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Algeria’s President Bouteflika has declared he will run for a 5th term

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has said Bouteflika’s health is not “an obstacle” to performing presidential duties.

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Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seen while voting at a polling station in the capital Algiers. - AFP

Ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika declared he will seek a fifth term in April elections in a message published by state media Sunday, after he was endorsed by his party and the ruling coalition.

The 81-year-old head of state uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013.

“Of course, I am no longer the same physical force as before — something that I have never hidden from the people,” said Bouteflika, according to the APS news agency, as he apparently broke his silence on his intentions for the April 18 poll.

“But the unwavering desire to serve… has never left me and it allows me to transcend the constraints linked to health troubles which everyone may one day face,” the president reportedly added.

Known for wearing a three-piece suit even in the stifling heat, Bouteflika gained respect from many for his role in ending Algeria’s decade-long civil war, which official figures say killed nearly 200,000 people.

He took advantage of the rise of the oil prices between 2004 and 2014 to launch vast infrastructure programmes and pull Algeria out of debt.

But the country’s hydrocarbon-dependent economy was hit hard by a drop in crude prices during the president’s fourth term, and now nearly a third of Algerians under 25 are unemployed.

Bouteflika has also faced criticism from rights groups and opponents who accuse him of being authoritarian.

  • ‘Irresponsible’ candidacy –
    His main opponent, former prime minister Ali Benflis, has not yet said if he will run in the election but his party — the Avant-Garde des Libertes or Avant Garde of Freedom — on Sunday rejected Bouteflika’s candidature.

“This irresponsible decision is capable of pushing our country further into political, economic and social crisis,” it said in a statement received by AFP.

Bouteflika, it said, was a “candidate uncapable of exercising the role of president”.

If re-elected, he would set up an “inclusive national conference” to address “political, economic and social” issues and “propose an enrichment of the constitution”, APS reported.

This conference would be mandated to establish “a consensus on reforms and changes” in Algeria, the president’s message said, but added that he would be the one to act on conclusions.

“A stronger presence of young people” inside political institutions, economic reform and a scaling back of bureaucratic red tape would be among the topics to be discussed at the conference.

Former prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal — who ran the incumbent’s successful presidential bids in 2004, 2009 and 2014 — has once again been named campaign manager.

The president has come up with “a strong and new plan” involving economic and political reforms to enact for the benefit of Algerians, Sellal told private TV network Ennahar.

The country’s four-party ruling coalition — which includes the president’s National Liberation Front (FLN) — backed Bouteflika earlier this month.

The FLN designated the president as its candidate on Saturday, in an address by party coordinator Mouad Bouchareb to thousands of people in the capital Algiers.

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has said Bouteflika’s health is not “an obstacle” to performing presidential duties.

His continued backing by the establishment makes him a firm favourite.

Retired general Ali Ghediri, 64, was the first to announce his candidacy after the presidency set the election date.

Algeria’s main Islamist party, the Movement for the Society of Peace, will also take part, backing its candidate Abderrazak Makri.

It has said Bouteflika would be unable to handle the demands of another term in office because of his poor health.

The country’s oldest opposition party, the Front of Socialist Forces, announced last month it would not field a candidate and called for an “active, intensive and peaceful boycott”.

In early 2016, he dissolved the all-powerful DRS intelligence agency after dismissing its leader General Mohamed Mediene, known as “Toufik”, who had clung to the post for a quarter of a century.

Presidential candidates have until March 3 at midnight (2300 GMT) to submit their applications.

On Sunday Bouteflika appointed one of his advisers — 70-year-old former justice minister and judge Tayeb Belaiz — to head Algeria’s 12-member constitutional council responsible for validating presidential candidates, APS said.

For the last presidential election in 2014, Bouteflika had only declared his intention to run a few days ahead of the deadline.

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Two UN personnel killed in Benghazi by car bomb

Two members of the UN mission were killed and at least eight others wounded including a child, by a car bomb.

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Two UN personnel killed in Benghazi by car bomb
Libyan firefighters extinguish a fire at the site of a car bomb attack in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi on August 10, 2019. - "Two members of the UN mission, one them a foreigner, were killed and at least eight others wounded including a child, by a car bomb" in a shopping area of the Al-Hawari district, the official said. (Photo by - / AFP)

A car bombing in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi killed two United Nations staff on Saturday, a security official said.

“Two members of the UN mission were killed and at least eight others wounded including a child, by a car bomb” in a shopping area of the Al-Hawari district, the official said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, which happened as a UN convoy was passing through the area.

Benghazi, Libya’s second city and the cradle of the 2011 uprising that overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was hit by years of violence targeting diplomatic offices and security forces after his fall.

An attack on the US consulate on September 11, 2012, killed US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

In 2017, military strongman Khalifa Haftar drove hardline Islamists and jihadists out of Benghazi after a three-year battle.

Haftar, who backs an eastern-based administration that opposes the Tripoli-based unity government, went on to seize Derna, the last city in eastern Libya outside his control.

But bombings and kidnappings have continued.

A May 2018 attack left seven people dead and last month, a car bombing at the funeral of an ex-army commander killed at least four people and wounded more than 30 others.

A Libyan lawmaker is also feared to have been abducted by an armed group in the eastern city, the UN and lawmakers said in July.

Haftar controls most of eastern Libya, and early this year he ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army to purge the south of what he called “terrorist groups and criminals”. 

On the heels of that campaign, his LNA launched in April an offensive to take the Libyan capital from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord. 

The LNA on Saturday announced a truce around Tripoli for the three-day Muslim festival of Eid Al-Adha, after the unity government conditionally accepted a ceasefire called for by the UN.

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Culture & Tourism

Tutankhamun gilded coffin receives restoration in Egypt

The golden coffin of the boy king will be displayed along with other Tutankhamun artefacts towards the end of next year

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Egyptian archaeologists restore the coffin and mummy of King Tutankhamun

Egypt displayed on Sunday the gilded coffin of Tutankhamun, under restoration for the first time since the boy king’s tomb was discovered in 1922. The restoration process began in mid-July after the three-tiered coffin was transferred to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo from the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, southern Egypt.

“We are showing you a unique historical artefact, not just for Egypt but for the world,” Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany told a press conference at the new museum, which overlooks the famed Giza Pyramids.

The golden coffin of the boy king will be displayed along with other Tutankhamun artefacts towards the end of next year when Egypt’s new mega-museum is opened to the public. The restoration is expected to take around eight months.

The outer gilded wood coffin stands at 2.23 metres (7.3 feet) and is decorated with a depiction of the boy king holding the pharaonic symbols the flail and crook, according to the ministry. In the last century, the coffin has “developed cracks in its gilded layers of plaster, especially those of the lid and base”.

Famed British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the 18th dynasty king in Luxor in 1922. Sunday’s announcement comes after the controversy the Pharoah courted in early July when a 3,000-year-old Tutankhamun artefact was sold in London for $6 million.

Furious Egyptian officials condemned the sale and asked the international police agency Interpol to trace the artefact which it deems looted.

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Culture & Tourism

Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs

“My work is meant to tell spiritual stories of this mountain and of Christianity in general.” -Mariusz Dybich

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Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
Polish artist Mario, sculptor of St. Simon the Tanner Monastery complex, poses for a picture alongside sculptures at the church in the Egyptian capital Cairo's eastern hillside Mokkatam district. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

Whistling a tune, Mario nimbly clambered up the scaffolding enveloping part of the rock-hewn St. Simon Monastery atop Cairo’s Mokkatam hills to add the final touches to his latest sculpture.

He had spent more than two decades carving the rugged insides of the seven cave churches and chapels of the monastery with designs inspired by biblical stories.

It was all done to fulfil the wishes of the monastery’s parish priest who met Mario in the early 1990s in Cairo. The Polish artist, who had arrived in Egypt earlier on an educational mission, was then looking for an opportunity to serve God at the monastery.

Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
Polish artist Mario, sculptor of St. Simon the Tanner Monastery complex, works on a scene at the church in the Egyptian capital Cairo’s eastern hillside Mokkatam district. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

“I want you to turn the mountain into an open Bible,” Mario recalls the priest telling him.

Back then, Mario had no experience in sculpting. But he bought an electric drill and chisel hammer and within days had finished his first sculpture.

It told the story of the miracle of the moving of Mokkatam mountain, a feat said to have been done by a 10th century craftsman known as Simon the Tanner to prove the strength of his Christian faith. The monastery is named after him.     

READ: Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival and the celebration of humanity

“I had no idea sculpting was a talent I have, but it turned out (to be) as you can see,” said Mario as he showed off his work around the walls of a vast cavern which regularly hosts gatherings at the monastery.

Across one, he sketched another chronicle about St. Simon, shown brandishing a needle before gouging his eyes out to punish himself for lusting after a woman.

Other walls recount stories from the New Testament.

“It can take between five days up to half a year to finish a sculpture, depending on the design,” he said.

‘Masterpiece’ – 

“My work is meant to tell spiritual stories of this mountain and of Christianity in general,” he said. “I want them to live on for future generations.”

Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
Polish artist Mario, sculptor of St. Simon the Tanner Monastery complex, works on a scene relief depicting the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, at the church in the Egyptian capital Cairo’s eastern hillside Mokkatam district. (Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

Mario says he kept practicing, sculpting for more than 23 years, and completed about 70 sculptures adding to the monastery’s allure by giving it an ancient look.

Construction of the complex started only in the 1970s, a thousand years after the story of moving Mokkatam mountain believed to have taken place in November 1979.

Building began after the monastery’s current parish priest known as Father Samaan, Arabic for Simon, visited the area and decided to turn it into a worship place.

READ: How South African teens are using radio to fight gun-related crimes

“I also thought then why not carve the miracles of Jesus on the mountain. It will benefit the people and (create) a lively depiction of these stories,” said Father Samaan.

Resting at the pinnacle of Mokkatam mountain, the monastery has a commanding view of the megalopolis of Cairo. Unsurprisingly though, reaching the top of the mountain is no small feat.

The gruelling trip to the top requires visitors to pass through the teeming slum area known as the city of “Garbage Collectors” of uneven roads and malodorous piles of garbage strewn along the way.

Despite the tough journey, the monastery welcomes thousands for services weekly as well as on holidays and celebrations of the Copts, Egypt’s Christian minority which makes up about 10 per cent of the country’s Muslim-majority population.

“The monastery is now a masterpiece,” Samaan said in his office in one of the churches of the monastery. “We have the pyramids and the artefacts in the Egyptian museum. But they are all ancient but this monastery is new.”

‘Most comfortable’ –

For Mario, whose real name is Mariusz Dybich, he grew accustomed to life in Cairo and work at the monastery.

Besides sculpting, he even gives an adrenaline-spiking High Ropes sport course at the monastery.

Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs
(Photo by Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP)

“It is surprising to many that a European man willingly leaves his country to work in the city of Garbage Collectors in Cairo,” said Mario. “But I believe it’s God who sent me here.”

READ: Contents of two ancient pyramids unveiled in Egypt

The 51-year-old is originally from the city of Krakow in southern Poland but has been living in Egypt for nearly three decades now. He has over the years become known to everyone in the monastery and the thousands of people living in the city of “Garbage Collectors” by his nickname, Mario. 

He married an Egyptian woman and has two girls. He mastered over the years the Arabic language and developed a particularly strong command of the Egyptian dialect.

He witnessed in Egypt the 2011 uprising which toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ensuing years of political and economic turmoil.

Yet he does not see himself settling anywhere else.

“I just love living here. It’s where I am most comfortable among the simple people of Egypt. I would not leave unless God decides otherwise.”

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