Archive for April 18, 2014

By Siham Ali for Magharebia in Rabat


With construction recently begun on Morocco’s first high-speed train (TGV), there is a diversity of opinions on whether there are better ways to spend the kingdom’s money. Officials laud the event as a great accomplishment for Morocco, while others voice their doubts.

The TGV project, which is scheduled to link Tangier to Casablanca in 2015, broke ground on September 29th. It is intended to reduce journey times by more than 50% and increase the number of passengers on the route from the current two million a year to six or eight million in the first few years of operation, bringing the two most dynamic regions in the Moroccan economy closer together: Casablanca-Rabat and the emerging hub around Tangier.

Despite these potential gains, deputy Secretary-General of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) Lahcen Daoudi says there are higher priorities in Morocco. He suggested expanding motorways and improving communications infrastructure, particularly in rural areas.

“We can’t dig into the public purse to bring in a new train service with little added value. The cost is so high that we will be paying off the debt for some time. The state will have to stagger the project over many years. It will be difficult to achieve the 2015 deadline,” he told Magharebia.

Economist Hachimi Mounir spoke in similar terms, freely criticizing the decision, which was made during a difficult economic and financial climate.

He pointed out that countries richer than Morocco have chosen to put off some of their plans due to the global economy. He framed the TGV as a luxury project while there were more important priorities such as promoting employment and reducing social inequalities.

Many members of the public expressed similar views.

Halim Chennaoui, an accountant in Tangier, pointed out that many farmers and other property owners would be affected by compulsory land purchases by the government.

“The amount of agricultural land will be reduced. This will lead to smaller harvests and will have an impact on the farmers’ incomes,” he said.

Houda Metrabi, a student from Tangier, said it was scandalous. She said the TGV would prove unprofitable, and thus public funds should be used to meet the public’s more basic needs.

“Does Morocco really need a high-speed train when the present trains are falling apart and some regions are cut off, not even having normal roads?” she asked, adding that a broad swath of the Moroccan public had been waiting for years for jobs and decent housing.

According to transport Minister Karim Ghellab, funding for the TGV will not place a heavy burden on public expenditure. Most of the funding will come from foreign donors, namely the Arab Gulf states and France, which will provide 920 million euros. Morocco will contribute 414 million euros towards the 1.8 billion euro project, while the Hassan II Fund for social and economic development will provide a further 86 million euros.

“In total, over six years, 800 million dirhams of public investment will go into the TGV project every year, which is 1.4% of the general state investment budget,” Ghellab explained, reminding his audience that the government sees the social sectors as a key area for investment.

Source: Magharebia.


Wed Mar 12, 2014

The Libyan General National Congress (GNC) has given the militia groups controlling Libya’s eastern oil ports two weeks to lift the blockade of crude terminals or face fresh military action.

Nuri Abu Sahmein, the GNC president, said on Wednesday that Tripoli had “decided to give an ultimatum of two weeks at the most” for the militants to end the seizure of Libya’s eastern oil terminals.” The GNC is the highest political authority in Libya.

The Libyan senior official further stated that a military operation to retake the oil terminals was being suspended for the time being.

According to the GNC chief, if the militants refuse to respect the ultimatum, “the decision of the chief of the armed forces (Abu Sahmein himself) will be put into action by the Libyan army.”

Abu Sahmein had earlier ordered an offensive against the militants demanding regional autonomy in the east after they began exporting oil independently in defiance of the central government.

On Tuesday, the Libyan parliament sacked former prime minister, Ali Zeidan, after he failed to stop illegal oil sale by militants. The ex-premier fled to Europe shortly after his ouster.

On March 8, militants at the militant-held port of al-Sidra managed to load oil into a North Korea-flagged tanker, dubbed the Morning Glory, which had docked there without government permission.

Libyan authorities later said they had taken control of the tanker. However, the vessel broke through the naval brigade during inclement weather early on Tuesday.

Tripoli has tried to end a wave of protests at oil ports and fields across the country that has slashed oil output to 230,000 barrels per day (bpd), down from 1.4 million bpd in July.

Source: PressTV.


April 18, 2014

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The main opposition candidate in Algeria’s presidential elections cried foul late Thursday night hours after voting ended, alleging massive fraud and vowing to reject any results announced.

Ali Benflis told supporters at his headquarters that preliminary information indicated fraud on a grand scale with grave irregularities across the country. “Our history will remember this date as a great crime against the nation by stealing the voice of the citizens and blocking popular will,” he said, while fireworks from celebrating supporters of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, his opponent, could be heard in the background.

The national commission charged with supervising the elections, however, insisted that aside from a few incidents, the election went smoothly with just 130 complaints. Turnout was 51.7 percent of the 23 million registered voters, according to the Interior Minister.

Benflis’ speech essentially amounted to a concession of defeat, though he vowed to use “all peaceful political means as well as legal avenues” to resist the results. The election appears to have been the most competitive presidential contest in Algeria’s recent memory with Benflis putting up a spirited fight against an ailing Bouteflika who had the full might of the powerful state to make up for his weakened condition.

The 77-year-old president is still recovering from a stroke last year that has left him speaking and moving with difficulty and he was entirely absent from the three week presidential campaign — leading some to question his fitness to lead this oil-rich nation and key U.S. ally in the war on terror.

The signature image of Thursday’s vote was Bouteflika being wheeled into a polling station to cast his vote — however he still has a great deal of support in a country traumatized by a decade of civil war in the 1990s.

Turnout throughout the day in the sundrenched Algerian capital appeared to be fairly light with older people voting in numbers and the young — who make up a majority of the population — staying away. Memories of the brutal struggle against radical Islamists in the 1990s that claimed 200,000 lives are still fresh in many people’s memory and for them Bouteflika has been synonymous with a return to peace.

“Young people don’t vote, but people my age vote because they remember the dark times and they know what’s important,” said Nabil Damous, a 41 year-old man voting in the immense Abdel Kader high school, formerly a convent, on the edge of the low-income Bab el-Oued neighborhood. “People who don’t vote don’t want this country to move forward.”

Sonia Izem, a middle-aged woman in a dark headscarf, said she was voting for Bouteflika because she, too, remembered when Bab el-Oued was a battleground between security forces and Islamists and because she felt the rampant corruption in the country would be less during the fourth term.

“The people around him have already stolen a lot and they have nearly filled their sack and they won’t need to steal very much in the next term,” she said as she entered the nearly empty school around midday. “If we bring in someone new, they will have to start stealing all over again.”

Yet while Algeria escaped the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring, frustrated youth stage thousands of small demonstrations every year over the lack of jobs, opportunities and housing. In several cities around the country, young people clashed with police after attempting to destroy ballot boxes. The most serious of the clashes was near the city of Bouira, 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Algiers, in which 44 policemen and numerous demonstrators were injured.

Thanks to high oil prices over the last decade, dissatisfaction has been traditionally addressed by spending the country’s impressive oil wealth but resources are dwindling and soon the government may have to pursue a different approach to meet the people’s needs.

The government said 186,000 police were mobilized to protect the polls and there was a heavy security presence in Algiers on Thursday. A few small demonstrations by those calling for a boycott of the vote were quickly dispersed.

April 16, 2014

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — The college students playing pick-up soccer along the faded grandeur of Algiers’ sweeping waterfront say they won’t be voting in Thursday’s presidential elections, echoing the sentiments of many young Algerians.

They want jobs and housing when they graduate and lack loyalty to a political system run by an aging man too frail to show up for a single campaign event. Boycotting is the main form of protest against an election that 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to win despite his glaring absence, because powerful institutions of the state are firmly wedded to maintaining Algeria’s status quo. But dissatisfaction is growing in this key energy producer and U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism in the face of a sclerotic political system that does little to include the 80 percent of the population of 37 million under the age of 45.

“After we finish our studies there’s only unemployment and you need connections to get to work,” said Redouane Baba Abdi, as he sat on a bench before the game on the paved esplanade between the Mediterranean Sea and the flaking colonial-era buildings of the Bab el-Oued neighborhood. “Most people don’t want Bouteflika for a fourth term. He’s like the walking dead.”

Bouteflika made no appearances in the three-week election campaign, leaving it to his ministers and close associates to rally interest in his re-election. After a stroke last year that left him speaking and walking with difficulty, he has limited himself to carefully scripted TV appearances with foreign visitors like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month.

Bouteflika changed the constitution in 2008 so he could remain president, but a fourth term might be a step too far even for a country that was barely affected by the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings. Several Bouteflika rallies were canceled after they were disrupted by demonstrations, raising fears that another victory could lead to greater unrest.

A small grass-roots movement called Barakat — “enough” in the Algerian dialect — that has come out against Bouteflika’s fourth term attempted a protest Wednesday on the eve of elections, but were pounced on by police.

Members were dragged from the sidewalk and marched away by police who also scattered bystanders and journalists watching the protest, eliciting shock from the crowds of pedestrians on the busy tree-lined boulevard in downtown Algiers.

While Bouteflika’s rule has been characterized by economic growth thanks to high oil prices and a return to stability after the battles against the Islamists in the 1990s, heavy government spending is running up against dwindling oil reserves and falling prices. The country is still run by the same generation that won the war of independence from France in 1962 and shows little interest in involving others.

“We are in a backward world. It’s the old telling the young to get out of the way,” said Abderrahmane Hadj-Nacer, a former central bank governor and analyst. “The people have been corrupted by the distribution of houses and jobs — productivity has been destroyed.”

In fact, those disaffected young students playing soccer have their education and housing paid for by the government, and they talk about waiting to be given a job rather than going out and finding one. “We have taught our youth to just to stick out their hand,” Hadj-Nacer added.

Stability and the largesse of the state have been the main themes of the campaign by the president’s surrogates, who have warned that perks like free housing could come to an end or civil war could return if the president is not re-elected.

“He brought you from the darkness into the light, that is the miracle of Bouteflika,” Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal roared at the final rally in Algiers Sunday, his voice hoarse from campaigning. Much of the 5,000-strong crowd at the rally came from public sector companies or unions with ties to the government. Supporters were bused in from across country.

“It is true he’s tired, but his brains still work — he doesn’t need to use his hands,” Akila Kelloud, a union member from the nearby city of Medea, said after the rally. The country is in a delicate phase. Despite foreign reserves of $200 billion, international financial institutions are sounding alarm bells, describing the economy as overly dependent on oil even as prices are threatening to drop.

Oil and gas make up 95 percent of the country’s exports and 63 percent of the budget revenue but employs only 2 percent of the labor force. Worse, reserves are dwindling and the country’s trade balance is expected to go negative in the face of a massive importation bill.

In a February report, the International Monetary Fund warned that “wide-ranging structural reforms” are needed to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. While heavy state spending has dropped unemployment to less than 10 percent, it is still at 25 percent for young people.

The man who says he can fix this situation is Ali Benflis, a former prime minister and the main opposition candidate among the five running against Bouteflika. “I offer an alternative, a new project and I want to put the youth into the center of decision-making,” he told The Associated Press.

He described how he visited all 48 provinces in the country and logged more than 100 hours of air travel in the course of the campaign — in contrast to Bouteflika’s inactivity. Benflis’ challenge is not just to win over the millions who don’t vote, but also to guard against fraud, which local and international observers say often characterize Algerian contests.

“If there is fraud I will not be quiet,” he said. “I will ask the Algerians not to accept a false election.” Opposition is also appearing in grass-roots organizations like Barakat who have been staging small rallies around the country protesting the Bouteflika’s fourth term and the corruption in the system.

Sid Ali Kouidi Filali, one of the group’s organizers, said the real work is to raise people’s consciousness and make them realize that they can change the system. “We are trying to re-engage the Algerian people in politics,” he said.

Chafiq Mesbah, a political analyst and former intelligence officer, believes that all these scattered demonstrations — 10,000 of them in 2013, according to police — will slowly increase as the social and economic situation continues to deteriorate.

“I think all these little demonstrations will coalesce into a national movement,” he said, citing the elections as a possible turning point. “It will be the beginning of a process, though the explosion won’t happen immediately after.”

April 09, 2014

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Demonstrators threw stones at the Algerian prime minister’s motorcade during an election campaign event Wednesday— the latest incident protesting the president’s expected re-election.

Incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika is widely predicted to win the April 17 presidential election, despite suffering a stroke that left him unable to walk or campaign. Bouteflika’s campaign is instead being carried out by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and other top government officials, several of whom have been targeted by protests.

Journalists at the scene in a southern desert town of Metlili said protesters first heckled Sellal’s speech and then pelted his motorcade with stones, before being driven away by police with tear gas.

The town is in the province of Ghardaia, where Arab-Berber riots over the past few months have killed seven people. Some 40 people were wounded in clashes there Monday. On Saturday, protesters in the city of Bejaia burned down the venue for another campaign speech by Sellal and clashed with police resulting in 15 wounded.

Thousands of students staged a peaceful protest against Bouteflika in the same town on Tuesday. The protesters oppose a fourth term for the ailing 77-year-old Bouteflika, who has run the country since 1999 and changed the constitution in 2008 so he could serve further terms.

Dozens of young men chanted “enough” outside the venue of a pro-Bouteflika rally in the city of Batna Wednesday, but were dispersed by police. Many of the protesters claim allegiance to the “Barakat” — which means “enough” — movement that opposes Bouteflika’s lock on power, but on the whole their demonstrations have been small and scattered.

While Bouteflika is expected to win overwhelmingly against the other five candidates, turnout is traditionally low in Algerian elections and apathy high.

22 March 2014

Algiers — Thousands of Algerian opposition supporters have called for a boycott of next month’s presidential election, during an unprecedented mass rally.

The rally denounced 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attempt to win a fourth term of office. They added a stroke last year has left him unfit to govern.

The unprecedented move was staged by Islamist and secular opposition parties.

In power since 1999, Mr. Bouteflika scrapped constitutional rules in 2008 limiting him to two terms in office.

The support of the governing National Liberation Front (FLN), army factions and business elites almost guarantees him victory at election, correspondents say.

Source: allAfrica.