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Monday, 18th March 2019
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North Africa

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Algeria's new prime minister is promising to create a government within days as the country faces mass protests calling for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down.

Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui told a news conference on Thursday that the government would be in place next week at the latest.

He called upon all sides to build trust and cooperate to overcome the current crisis shaking the gas-rich country, an important player in the global fight against Islamic extremism.

Bedoui was interior minister before the president named him this week to head a new government meant to calm tensions. 

Algerians take to the streets to protest day after Bouteflika announcement

Protesters return to Algeria's streets after jubilation over ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's vow not to seek re-election gave way to fears of a plot to prolong his two-decade rule.

Bouteflika's critics plan new nationwide protests Friday.

Bouteflika agreed to abandon plans for a fifth term but he also canceled presidential elections set for April 18, raising fears he will stay in power indefinitely.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to return to Algeria on Sunday after two weeks in a Swiss hospital as he faces mass protests that pose the biggest threat to his 20-year rule.

In the clearest indication yet that the generals sympathise with tens of thousands of Algerians who want Bouteflika to step down, the chief of staff said the military and the people had a united vision of the future, state TV reported. Lieutenant General Gaed Salah did not mention the protests.

A source familiar with the matter told Reuters Bouteflika would return on Sunday.

An Algerian government plane landed at Geneva’s Cointrin airport earlier on Sunday. A Reuters witness saw the Gulfstream executive jet, the one which had taken Bouteflika to Geneva on Feb. 24, touch down at the airport amid a heavy police presence.

Swiss newspaper La Tribune de Geneve reported that the plane was due to leave Geneva at 3 p.m. (1400 GMT). It did not identify its source.

There was no immediate sign of any ambulance or motorcade carrying the 82-year-old Bouteflika. The ailing president has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

A heavy security deployment was reported between Algiers airport and the presidential residence in Zeralda, outside the capital, al-Arabiya Hadath TV said on Sunday. 

“Bouteflika is welcome if he comes back but we do not need him at the presidency,” said Aziz, a 17-year-old student.

Algerians of all social classes have protested over the past three weeks against Bouteflika’s decision to stand in April’s election.

The ruling FLN party urged all sides to work together to end the political crisis, Ennahar TV said. It wants national reconciliation and to preserve security and stability, the station said.

But there are no signs Algerians are prepared to heed that call after rejecting Bouteflika’s offer to limit his term after the election.

‘NO FIFTH TERM’

On Sunday, thousands took to the streets of the capital carrying the Algerian flag and chanting: “Bouteflika, there will be no fifth term”. Many shops in Algiers were closed and residents say train services had been suspended.

“We have taken to the streets today to protest a fifth presidential term. We are against a fifth term. This is enough,” protester Zakaria said in front of the Central Postal Office. 

Young Algerians are desperate for jobs and angry at unemployment, corruption and an elderly elite.

“The current system is unable to provide jobs,” said Farid Kahil, 27, who is unemployed.

Bouteflika managed to remain in power as the “Arab Spring” uprising toppled autocrats in neighbouring countries in 2011 because Algeria had enough foreign reserves to boost state spending.

Older Algerians haunted by the civil war in the 1990s tolerated crackdowns on dissent in exchange for stability, giving the government some breathing space. Now some have appeared at demonstrations to demand reforms.

“We need a new generation to govern us and secure a better future for our children,” said pensioner Ahmed, 63.

Even if Bouteflika’s position becomes untenable, it is not clear who could replace him. Algeria has stagnated for decades under veterans of the independence war who dominate the country.

For years, rumors have swirled about potential successors, but no one credible has emerged who has the backing of the army and elite and is not in their 70s or 80s.

Algeria’s chief of staff has warned that chaos would not be tolerated. The military has stayed in barracks. 

Several public figures, including members of Bouteflika’s FLN party and lawmakers have resigned to join the rallies against a political system dominated by war veterans since independence from France in 1962.

Two branches of the powerful Algerian labour union UGTA, representing tens of thousands of workers, have opposed the re-election plan and lawyers have also joined rallies.

Algerians packed central Algiers to capacity on Friday in the biggest protests in the capital in 28 years. Security forces detained 195 people, state television said, citing offences such as looting.

-Reuters

Anti-government protests resumed in Algeria on Sunday as tens of thousands gathered in the capital and other towns to demand Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika drop plans to stand for a fifth term, witnesses and residents said.

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.

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 organisation 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.

MORE PROTESTS AROUND THE COUNTRY

According to witnesses and local television footage, protesters also turned out in their thousands in other cities around the major oil- and gas-producing country, such as Oran, Batna, Blida, Skikda and Bouira.

The first candidate to submit his papers was Ali Ghediri, a retired general who is challenging the elite made up of military, ruling FLN party and business leaders. “I tell the people a new dawn has started,” he told reporters.

By midday, six candidates had formally registered. There was no sign of Bouteflika’s bid.

Bouteflika changed his campaign manager on Saturday, state media said. He has not addressed the protests against him - the biggest since the 2011 uprisings that ousted long entrenched elites in a number of Arab countries, though not in Algeria.

Friday saw the largest turnout to date in the protest wave, with tens of thousands in the streets. A total of 183 people were injured and one person died of a heart attack, APS said.

Many Algerians avoided public political activity for years, for fear of trouble from the pervasive security services or out of disillusionment with the lack of change in the leadership. 

After a decade-long Islamist insurgency that Bouteflika stamped out early in his rule, Algerians have often tolerated a political system with little space for dissent as a price to pay for relative peace and stability.

But disaffection has simmered with over one in four young people unemployed in a country that remains heavily reliant on oil and gas exports, despite numerous official promises of economic diversification over many years.

-Reuters

Egyptian authorities have arrested another five people over a deadly train crash and explosion last week at Cairo's main railway station.

At least 25 people were killed when an unmanned locomotive slammed into a barrier inside the busy station, triggering a huge blast that also injured at least 47.

Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek announced the new arrests late on Tuesday. It brings the total number of people detained over the crash to 11. They face charges of manslaughter and damaging public property.

At least 25 people were killed and 50 injured after a locomotive smashed into a barrier at Cairo's main train station, causing an explosion and a fire.

Previously, an investigation determined that a fight between two train conductors left the train unattended.

However, the February 27 accident triggered an online debate among Egyptians, with many blaming President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government for not improving railway services in Egypt, even after a series of deadly accidents.

-AP

Nesma Ghanem is hoping for a fourth child even though her doctor says her body can’t handle a pregnancy at the moment. She has three daughters and would like them to have a brother.

“In the future he could support his father and the girls,” said Ghanem, 27, who lives in a village in Sohag, an area with one of Egypt’s highest fertility rates.

The family depends on her husband’s income from a local cafe. “If I have a son people, here in the village can say that he will carry on his father’s name,” she said.

As Egypt’s population heads towards 100 million, the government is trying to change the minds of people like Ghanem. “Two Is Enough” is the government’s first family-planning campaign aiming to challenge traditions of large families in rural Egypt. But Ghanem’s wish to have a son shows how hard that could be.

“The main challenge is that we’re trying to change a way of thinking,” said Randa Fares, coordinator of the campaign at the Social Solidarity Ministry. “To change a way of thinking is difficult.”

Egypt’s population is growing by 2.6 million a year, a high rate for a country where water and jobs are scarce and schools and hospitals overcrowded. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi says the two biggest threats to Egypt are terrorism and population growth.

“We are faced with scarcity in water resources ... scarcity in jobs, job creation, and we need to really control this population growth so that people can feel the benefits of development,” Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali told Reuters.

Decades ago, Egypt had a family-planning programme, supported by the United States. The fertility rate fell from 5.6 children per woman in 1976 to 3.0 in 2008 while the use of contraceptives went up from 18.8 percent to 60.3 percent. Large amounts of contraceptives were made available and advertisements increased demand for birth control.

Support for family planning from the Egyptian government and large sums from donors helped make the programme successful, said Duff Gillespie, who directed USAID’s population office from 1986 to 1993.

But Egypt was relying on donor support and when that assistance went away, family planning was neglected. By 2014 the fertility rate had gone up to 3.5. The United States is supporting family planning in Egypt again, providing more than $19 million for a five-year project ending in 2022 and $4 million for a smaller private sector project ending in 2020.

Those amounts are significantly lower than the $371 million the United States spent on family planning in Egypt between 1976 and 2008.

“Two Is Enough” is mainly financed by Egyptian money, with the Social Solidarity Ministry spending 75 million Egyptian pounds ($4.27 million) and the U.N. providing 10 million pounds, according to the ministry.

The two-year campaign targets more than 1.1 million poor families with up to three children. The Social Solidarity Ministry, with local NGOs, has trained volunteers to make home visits and encourage people to have fewer children.

Mothers are invited to seminars with preachers who say that Islam allows family planning, and doctors who answer questions. Billboards and TV ads promote smaller families. The government aims to reduce the current fertility rate of 3.5 to 2.4 by 2030.

At a session teaching volunteers how to speak to mothers and fathers about family planning in a village in Giza, Asmaa Mohammad, a 25-year-old volunteer, told Reuters she would rather have three children than two.

“Since I was a child I knew I wanted three children,” said Mohammad who is unmarried and doesn’t have children yet.

Deeply rooted traditions and lack of education explain why many Egyptians have big families. Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority, endorses family planning, but not all Egyptians agree.

Some view children as a future source of support. Others who only have girls keep having more until they get a boy who can carry on the family name.

During a visit from a campaign volunteer, Ghanem said her wish to have a boy was not the main reason she wasn’t using contraceptives. She stopped using an IUD after suffering from bleeding.

About one in three Egyptian women stop using contraceptives within a year, often due to misinformation about the side effects or lack of information about alternatives, according to the United Nations Population Fund. 

Nearly 13 percent of married women of reproductive age in Egypt want to use contraceptives but are unable to, according to official data from 2014.

Now the government has renovated clinics, added staff and provided more free contraceptives. Under “Two is Enough” the goal is to have 70 new clinics up and running in March.

But when Reuters visited a clinic in Sohag last month, there were no contraceptives left. Nema Mahmoud, who had travelled from her village, was told to come back the next day.

Sohag, one of Egypt’s poorest governorates, also has one of the highest fertility rates at 4.3. The National Population Council said contraceptive use in Sohag is the lowest among six governorates surveyed.

For years Mahmoud, 33, didn’t use contraceptives consistently even though she wanted a small family. Her mother-in-law kept her from travelling to the city to get contraceptives when the local clinic was out, she said.

It was only after her mother-in-law died that she started using contraceptives properly. By then Mahmoud had three children and three miscarriages.

Since January, the government has limited cash assistance to poor families to two children instead of three in an attempt to push them to have fewer kids. Mahmoud will receive less cash every month. Her husband works only a few days a month, making 45 Egyptian pounds ($2.60) a day, she said.

Mahmoud and her neighbour Sanaa Mohammad, a 38-year-old mother of three, said the change should apply to new families, not women like them who already benefit from the programme and have more than two children.

“It’s not fair to give someone something and then take it away,” said Mohammad.

The government sees the population boom as a threat to its economic reform plans. Every year, 800,000 young Egyptians enter the labour market, where unemployment is officially 10 percent.

In Egypt, population growth is around half the economic growth rate, but it should be no more than a third - otherwise it will be difficult to invest in social programmes and improve living standards, said Magued Osman, chief executive of Baseera, the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research. 

Analysts say Egypt should target people before they have children and sex education should be available in schools.

“Two Is Enough is good, but by itself it will not do the job,” said Abla Abdel Latif, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.

Wafaa Mohammad Amin, 36, a mother of four who works on “Two Is Enough”, got married at 17 and had her first child a year later. Two of her children were malnourished because she didn’t know how to breastfeed properly. She had to postpone her education and couldn’t work for years.

“There are many things I know now that I wish I had known back then,” she said. “I don’t want others to go through what I went through.”

-Reuters 

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