Egypt: The gathering storm

The tensions in Egypt are reaching boiling point. The crisis of the regime is reflected in a number of splits and growing opposition. The emergence of Mohamed Elbaradei on the political scene signifies an important change in the struggle against the regime. Until now, the masses have lacked a national point of reference to connect up the different struggles, but this is now changing. Revolution is developing just beneath the surface.

In the Middle East, Egypt is a key country. Not only is it the most populated Arab country and a strategic pillar of support for imperialism, it also has a strong working class with militant traditions. Over the last few years, the Mubarak dictatorship has been shaken by strikes and protests, but it has become increasingly clear that all factors are pointing in the direction of revolution.

Economic war against the masses

The economic situation in Egypt is becoming more acute and unbearable as each day passes. Booming inflation eats into the living standard of the masses, while a small elite of wealthy bankers, industrialists and state bureaucrats continue to enrich themselves. The gap between rich and poor is as big as ever.

The minimum wage has been 35 Egyptian pounds ($6.30) per month since 1984. When bonuses, incentives and annual increases are included, the minimum monthly salary of government employees and public sector workers reaches 289 Egyptian pounds ($53). Some private sector employees earn much less. But while wages have been stagnating, prices have soared.

A study from the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies issued in 2009 showed that when the minimum wage is related to per capita GNP (gross national product), it appears that this rate has decreased from nearly 60 percent in 1984 to 19.4 percent in 1991/92 and to 13 percent in 2007. When the ratio of the minimum wage to per capita GNP is compared to other countries, Egypt appears amongst the lowest. By comparison, the rate is 26 percent in Spain, 51 percent in France and 78 percent in Turkey. The rotten ruling class has waged a one-sided economic war against the masses.

Middle East Report writes:

“Between 2005 and 2010, the Egyptian economy has weathered two major blows to the state’s staple revenues: the global food crisis in 2007 and the world recession in 2008. As international trade diminished, according to Economist Intelligence Unit data, receipts from transit of the Suez Canal receipts also declined. Following the Dubai debt crisis, many Egyptians working in the Gulf returned home, reducing remittances; meanwhile, the global downturn depressed foreign direct investment, which fell from $9.5 billion in 2008 to $6.7 billion in 2009. The value of Egypt’s exports dropped by 11.8 percent in 2009. The official unemployment rate went up from 8.7 percent in 2008 to 9.4 percent in 2009, but as is well known, official rates are unreliable; the real figure is believed to be in the double digits. Inflation peaked in 2008 at 11.8 percent, triggered by the spike in commodity prices, and stood at 10.5 percent in May.” (The Dynamics of Egypt’s Elections)

The misery suffered by the masses is becoming unbearable and a critical point is being reached. The regime are very well aware of this, which is shown by the fact that they are desperately trying to avoid food riots as in 2007-8 and a situation like the 1977 “bread intifada” by securing the food supply. Minister of Trade Rashid Muhammad Rashid has signed a free trade agreement with the South American bloc Mercosur to ensure the flow of grain and meat imports to feed the population. He said similar agreements with Russia and South Africa would be inked before the end of 2010. However, it is unclear whether such deals can be made as Russia’s ban on grain exports (scheduled to run until December 31) may not be lifted if the results of the harvest in that country are not better than anticipated.

The regime shaken by the workers

The most remarkable development in recent years in Egypt has been the awakening of the working class. In December 2006, the Egyptian proletariat entered the stage with the strike and factory occupation of the Mahalla textile workers. Led by the 3,000 low-paid female workers in the spinning department, 27,000 workers laid down tools and staged a sit-down strike on December 7. When a representative of the regime came to negotiate, he was almost beaten to death by female workers.

The militancy and steadfastness showed by the Mahalla workers led to a wave of strikes and factory occupations all over Egypt in the period 2007-08. The cement workers of Helwan and Tora had already come out on strike in December 2006. In January 2007, the workers on the Cairo-Alexandria Railway struck. This was followed by strikes and actions by the Cairo Metro workers, bus drivers, poultry workers, refuse collectors, sewage workers and gardeners. More importantly, the workers in the key textile industry followed the example of Mahalla. In February 2007, 21,000 textile workers struck in the Nile Delta region and 12,000 workers at Kafr al-Dawa occupied their factory with the slogan “Strike until death! Strike until pay!”

In April 2007, 5,000 workers at three flour-producing plants in Cairo and Giza occupied the factories. During the occupation, the workers continued producing flour for the community under their own control.

In September 2007, the 27,000 textile workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving textile factory in Mahalla once again occupied their factory. At night 10-15,000 workers slept in the factory premises. During the day, more than 20,000 workers were present at the factory for demonstrations and the celebration of Ramadan. The Grain Mill Workers staged a demonstration in solidarity with the Mahalla workers, and all over Egypt workers raised money for the strikers. Such collections took place in Mahalla, Tanta, Helwan, Shoubra, Tenth of Ramadan City, Suez, Beheira, Mansoura and Port Said.

In this period, the workers have not suffered any serious defeats as a class. In most cases, the regime had to give in to the workers’ demands. However, the regime had some success in repressing a would-be general strike on April 6, 2008. This highlighted the need for national organisation of the working class. But the entire movement of the workers has been the most dangerous for the regime for decades, and it clearly demonstrated the all-important role of the working class. Only the Egyptian proletariat has the social weight to bring down the dictatorship.

After accelerating privatisation of public-sector companies from 2005 to 2008, in May the government announced an indefinite postponement of the programme in an attempt to stem the tide of protests triggered by unemployment and high inflation. At the same time, the Ministry of Economic Development announced an increase in the monthly minimum wage to 280 Egyptian pounds (about $49) after a series of protests and a court ruling certified workers’ hardship claims, but no start date was specified. Finally, in early 2010, the government delayed implementation of the Property Tax Law originally passed in 2008, in response to public opposition.

Even though the protests and strikes have not assumed a truly national character, the regime has not felt confident enough to carry through all the dictates of the IMF and keep the wages as catastrophically low as before. They can feel the hot breath of the workers on their necks.

The unstable situation is also reflects within the regime itself. This has become even clearer in the last few years. And the clearest expression of this is the debacle over who is going to succeed the current president, Hosni Mubarak.

Splits in the regime

An Egyptian joke goes something like this: “Gamal Abdel Nasser gave us industrialisation. Anwar Sadat gave us the market economy. What did Hosni Mubarak give to the Egyptians? Answer: a son!”

Mohamed ElBaradei. Photo Elijah ZarwanMohamed ElBaradei. Photo Elijah Zarwan Next year, there are going to be presidential elections in Egypt. These will of course not bear any resemblance to genuine democratic elections, but the elections are nevertheless very important. It will be a test of strength between the various factions of the regime – and of the mass movement confronting the regime. The beginning of this process is developing around the parliamentary elections in November (the exact date is yet to be announced) this year.

Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak has emerged as the most likely candidate of the ruling elite. However, there are large factions within the regime who are not very satisfied with this succession from father to son. Gamal Mubarak represents an important layer of the capitalist class in Egypt. But there are other forces – especially in the army and the state bureaucracy – that might prefer other candidates to represent them.

The New York Times reports: “Military officials have expressed reservations in interviews and in the Egyptian news media about Gamal Mubarak, one of the most frequently mentioned potential successors of the president. Retired officers and other analysts said the military would not support his candidacy without ironclad guarantees that it would retain its pre-eminent position in the nation’s affairs. Retired officers circulated an open letter criticizing Gamal Mubarak’s candidacy last month, and several retired Egyptian officers said in interviews that they were skeptical of hereditary succession.”

“But many in the military chafe at the idea of a Gamal Mubarak presidency, especially as he ascends to the office through the kind of heavily manipulated ballots to which Egypt has grown accustomed. If he wants to succeed his father, said Mohamed Kadry Said, a retired general, he must win in ‘clean elections’.”

“Much of the military’s distrust of Gamal Mubarak stems from his ties to a younger generation of ruling party cadres who have made fortunes in the business world. The military is tied to the National Democratic Party’s ‘old guard,’ a substantially less wealthy elite who made their careers as ministers, officers and apparatchiks. Military officers said they feared that Gamal Mubarak might erode the military’s institutional powers.” (Succession Gives Army a Stiff Test in Egypt)

The splits in the regime are opening up room for the masses, drawing them in to the arena. As the pressure from below increases this self-perpetuating process will magnify all the internal contradictions of the regime and force its different factions into opposing camps.

Regime loses its social basis

The cohesion of the regime is constantly being undermined by centrifugal forces. The sky-rocketing inflation, pressure from the masses, military conflicts with the Sinai Bedouins, pressure from US Imperialism and the IMF all add to this process. A significant development in the process is the alienation of the very social basis of the regime – the lower ranking state bureaucracy.

In the wake of the massive wave of strikes and factory occupations of 2007-8, other layers of society have entered the scene of struggle against the regime. For instance, 55,000 tax collectors waged a bitter struggle for better conditions. The national strike was run by an independent committee, with elected representatives from the provinces. The state-backed General Union of Bank, Insurance and Finance Employees was hostile to the strikers. In the course of struggle, the tax collectors formed the first independent union in Egypt since 1957.

Middle East Report writes:

“In the past, election campaigns have witnessed an increased flow of petition and complaint upward, and the distribution of goods and services downward. The 2010 elections roll around at a time when citizens have not been idly waiting to vote, but have been airing their economic and political demands in daily demonstrations. The last election cycle in 2005 had energized pro-democracy protests by the Kifaya movement, as well as a series of post-election protests in the spring of 2006 to support independent judges targeted by the government for overly competent election supervision. The new dimension today is the diffusion of protests among new categories of citizens, especially the street-level bureaucrats who, as scions of the lower middle class embodied by Gamal Abdel Nasser, have constituted the social base of the Egyptian state since 1952. The great majority of protests are not the work of labor unions or political parties. Every day, newspapers report on self-organized street actions by an aggrieved sector of the population, be it downwardly mobile civil servants, North Sinai residents, auto mechanics, nurses, Copts, laid-off industrial workers, stricken rice farmers or technologically savvy young people. These small-scale rallies constitute a new language of popular politics now routinely used by citizens demanding responsiveness from negligent government officials.” [Our emphasis] (The Dynamics of Egypt’s Elections)

The movement of the Egyptian proletariat – especially the Mahalla textile workers – gave an enormous impetus to other sectors of society. It struck fear into the hearts of the regime which is reflected by the concessions given on the industrial front, but it also paved the way for the middle classes to come out against the regime. This is a very significant fact that spells even bigger convulsions in the period ahead.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The biggest so-called “opposition” to the regime is the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, the Muslim Brotherhood. In reality, this party plays the strategic role as the second line of defence for capitalism in Egypt.

Throughout the upsurge of workers’ struggles, the Muslim Brotherhood have played a despicable role. At best, they have distanced themselves from strikers and criticized their actions. In reality, they play the role of “loyal opposition” to the regime. This has become clear on several occasions – notably the nationwide strike on April 6, 2008 (when they issued a statement of non-participation) and during the demonstrations against the Israeli massacre in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009. During these demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood acted as policemen of the regime, cracking down on protestors who were chanting slogans against the Mubarak dictatorship and its alliance with Israel and America.

The Brotherhood has very little support in the factories where it is a marginal force. The Muslim Brotherhood has gained support thanks to its extensive network of charity, its social demagogy and its “opposition” to President Mubarak. It is widely acknowledged that the Muslim Brotherhood has made secret deals with the very regime it pretends to combat, and of course also with the USA who sees in it a ‘safe' alternative solution in case of a revolutionary explosion. In the event of a revolutionary overthrow of the regime, the ruling class will try to install the Brotherhood in government to save capitalism.

Many pessimistic elements in the cosy corridors of the universities and “research” institutions are often blinded by the ideological “hegemony” of, especially, Muslim movements. Marxists agree that religion does play a role in holding back the masses for long periods   especially the most backward layers . But in the final analysis, and especially in times of revolution it is the material conditions that play the main role. This is now also being seen within the Muslim Brotherhood that is showing signs of splits on a class basis.

It is especially the question of boycott that has divided the waters within the organisation. The so-called conservative wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (that won the party’s internal elections this January and is headed by Muhammad Badie) have maintained a conciliatory attitude towards the regime and accepts the elections, while other sectors of the Muslim Brotherhood – the so-called reformist wing – can sense the pressure from the masses and are advocating for a boycott, even a boycott for 20 years.

The divisions inside the Muslim Brotherhood have already reached unheard-of levels. The official leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood have maintained a position of participating in the elections, although they continue to utter support for the seven demands of the National Association for Change.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s European spokesman and former chairman Kamal al-Helbawy has called on the Brotherhood to boycott the upcoming elections. Al-Helbawy told Al-Masry Al-Youm that “the Muslim Brotherhood needs to convince the various political parties to boycott these elections and to stand behind ElBaradei in his call for a boycott as a prelude to civil disobedience.”

The divisions have now reached a level where proponents of a boycott have challenged the legitimacy of the membership of some members of the Guidance Bureau, saying they were appointed, not elected. Those advocating participation in the election, on the other hand, claim that those who want a boycott are currently not connected to the organisation.

These are the first signs of a split in the Muslim Brotherhood, and we can state with absolute certainty that these divisions will continue to grow in scope and depth under pressure from the masses. The leading Muslim Brotherhood figures will try to save the regime, but they also have to be careful not to lose all support. This last concern will especially affect the lower ranking leaders who are more directly dependent on popular support from the middle classes.

Revolutionary dynamic

Perhaps the most significant development in the Egyptian situation this year is the rise of Mohamed Elbaradei and his “National Association for Change”. In the absence of a national mass organisation to express themselves through, the masses are increasingly rallying behind this figure as a focal point for struggle against the regime.

Mohamed Elbaradei, former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, is an outsider in the corridors of the power struggle in Egypt. The regime has tried to block his candidacy for the presidential elections in 2011 on the grounds that he does not represent a party and does not fulfil the conditions of Article 76 of the constitution – an article designed to block opposition candidates (as well as unruly figures from the ruling National Democratic Party) from standing.

The reaction of the regime – in effect an attempt to squash the campaign of Elbaradei – reflects the fact that it has no room for such an outsider without organic connections to the ruling elite. The military, the state bureaucracy and private capital do not want to share their power with Elbaradei, who they look upon with contempt. This has forced him to lean on the support of the masses to protect him from the blows of the regime, thus creating a situation with its own revolutionary dynamics.

The programme of Elbaradei’s campaign is centred on democratic demands, which is a natural first step under a dictatorship like Egypt. So far, Elbaradei has launched a campaign for the right to stand in the presidential elections next year. The demands of the campaign are:

  1. An end to the state of emergency that has existed since 1981.
  2. Empowerment of the Egyptian judiciary to supervise the electoral process.
  3. The elections must be checked by national and international NGO’s.
  4. Equal access to the media for all candidates, especially in the presidential elections.
  5. Egyptians living abroad must be able to exercise their right to vote in embassies and consulates.
  6. Ensure the right to stand in the presidential elections without arbitrary restrictions and limiting the right to run for president to two terms.
  7. Elections by national number.

The boycott campaign

Elbaradei has called for boycotting the parliamentary elections in November. At an iftar meal to celebrate the end of Ramadan, Elbaradei told 200 activists that: “Anyone who participates in the vote, either as a candidate or as a voter, goes against the national will.” He urged “civil disobedience” to force the regime to grant political reforms. “If the whole people boycott the elections totally, it will be, in my view, the end of the regime,” he said, adding that he will not stand for President if democratic reforms are not introduced.

For the masses, this is seen as a call for mobilisation. They sense that Elbaradei’s campaign can be a vehicle for protest and a force to carry through their demands by uniting against the regime in a national campaign. The masses’ instinctive striving for unity is at present the most powerful force.

The boycott campaign can only be carried out in an efficient manner if the masses sense a clear purpose to fight for – a plan of action for the downfall of the regime. At this moment, the boycott campaign is seen as a natural rallying point that serves this end. This is affecting all classes and social strata in Egypt. Around a million signatures have been collected in support of the campaign.

In general, for Marxists participation in parliamentary elections is not a question of principle – even when, as in the case of Egypt, it is a bogus parliament without any real power. The Bolsheviks conducted excellent work in the rotten tsarist Duma by using it as a platform to reach the masses. But the question of boycott is not a question which can be seen in isolation from the rest of the class struggle. In Egypt, all that is vibrant in society is gathering around Elbaradei and his boycott campaign.

On this basis we are fully in support of the campaign, but we must also emphasise that a boycott is not enough in itself. It must be connected to an alternative and with concrete action. In a country like Egypt where there are as yet no other organs of mass struggle to take power, the democratic programme must be linked with the demand for a revolutionary constituent assembly which can be put forward when the time is ripe. Also there must be organised a thorough and consistent campaign to set up action committees in all neighbourhoods, factories and schools to coordinate the campaign.

Elbaradei has been forced to lean on the most radical and revolutionary elements in order to protect himself from the blows of the regime. He even went to Mahalla, known as “Egypt’s Petrograd”, to have a meeting with the workers. At the meeting he said that change in Egypt must be obtained in “unconventional ways”. He also said that “The people's representatives in parliament will not do the job (...) I hope Egypt doesn't face a violent, hunger-driven revolution against the regime.”

The meaning of Elbaradei

The real meaning of Elbaradei and his campaign is this: for the first time, the militant workers, youth and poor masses have a national point of reference for the struggle against the regime. The impressive struggles over the last years reached a certain limit exactly because of the lack of national organisation. Now, this is beginning to change.

Muhamed ElBaradei taking the democracy campaign to the country-sideMuhamed ElBaradei taking the democracy campaign to the country-side In order to take control of the situation, carry out an efficient struggle against the regime and a mass boycott, there is urgent need for organisation. Committees in the factories, in the neighbourhoods and universities must be set up and take charge of the campaign, organise discussions and common action.

It is hard to say whether the campaign will be successful or not. This will be determined by many factors: the regional and national situation in terms of economy and war (Israel and Iran); the ability of the regime and their agents (including the Muslim Brotherhood) to weaken and split the movement and to keep their social forces intact; the quality and development of leaders among the masses, and of the actions taken by Elbaradei himself. At some stage, the more intelligent parts of the regime may try to buy him. The regime will split even more into different factions. Some sections will try to stem the revolutionary tide by loosening up and conceding some reforms. Some sections will try to crush the movement by force, relying solely on the well-known measures of torture, police-roundups and mass arrests. Both of these factions will fail in their objectives. They will not be able to obtain their goal.

If the campaign develops into a true mass movement, the role of Elbaradei will be quite minimal. The masses will carry him forward in a confrontation with the regime, but he will not be able to control the very movement that is pushing him forward. The natural focal point for such a movement will be the presidential elections in 2012. The masses will aim to overthrow the hated regime. This, in turn will pave the way for revolutionary explosions. This is the true meaning of Elbaradei: an accidental figure, acting as a catalyst for the revolutionary process.

The meaning of democratic demands

In many countries in the so-called “Third World”, the development of mass organisations has taken a peculiar form. In the same way that these countries’ economic development does not follow the same pattern as Europe, the political development of mass parties is taking a combined and uneven course. The lack of any real mass organisations creates a situation where individual leaders – under the right conditions – can suddenly emerge as “leaders” of the masses. This is the case to some degree or other with Mousavi in Iran, who is an accidental figure thrown up by the impasse in the regime, to Zelaya in Honduras, and to Chavez in Venezuela who embodies the very revolution itself.

Mohamed Elbaradei in his previous role in the UN. Photo: UN Photo, Eskinder DebebeMohamed Elbaradei in his previous role in the UN. Photo: UN Photo, Eskinder Debebe In the case of Mousavi, we are dealing with a man who comes from within the Islamic regime itself, and is more interested in holding back the movement than giving it genuine expression. Zelaya was pushed much further, starting off as a bourgeois democrat and then being pushed by the mass movement into opposition against the local oligarchy. Chavez, however, is not a man that comes from within the old regime of the oligarchy; he is a man who started off wanting to achieve basic democratic reforms, but because of the opposition of the bourgeoisie has moved much further to the left, even declaring himself a Marxist and raising the need for socialist transformation of society.

There are some parallels that can be made between Zelaya and Elbaradei. Elbaradei’s political ambitions have been met with resistance on the part of the regime. This is due to the fact that he has no direct organic links to the ruling elite. This situation – under circumstances where the masses are rallying behind him as a means of struggle against the regime – can unleash a process, where Elbaradei could be pushed to take a much more radical stance than he intends to at the present moment.

Elbaradei is not a Socialist, much less a Marxist. Furthermore, it is not at all certain that he can be trusted to carry out the struggle against the regime in any consistent manner. This will be clear through the course of events. Elbaradei is a moderate reformist, and his demands are most modest. There should be no illusions in Elbaradei, but at the same time, we should keep an eye on the political developments. Elbaradei can be forced to go a lot further than intended, but it is far from certain that he will pass the tests of the revolutionary dynamics of his “own” movement.

At this moment, the movement’s official slogans are made up of democratic demands. The demands for an end to the State of Emergency, the right to organise unions, fair elections and so on are demands that are supported wholeheartedly by the Marxists. At the same time, it must be made clear that in order to fight against the dictatorship; one must fight against the material forces upholding it: the capitalist class, the top bureaucracy in the state and the army, as well as foreign capital and interests of imperialism.

What would be the consequences if the democratic demands were won? It would signify an explosion of the class struggle. The winning of basic democratic demands on the part of the Egyptian masses would enormously boost the confidence and organisation of the working class. Mass parties and revolutionary tendencies would emerge rapidly. The situation would spin out of control for the national and international bourgeoisie. This is why the democratic demands must be connected with the question of the regime itself and with the question of Socialism.

As soon as the movement for democratic change in Egypt assumes a real mass character, the democratic slogans will and must be connected to demands for price controls, for wage increases, for better education, for re-nationalisation of privatised industries, for workers’ control and finally the question of the abolition of capitalism that is the root cause of all the problems of Egyptian society.

These facts must be stated clearly in order to prepare and arm the best elements of the movement for what lies ahead. A declaration of war against the dictatorship means to call for the downfall of the ruling elite. This means revolution, not minor reforms. This is what the activists must prepare for. Committees must be organised in every factory, in every neighbourhood. A serious campaign must be organised.

The dynamics of revolution

“Revolution is our aim, victory is our first stage”

- Sheikh Imam (1918-95)

The situation in Egypt is pregnant with revolution. It has already started at the top. The divisions on the question of the presidential succession are just the beginning of a more open split in the regime. A ferocious fight will open up within the ruling elite. The noises of opposition to Gamal Mubarak on the part of the army tops are an indication of this.

Different wings of the ruling elite are trying to solve their problems and save the regime with different methods. One wing of the regime trusts only the old methods of repression to curb opposition. Another wing wants to give concessions and reforms in order to save the regime. Both will fail. The regime cannot tolerate Elbaradei to stand – in the presidential elections – not because of Elbaradei himself, but because of the radicalised masses who stand behind him and are pushing him forward.

For the masses, the situation is becoming still more acute and unbearable. There exists a burning desire for a fundamental change in society. At the present stage, there are big illusions in democracy – but this is connected to the masses’ anticipation that democracy will bring about an improvement in their living conditions. These illusions will be broken down by events themselves.

The overthrow of dictatorship in Egypt will not solve all issues. On the contrary, it will mostly serve to pose them even more sharply. No form of bourgeois democracy will be able to solve the question of price hikes, poverty, unemployment, military regime and in fact even the very question of bread. These are only questions that can be fully solved only when the whole system of capitalism and private property is abolished.

The middle classes are fed up with the regime. Before, the regime could trust the lower ranking state officials, the lawyers and intellectuals to back up the regime. This is no longer the case. Again and again, even these layers have come out against the regime. University professors have led strikes on campuses. The tax collectors have formed their own independent union. These layers are looking to the working class for a lead, but for the moment the focus is on the campaign of Elbaredei.

The workers took the road of industrial action in the period from December 2006 onwards when 27,000 textile workers in Mahalla struck and occupied their factory. But the road of relatively isolated industrial action has shown its limits – hence the importance of a national political focal point for the political struggle against the regime. There will without doubt be many turnarounds and shifts in the situation. Industrial action will come to the forefront at a later stage. At the present stage, all focus is on how to use the boycott campaign to build up national organisations. This process has its own, revolutionary dynamics.

The events looming in Egypt will shake the entire region. They will have a big impact throughout the entire Middle East where a revolutionary dynamic has already started. The period up to the presidential elections will be one of preparation for the revolutionary events which are to come. The Egyptian revolution will dramatically change the course of events in the Middle East, North Africa and on a world scale.

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