Untiring protesters come up against elite in Algeria

An Algerian protester lifts a placard in Algiers, as he takes part in a demonstration to reject the results of the presidential elections. (AFP)
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Updated 15 December 2019

Untiring protesters come up against elite in Algeria

  • Thursday’s presidential vote was bitterly opposed by Hirak protest movement, which saw it as an establishment ploy to cling to power

PARIS: Algeria’s unpopular presidential election was meant to reset the country’s politics after months of crisis, but it exposed a rigid system determined to perpetuate itself, analysts say.

“You get the impression of two parallel Algerias: A ruling class which congratulates itself on organizing elections and a populace that holds protests,” said Maghreb expert and historian Karima Direche.

The North African country plunged into crisis in February when veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would seek a fifth term, sparking mass demonstrations.

Bouteflika quit under popular pressure in April, but the Hirak protest movement has kept up the pressure with weekly mass rallies to demand sweeping reforms.

Thursday’s presidential vote was bitterly opposed by Hirak, which saw it as an establishment ploy to cling to power.

Anti-election rallies rocked major cities and in the Berber-dominated region of Kabylie, protesters ransacked polling stations and clashed with police.

Fewer than four out of 10 Algerian voters cast their ballots on Thursday, according to election officials. Direche suspects the real figure may be less than half that.

Officials “stuff the ballot boxes, they fix the numbers. They don’t even make the effort” to hide their manipulations, she said.

On Friday, vast crowds descended onto the streets of Algiers to reject newly elected president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a longtime government insider and former premier under Bouteflika.

But the opposition to the poll “matters little to a regime committed to a sham election intended to prolong its tenure,” said Anthony Skinner, regional director at risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft.

Algeria’s elite, dominated by army chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, sees the turnout as “enough to bestow what it sees as legitimacy on the next president,” he said.

“Gaid Salah will probably still treat the election as a success.”

Yet with the protest movement showing no sign of abating, that calculus may be wrong, said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris.

“Gaid Salah failed in his bid to stifle popular protest through imposing this election,” said Filiu.

The protesters on the other hand “succeeded in making participation the only real issue in this poll, rather than the identity of the future president,” he said.

“By sticking to a non-violent approach ... the Hirak is continuing to erode military decision-makers’ stranglehold on the country. There will be no going back” to the status quo.

For Direche, the poll was “a new humiliation for the Algerian people,” compounding the February decision to allow Bouteflika, 82 and partially paralyzed by a stroke, to attempt to extend his two-decade rule.

Direche said the Hirak may now change its strategy from one of peaceful Friday parades that pose little danger to the Algerian economy, to one of mass strikes and civil disobedience campaigns.

The amorphous movement may have to reconsider its strategy of having no leadership, given that the country’s political elite is “running the shop” without any limits on its power, she said.

But Direche said the Hirak has already created a shift in Algerian political life by retaking public space and encouraging citizens to take part in politics.

“It’s no longer the same Algerian society or the same country — but it’s still the same political system,” she said.

“Everything moves, but nothing changes” at the top of the state apparatus.

Algeria’s “political software” is “completely obsolete,” she added.

“While authoritarian regimes from time to time give some ground so the machine doesn’t get stuck, in Algeria, it has already completely broken down.”


‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.