Field Artillery Regiment and the Marine 9th Provisional Security Force.
CNN's David McKenzie contributed to this report.