New Algerian president faces tough challenge

Algerian demonstrators take to the streets in the capital Algiers to reject the presidential elections, in Algiers, Algeria, Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. (AP)
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Updated 13 December 2019

New Algerian president faces tough challenge

  • 40 percent of voters took part in the poll, enough to demonstrate the legitimacy of the exercise

ALGIERS: Algeria’s new president faces the country’s biggest political crisis in decades, a hostile economic climate and attacks on his legitimacy after winning an election with low turnout opposed by a massive protest movement.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 74, beat the other four candidates — all also former senior officials — to win the race outright with 58 percent of the vote, ensuring there will be no second round.

The authorities hope the election of a new leader will end months of turmoil following the toppling of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose 20-year-rule was brought to an end in April when the army pulled its support after mass demonstrations.

But protesters have dismissed the entire election as a ploy by Algeria’s shadowy, military-backed authorities to quell the months-long uprising and restore the old political order.

As housing minister, Tebboune was responsible for building the tallest mosque in the world, a project the government pushed as a national symbol, and for expanding the state’s generous program of low-cost homes with a million new apartments.

Officials say 40 percent of voters took part in the poll, enough to demonstrate the legitimacy of the exercise.

But protesters and their sympathizers who boycotted the election could dispute Tebboune’s mandate. And, as the protest movement has no clear leadership, it is not clear how Tebboune could negotiate a widely accepted path forward.

Aside from the months-long political crisis, he will also face Algeria’s most difficult economic situation in decades, with declining energy revenues and bitter cuts to state spending.

Energy exports, the source of 95 percent of state revenue, fell 12.5 percent this year. The government has burned through more than half its foreign reserves since energy prices began dropping in 2014, and has approved a 9 percent cut in public spending next year, while keeping politically sensitive subsidies untouched.

It has also approved new investment rules to allow foreign companies to own majority shares in “nonstrategic sectors,” and to make it easier for international oil firms to work with state energy giant Sonatrach.

Tebboune was viewed as a technocrat during his years as a Cabinet minister under Bouteflika. He served as premier in 2017 before being pushed out after less than three months when he fell out with influential business tycoons in the president’s coterie, many of whom are now in prison on corruption charges.

Separate from politics

Like the other candidates, Tebboune has tried to harness the protest movement as a source of support for reform while rejecting its overriding message that the entire ruling elite should go and that the military should quit politics.

He has used the circumstances of his brief premiership in 2017 to polish his credentials as a man of integrity who stood up to Bouteflika. He vowed during the campaign to “separate money from politics.”

However, his own son was also arrested in the purge that followed Bouteflika’s fall and is now also awaiting trial accused of graft. Tebboune supporters said his son’s plight proved his independence from the military-backed authorities.


Jerusalem’s Palm Sunday march scaled back due to coronavirus

Updated 05 April 2020

Jerusalem’s Palm Sunday march scaled back due to coronavirus

  • Palm Sunday celebrations start the Holy Week leading up to Easter
  • JERUSALEM: A small group of Franciscan monks and Roman Catholic faithful took to the streets of Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter in the Old City Sunday to distribute olive branches after the traditional Palm Sunday procession was canceled due to restrictions

JERUSALEM: A small group of Franciscan monks and Roman Catholic faithful took to the streets of Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter in the Old City Sunday to distribute olive branches after the traditional Palm Sunday procession was canceled due to restrictions imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus.
The march took place as Israel deployed troops to help contain an outbreak in a hard-hit city. Iran, dealing with the worst outbreak in the Mideast, announced plans to allow some businesses to reopen later this month even as the death toll continued to climb. Lebanon, meanwhile, reopened its airport to allow citizens who had been stranded overseas to return home.
Palm Sunday celebrations start the Holy Week leading up to Easter. Worshipers traditionally carry palm fronds and olive branches and march from the top of the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem’s Old City.
While thousands of pilgrims usually participate in the march, this year was limited to a handful of participants. Clerics and faithful went door to door often throwing the branches to Christians looking on from their balconies.
“This year because of the new situation we are trying to come to all the Christians in our Christian Quarter to bring these branches of olives, the sign of new hope,” said the Rev. Sandro Tomasevic, a Catholic clergyman at the Latin Parish of Jerusalem.
Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and is the start of the church’s most solemn week, which includes the Good Friday re-enactment of Jesus’ crucifixion and death and his resurrection on Easter.
In Israel, more than 8,000 people have contracted the coronavirus and 46 have died. In the West Bank, nearly 200 cases have been reported, including a large outbreak in the biblical town of Bethlehem.
The outbreak has forced church officials to close churches to the public and scale back religious observances throughout the week. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, held a small, closed service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
The coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms. It can cause serious illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues.
Iran has been the hardest-hit nation across the region. Iran state TV reported that an additional 151 people had died, pushing the death toll to 3,603 with over 58,000 confirmed cases.
But the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, announced that low-risk businesses will be allowed to resume their activities in Tehran on April 18. Businesses in other provinces will begin a week earlier, on April 11, he said during a meeting Saturday. He said government offices would also be able to boost staffing, from one-third to two-thirds of their work force, beginning April 11.
Rouhani said the decision would not contradict a stay-at-home policy and that businesses must still observe health restrictions ordered by the government. High-risk businesses, like pools, gyms and shopping malls will remain closed, he said.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, a jet carrying more than 70 Lebanese citizens who had been stuck in Saudi Arabia after Beirut’s international airport closed nearly three weeks arrived in Lebanon. It marked the beginning of flights that aim to return thousands of Lebanese from around the world. Three more flights are scheduled to arrive later Sunday from the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
The tiny Mediterranean country has reported 520 cases of coronavirus and 20 deaths since the first case was reported in late February.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said up to 21,000 people have registered to return home, and the process will take several weeks.
In Israel, the military began an operation in the hard-hit city of Bnei Brak, helping to distribute food and medicine. The government last week put Bnei Brak, home to a large population of ultra-Orthodox religious Jews, under a near closure after an outbreak ravaged the city. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population has been disproportionately infected after religious leaders played down or ignored warnings to maintain social distance early in the crisis. Meanwhile, a nursing home in the southern city of Beersheba reported its sixth death in recent days.