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Algerian president bows out

International | Demonstrations demanding the longtime leader resign are the latest anti-government uprising in the Arab region
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 3/12/19, 04:15 pm

In a surprise move on Monday, longtime Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika withdrew his bid for a fifth term after his announcement that he would seek reelection sparked widespread demonstrations. The country is the latest North African nation to express discontent against older leaders in a growing movement analysts say resembles the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

In a public letter, the 82-year-old leader praised the peaceful protests that began on Feb. 22. He said the April 18 election would be delayed to allow for the creation of an “inclusive and independent” panel that will lead to reforms, including selecting an interim government, revising the constitution, and preparing for the election. The process should be complete by the end of 2019. “This new system and new republic will be in the hands of a new generation of Algerians,” Bouteflika wrote.

The unexpected announcement spurred celebratory gatherings in the capital city of Algiers on Monday. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of protesters had assembled in Algiers and in other cities around the world for the largest demonstration yet against Bouteflika. The discontent started over his run for another term, but soon expanded to criticisms over unemployment and corruption that left power in the hands of a select elite.

Bouteflika, who has served as president since 1999, remains in poor health since he suffered a stroke in 2013 that left him in a wheelchair and away from public view. He returned to Algeria on Sunday after two weeks in Switzerland for “routine medical checks,” according to the ruling National Liberation Front party.

The protests gathered momentum as more than a dozen opposition parties and even members of the ruling party joined the calls for change. Despite Bouteflika’s concession, some of the demonstrators remained wary.

“It’s one small battle won,” Yasmine Bouchene of the collective Les Jeunes Engagés (Activist Youth) told The Guardian. “Bouteflika asked for another year and he got his way. But we are willing to keep fighting.”

A similar uprising has continued since December in Sudan, where demonstrators are demanding that President Omar al-Bashar, who has led the country since 1989, step down. The protests persisted despite a one-year government-imposed state of emergency. Meanwhile, in Egypt, critics are condemning a recent vote by Egyptian lawmakers to approve a constitutional amendment that will allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to remain in power until 2034.

The ongoing discontent has brought back memories of the 2011 anti-government protests that began in Tunisia and spread across several other Middle Eastern nations. Abdelrahman Mansour, a human rights activist with a focus on the Middle East, said the protests in Algeria and Sudan show the 2011 movement in the region is still alive.

“Even though some of those autocratic Arab regimes may look stable, they stand on fragile legs,” he wrote in an article for Foreign Policy. “They remain vulnerable to sudden collapse, which would potentially pave the way for chaos in the region.”

Associated Press/Photo by Efrem Lukatsky Associated Press/Photo by Efrem Lukatsky Supporters of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church gather near the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine, in December.

Religious groups in Ukraine denied registration

Many religious groups, including many Christian denominations, are now considered illegal in occupied regions of eastern Ukraine.

Authorities in Donetsk People’s Republic allowed a March 1 registration deadline to pass without approving applications from any non-Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate) organizations, according to missions organization Mission Eurasia. Officials in Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) did the same in October 2018.

Because only registered organizations are legally recognized, unregistered groups that gather for religious services are at great risk. Mission Eurasia estimated that more than 550 Protestant organizations as well as hundreds of other churches or groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Muslims, and Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate) in Donetsk, are threatened.

“This new law prevents publicly sharing your faith,” Mission Eurasia president Sergey Rakhuba said. “You cannot serve a soup kitchen. You cannot spread or receive humanitarian aid. There is no place to complain. There is no one to stand for them.”

Rakhuba attributed this growing hostility toward non-Orthodox groups to the influence of Russia, which restricted religious acts in 2016.

World Watch Monitor reported that in Luhansk last year authorities raided, fined, and seized property from churches. Even before making the religious groups illegal, LPR militants disrupted church gatherings and looted properties. Forum 18 also reported that militants in Donetsk seized houses of worship, including a mosque and a Baptist church, last year.

The increased persecution and pressure against non-Orthodox Christians has driven many churches underground since war broke out in 2014. —Julia A. Seymour

Associated Press/Photo by Amr Nabil Associated Press/Photo by Amr Nabil The Absher app on a phone in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia

Saudi app draws U.S. criticism

Google is insisting that a Saudi government app that allows men to track women and restrict their travel does not violate its terms and conditions.

The company relayed its decision to U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and 13 other congressional lawmakers who asked Google last month to remove the Absher app from Google Play. Apple officials said they are still reviewing the app, which is also available through Apple’s app store.

The Interior Ministry of Saudi Arabia launched Absher in 2015 to provide citizens access to more than 100 government services, including driver’s license renewals. But it also allows men to list dependent women and deny or allow them travel access and receive text messages when they use their passports. Women in Saudi Arabia require permission from their husbands or fathers to travel out of the country.

“Facilitating the detention of women seeking asylum and fleeing abuse and control unequivocally causes harm,” Speier told Insider. “I will be following up on this issue with my colleagues.”

Saudi Arabia has received international backlash for repressing women, including the case of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who arrived in Canada in January after fleeing abuse from her family. Last week, 36 countries in the United Nations Human Rights Council signed a statement rebuking Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. —O.O

U.K. escalates case of dual national detained in Iran

The British government last week said it will grant diplomatic protection to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker detained in Iran since 2016.

“This represents formal recognition by the British government that her treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law, and elevates it to a formal state to state issue,” British Foreign Secretary Jermey Hunt said in a statement.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked as a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the news agency based in London. Iranian authorities arrested her as she returned from Britain after a family visit. She received a five-year sentence for plotting against Iran’s government, an accusation she denies.

The British government has long sought for her release, noting she also lacks proper legal access and medical care. Hunt said diplomatic protection likely will not produce “an overnight result,” but added it “demonstrates to the whole world that Nazanin is innocent, and the U.K. will not stand by when one of its citizens is treated so unjustly.” —O.O

U.S. honors global courageous women

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump last week honored nine women around the world who work to improve their communities. Pompeo said the International Women of Courage Award recognizes the recipients for “standing tall in the face of extraordinary adversity.”

The awardees include Marine de Livera, a Sri Lankan lawyer who works on pro bono cases for women and child victims of crime and abuse; Olivera Lakic, an investigative journalist in Montenegro who reports on corruption and crime; and Sister Orla Treacy, an Irish nun who helped to start a clinic and two schools for disadvantaged children in South Sudan. —O.O

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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