Amid mounting protests, Algeria’s Bouteflika promises to quit early if re-elected

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Abdelghani Zaalane submitted the papers at the constitutional council in Algiers responsible for collecting the papers of candidates for the April 18 presidential election. (AFP)
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Algerian students take part in a protest against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's bid for a fifth term at Place d'Armes in the city of Oran on February 26, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 04 March 2019
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Amid mounting protests, Algeria’s Bouteflika promises to quit early if re-elected

  • Ennahar TV says Bouteflika had offered to step down after a year if re-elected.
  • Opponents say he is no longer fit to lead the North African country

ALGIERS: Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's campaign manager has formally submitted official papers on Sunday confirming that he will seek re-election, with Ennahar TV saying he had offered to step down after a year if re-elected.  

Abdelghani Zaalane submitted the papers at the constitutional council in Algiers responsible for collecting the papers of candidates for the April 18 presidential election. The president also wrote a letter that was read out on state television by Zaalane on his behalf.  

The ailing leader vowed in the 11th-hour letter to organize a "national conference" that would set a date for early polls which he would not contest. Ennahar TV said that this would be held within a year.

Zaalane added that Algeria needs to complete its journey towards democracy, development and prosperity.

Bouteflika also vowed to fight all forms of bribery and corruption in his country, and that he would prepare a new constituion that will lay the foundation for the birth of a new Algerian republic. 

The president also pledged new policies to redistribute national wealth and end marginalization in his letter. He also called on all Algerians to unite in order to write a new page in Algeria's history.

"I have heard the pleas of protesters and especially thousands of young people who asked about our nation's future," he wrote in his public message.    

The comments are likely to be viewed as an attempt to appease those who had taken to the streets for 10 days to protest against the 82-year-old's plans to remain in office and to allow him an exit on his own terms.

Bouteflika's statement was his first since the biggest displays of dissent in Algeria since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that unseated rulers in neighbouring countries.

In a rare wave of public dissent, Algerians have been taking to the streets since rallies calling on him to step down began 10 days ago. Bouteflika, 82, in shaky health for years, was due to submit his official election papers at the Constitutional Council in Algiers on Sunday, the deadline for candidates.

He need not do so in person, the state news agency APS said. Bouteflika, rarely seen in public since he suffered a stroke in 2013, was at the weekend still in Switzerland for unspecified medical checks, according to Swiss media.

In a sign of a disconnect from the mostly young population, almost 70 percent of which are aged below 30, he communicated via letter, as he has since suffering a stroke in 2013.

Tens of thousands of protesters had been rallying throughout the day in cities around Algeria, calling on Bouteflika not to submit election papers for the April 18 polls, the deadline for which was Sunday.Meanwhile, opposition candidate Ali Benflis announced his withdrawal from the presidential race.

Algeria's weak and divided opposition and civic groups have called for more protests should Bouteflika, who has been in power for 20 years, confirm his re-election bid.

Opponents say that Bouteflika is no longer fit to lead, citing his poor health and what they call chronic corruption and a lack of economic reforms to tackle unemployment that exceeds 25 percent among people under the age of 30.

But analysts say protesters lack leadership and organization in a country still dominated by veterans, like Bouteflika, of the 1954-62 independence war against France.

Thousands of students gathered at several university faculties, one of them near the Constitutional Council where presidential candidates file their papers, chanting: "No to a fifth term!" or "A free and democratic Algeria!"

There was heavy security around the Constitutional Council, and police prevented restive students from leaving the campus nearby, keeping the main gates shut. But some students were seen later marching outside.

"We will not stop until we get rid of this system," said Aicha, a 23-year-old student. Many university graduates face joblessness in an economy dominated by the state.

(With Reuters)


UN agency to donors: Back Palestine efforts anew, keep funding at 2018 levels

The UN Relief and Works Agency provides food assistance to 1 million people in Gaza every three months, which is half of the area’s population. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2019
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UN agency to donors: Back Palestine efforts anew, keep funding at 2018 levels

  • ‘Exceptional’ contributions enabled the UN Relief and Works Agency to fund its entire 2018 budget of $1.2 billion
  • ‘Countries that supported us last year I would say were extremely proud to contribute to the solution’

UNITED NATIONS: The head of the UN agency that helps 5.3 million Palestinian refugees on Monday urged donors who filled a $446 million hole in its budget last year after the Trump administration drastically cut the US contribution to be equally generous this year.
“Last year we had an extraordinary crisis and an out of the ordinary response,” Pierre Krahenbuhl said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Our humble request to all the donors is: Please keep your funding levels at the same level as 2018.”
He said he has been thanking donors for their “exceptional” contributions that enabled the UN Relief and Works Agency to fund its entire 2018 budget of $1.2 billion.
Krahenbuhl said the agency, known as UNRWA, also adopted a $1.2 billion budget for 2019, and this year it is getting nothing from the United States. Last year, the Trump administration gave $60 million, a dramatic reduction from the $360 million it provided in 2017, when the United States was the agency’s largest donor.
US President Donald Trump said in January 2018 that the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive US aid money — a comment that raised alarm from leaders of 21 international humanitarian groups, who protested that the administration’s link between aid and political objectives was “dangerous.”
Krahenbuhl said the campaign that UNRWA launched immediately after the US slashed its contribution succeeded as a result of “very important donations,” starting with the European Union, which became the agency’s biggest donor. He said 40 countries and institutions increased funding to UNRWA, including Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan, Canada and Australia. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait each gave $50 million, he said.
“Countries that supported us last year I would say were extremely proud to contribute to the solution,” Krahenbuhl said.
Last year, he said, the number of multi-year funding agreements with donors rose to 19.
So UNRWA right now is in “a somewhat better position” than it was last year, with a shortfall of just over $200 million, Krahenbuhl said.
So far this year, the agency has received $245 million and is expecting $100 million more, he said, which means it should be financially OK until about May.
“But from then on we’ll start to ... reach some crisis points,” Krahenbuhl said.
He said UNRWA is thinking about holding some events in the next two or three months “to collectively mobilize the donor community.” In June, he said, there will be a pledging conference at which the UN and donors will take stock of the agency’s financial situation.
Krahenbuhl said he is committed to making up for the $60 million that UNRWA is losing from the United States this year through internal cost saving measures to reduce the agency’s expenditures.
“That’s going to hurt, but that’s where we feel our financial responsibility, so that we preserve the trust that was generated by the level of donors,” he said, noting that UNRWA last year saved $92 million.
Krahenbuhl said donors recognize the agency does important work. He pointed to the 280,000 boys and girls in UNRWA schools in Gaza and the food assistance the agency provides to 1 million people there every three months. “That’s half of Gaza’s population,” he said.
The UNRWA chief also said that continuing the agency’s services to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and elsewhere in the Mideast “is in everybody’s interest” and important for stability in the region.
“If you take Gaza right now ... it’s continuously at the razor’s edge,” Krahenbuhl said, stressing that any shift in humanitarian assistance or conditions that people live in “can trigger the need for justification, or the excuse ... to go back to war.”
Noting his own experience in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, Krahenbuhl said, “this is absolutely devastating and needs to be avoided.”