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Huge rallies in Algiers despite loyalist calls for Bouteflika to quit

We’re fed up with those in power,” the demonstrators chanted. “We want a new government

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29 March 2019, Algeria, Algiers: Demonstrators take part in a mass protest against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after his decision to postpone the presidential elections of April 2019 and to stay in power after his current term ends for an unspecified transitional period. Photo: Farouk Batiche/dpa

Anti-government protesters thronged the streets of Algiers Friday, saying moves by top loyalists to abandon ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika were not enough.

Rallies were expected to take place across the North African country, where protests broke out more than a month ago when Bouteflika announced his bid for a fifth term.

Demonstrators turned out in huge numbers despite a succession of loyalists deserting the president and calling for him to step down and make way for a government-led change of leadership.

Activists angrily rejected those moves as desperate bids by key figures in Bouteflika’s entourage to salvage their own grip on power and demanded that they too quit.

“Bouteflika you go, take Gaid Salah with you,” and “FLN out” protesters shouted, referring to the armed forces chief of staff and the president’s party.

From the early hours of Friday crowds of demonstrators, many of them young but also including army veterans of Algeria’s 1990s civil war, packed the square outside the capital’s main post office, which has become the epicentre of protests.

“We’re fed up with those in power,” the demonstrators chanted. “We want a new government”.

Some waved the green, white and red Algerian flag or draped it over their shoulders, while others held banners with slogans and cartoons.

Some made lengthy journeys to take part in the protest.

“We’re here to issue a final appeal to those in power: ‘Take your bags and go’,” said Amin, a 45-year-old who travelled to the capital from the port of Bejaia, nearly 200 kilometres (125 miles) away.

Earlier this month, 82-year-old Bouteflika, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, said he would not stand for re-election — but also postponed the April vote.

His move angered Algerians who saw it as a ploy by those around him to extend his two decades in power. Tens of thousands again took to the streets demanding his immediate ouster.

Allies distance themselves

Faced with persistent public anger, a succession of veteran Bouteflika loyalists deserted the president this week.

On Tuesday, chief of staff General Ahmed Gaid Salah, who was appointed by Bouteflika in 2004, called for him to step down or be declared medically unfit.

The chief of staff on Tuesday cited Article 102 of the constitution, under which a president can be removed if found unfit to rule.

Long a faithful Bouteflika supporter, Gaid Salah said on television it was “imperative” to find a way out of the crisis “which responds to the legitimate demands” of the people in line with the constitution.

Article 102 puts the onus on the president either to resign or be declared unfit to govern by a vote of parliament due to a “serious and durable illness”.

Since then, other voices have emerged from Bouteflika’s own camp seeking his ouster.

On Wednesday, Bouteflika’s longtime coalition partner, the National Rally for Democracy (RND) of former prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, also called for him to step down.

The RND said it “recommends the resignation of the president… with the aim of smoothing the period of transition,” in a statement signed by its leader Ouyahia.

A longtime supporter of the veteran president, the unpopular Ouyahia served as Bouteflika’s prime minister three times since 2003 before being sacrificed on March 11 in a vain bid to calm the intensifying protests.

‘All of you go’

The head of the powerful General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA), Abdelmadjid Sidi Said, also welcomed the army chief’s call on Wednesday.

Applying Article 102 would constitute “the legal framework capable of overcoming the political crisis facing our country,” he said.

Thursday saw the resignation of the president of Algeria’s Business Leaders Forum, Ali Hadad, widely seen as a political tool of Bouteflika who had come under harsh criticism from protesters.

But the idea of Bouteflika’s inner circle retaining their grip on power through a substitute leader drew short shrift from Friday’s protesters.

Some chose humour to convey their rejection of the call for a government-led transition under Article 102.

“102 – that number is out of service,” said one placard held up by the crowd outside the main post office and telephone exchange. “Please call the people.”

Others raised a banner saying: “We demand the implementation of Article 2019: All of you go.”

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Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui to face off in Tunisia’s runoff election

Kais Saied advances to the next round with 18.85 of votes, while Nabil Kaorui advances second with 15.7% of votes cast

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Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui to face off in Tunisia's runoff election
A screen displays Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui as Nabil Bafon (not seen), the chairman of the Independent High Elections Commission of Tunisia, holds a press conference at the Conference Palace in the Tunisian capital Tunis on September 17, 2019. Kais Saied and Nabil Karoui will face off in the second round of Tunisia's presidential election, state election authorities said on Tuesday. According to official results released by the Independent High Electoral Commission, Saied led with 18.4% of the vote while Nabil Karoui had 15.6%. Yassine Gaidi / AFP

Official results in Tunisia’s presidential election were expected Tuesday to confirm a duel in the second round between law professor Kais Saied and imprisoned media mogul, Nabil Karoui.

With almost 90 per cent of ballots counted, Saied was set to advance to the next round, with 18.8 per cent of the vote ahead of Karoui, who had 15.7 per cent, according to the electoral commission, ISIE.

Depending on if any appeals are launched, the second round could be organised for October 6, the same day as legislative elections, or on October 13, ISIE said.

The two candidates — though very different — have drawn on the same “anti-system” sentiment among the electorate, spurred by exasperation with the status quo.

Unemployment plagues about 15 per cent of the population, especially young graduates, while inflation eats away at already low incomes.

Tunisian voters on Sunday “preferred to venture into the unknown rather than extend a hand again to those who betrayed their hopes”, Le Quotidien newspaper said.

Karoui’s arrest in the runup to the election cemented his status as an outsider, despite being a longtime key supporter of President Beji Caid Essebsi, whose death on July 25 brought forward the polls.

Saied, a fiercely independent academic, advocates a radical decentralisation of power, with local democracy and the ability to remove elected officials from office during their mandates.

ISIE also said it is to investigate alleged electoral violations, including campaigning on behalf of Karoui by Nessma TV, founded by the media mogul.

Karoui himself is under investigation for alleged money laundering and has been in pre-trial detention since August 23. 

Appeals to have him freed before the polls were rejected but his lawyers plan to refile for his release after the results are confirmed.

Karoui remains eligible to run despite his imprisonment, as long as any conviction does not also specifically deprive him of his civil rights, according to ISIE.

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France pledges to “influence” removal of Sudan from US terror blacklist

Le Drian was in Khartoum for a one-day visit, the first such trip to Sudan by France’s top diplomat in more than a decade.

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France pledges to "influence" removal of Sudan from US terror blacklist
France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sudan, Asma Mohamed Abdalla hold a press conference after their meeting in Khartoum, Sudan on September 16, 2019. Mahmoud Hjaj / Anadolu Agency

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday that France will press to drop Sudan from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism and to support efforts to reintegrate the country into the international community.

Le Drian was in Khartoum for a one-day visit, the first such trip to Sudan by France’s top diplomat in more than a decade.

His visit comes as the country transitions to civilian rule after decades of authoritarianism.

“We will use our influence to ensure that Sudan is removed from this list,” Le Drian said at a joint press conference with his Sudanese counterpart Asma Mohamed Abdalla after the two held talks.

“It is the way to ensure that we can consider a new relationship (for Sudan) with financial institutions, everything is obviously linked,” he said, asked by reporters if France would back efforts to remove Sudan from Washington’s blacklist.

Decades of US blacklisting along with a trade embargo imposed on Sudan in 1997 has kept overseas investors away from the country, in turn isolating it from the global economy.

Sudan’s worsening economic situation was the key trigger for nationwide protests that finally led to the ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in April.

Washington lifted the sanctions in October 2017, but kept Sudan in the terrorism list along with North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Washington’s measures were imposed for Khartoum’s alleged support for Islamist militant groups.

Al-Qaeda founder, Osama bin Laden resided in Sudan between 1992 and 1996.

France pledges to "influence" removal of Sudan from US terror blacklist
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian meets Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Khartoum, Sudan on September 16, 2019. Mahmoud Hjaj / Anadolu Agency

Le Drian said the pivotal role played by Sudan’s army in the uprising against Bashir would help in removing Sudan from the US blacklist.

“The way the army perceived its role during this period, (that) goes in the direction of removing Sudan from this list,” he said.

The army overthrew Bashir in a palace coup on April 11 on the back of months of nationwide protests.

But a military council seized power after ousting him and for months resisted calls from protesters to transfer it to a civilian administration.

Only last month after sustained agitation, a joint civilian-military sovereign council was sworn in to oversee Sudan’s transition to civilian rule, the key demand of protesters.

On September 8, Sudan’s first cabinet led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was sworn in to run the daily affairs of the country.

During his short visit to Khartoum, Le Drian also met Hamdok and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the civilian-military ruling council.

Le Drian also reiterated French support for Sudan’s priorities such as rebuilding the economy and striking peace agreements with rebel groups in conflict zones of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

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North Africa

2 candidates claim first round wins in Tunisia elections

Turnout was reported by the elections commission (ISIE) to be 45 percent, down from 64 percent recorded in the 2014 polls

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Tunisia elections: 2 candidates claim wins

Two anti-establishment candidates in Tunisia’s election claimed Sunday to have won through to a runoff, hours after polling closed in the country’s second free presidential poll since the 2011 Arab Spring.

In a sign of voter apathy, especially among the young, turnout was reported by the elections commission (ISIE) to be 45 percent, down from 64 percent recorded in the 2014 polls. Kais Saied, a 61-year-old law professor and expert on constitutional affairs who ran as an independent, claimed to be in pole position.

He finished “first in the first round,” he said, citing exit polls ahead of preliminary results expected to be announced on Tuesday. There was also an upbeat atmosphere at the party headquarters of jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui, behind bars due to a money laundering probe, as hundreds of supporters celebrated after he also claimed to have reached the second round.

Other prominent candidates in the first round included Abdelfattah Mourou, heading a first-time bid for Islamist-inspired party Ennahdha, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. Ennahdha insisted it would wait for the official results. 

“Only the elections board gives the results,” said Ennahdha MP and Mourou’s campaign director, Samir Dilou. “I do not doubt the work of the polling institutes, (but) it is not their role to impose a certain truth on the public,” he told reporters.

Chahed’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and the rising cost of living. The prime minister has also found himself having to vehemently deny accusations that Karoui’s detention since late August was politically inspired.

Tunisia Elections: citizens cast their votes
Tunisian voter queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Marsa city, northeast of Tunis, Tunisia, to elect the Tunisia’s president in a first-round vote of the presidential elections, on September 15, 2019. (Photo by Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto)

Read: Detained but undeterred; Nabil Karoui’s campaign continues in Tunisia

‘Where are the young?’

“Young people of Tunisia, you still have an hour to vote!” ISIE head Nabil Baffoun had urged before the close of Sunday’s vote. “We must leave our homes and vote – it’s a right that we gained from the 2011 revolution which cost lives,” Baffoun added, visibly disappointed by the turnout.

However, he later said that the turnout of 45 percent was “an acceptable level”. At polling stations visited by journalists, there was a high proportion of older voters, but few young people. The election followed an intense campaign characterised more by personality clashes than political differences. 

It had been brought forward by the death of 92-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in July and whose widow also passed away on Sunday morning. Essebsi had been elected in the wake of the 2011 revolt that overthrew former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Publication of opinion polls has officially been banned since July. Some of the 24 hopefuls who contested the polls tried to burnish anti-establishment credentials to distance themselves from a political elite discredited by personal quarrels. Another independent candidate was Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat running for the first time, although with backing from Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party.

The long list of active runners was trimmed by the last-minute withdrawal of two candidates in favour of Zbidi, although their names remained on the ballot paper. But Karoui’s detention, just 10 days ahead of the start of campaigning, has been the top story of the election. Studies suggested his arrest boosted his popularity.

A controversial businessman, Karoui built his appeal by using his Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest. But his detractors portray him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.

On Friday, an appeal for the Tunisian mogul’s release from prison ahead of the election was rejected, his party and lawyers said. The polarisation risks derailing the electoral process, according to Michael Ayari, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Tunisian voter queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Marsa city
Tunisian voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Marsa city, northeast of Tunis, Tunisia, to elect the Tunisia’s president in a first-round vote of the presidential elections, on September 15, 2019. (Photo by Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto)

Read: Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy

‘Divisive’ candidates

Isabelle Werenfels, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, called the vote a democratic “test” because “it may require accepting the victory of a polarising candidate” such as Karoui. Distrust of the political elite has been deepened by an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a rise in the cost of living by close to a third since 2016.

Jihadist attacks have exacted a heavy toll on the key tourism sector. Around 70,000 security forces were mobilised for the polls. The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls, October 6.

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