Arab Spring and the Future of Leadership in North Africa

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Mazrui: "So far the only Arab uprisings which succeeded in removing a dictator have been in Arab Africa." (Photo: Stefan Emkjær)

By: Nirvana Tannoukhi

Published Thursday, December 15, 2011

An interview with prominent world scholar of African politics and history Ali A. Mazrui

NIRVANA TANOUKHI (NT): As a political scientist of the continent what do you think is the significance of the location of the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa? That is, to what extent can we say that the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan revolutions occurred in a particularly African setting?

ALI A. MAZRUI (AM): Well, among the most interesting aspects is that this is a liberal pro-democracy uprising, rather than either nationalist or socialist or Islamic. Most of the values that are articulated are values connected with liberty, open society, and objection to detention without trial. So it’s almost as if we were having our first really liberal revolutions, at least in Tunisia and Egypt. And we don’t know yet whether this revolution will consolidate itself. But it is different from nationalism as an inspiration, or Islam as an inspiration, or indeed socialism. And that’s one of the distinctive aspects of the situation. So far the only Arab uprisings which succeeded in removing a dictator have been in Arab Africa.

NT: Having said that though, to what extent do you think Islamist, socialist and various nationalist groups will be able to integrate into whatever order comes about in the post-revolutionary period?

AM: It’s definitely a fragile situation. And leadership in any of these instances could be captured by others. For example, we weren’t sure with the Iranian revolution in 1979 how it would go. There were nationalists there, Marxists, Islamists. And then the country was captured by the Islamists within them.

This current situation is more clearly liberal than the Iranian one. But each revolution could still be captured by other groups. And we’re having our fingers crossed that whoever captures it is concerned about the welfare of the people. And if we look at the Egyptian revolution of 1952, that was definitely inspired by nationalism and brought into being by Nasserites, the most significant Arab nationalists of the second half of the twentieth century. But in this present case, the nationalism is not as yet manifest in North Africa.

NT: What is the particular advantage of the revolution in Egypt, for example, not having a primarily nationalist undertone?

AM: Well, the values are different really, because many of the nationalist uprisings, not just in the Muslim world, but indeed in the third world have tended to be focused on anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. And that is an issue of liberation rather than an issue of liberty, if we can make that kind of distinction. So in general, what’s happening in the North African part of the Arab world is not primarily anti-imperialist.

Of course, Gaddafi, because of the participation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against him, has fair grounds to invoke the anti-imperialist theme. But in general, the revolution was very different from the 1979 revolution in Iran and the 1952 revolution in Egypt. The Egyptian one included an anti-Israeli element as well as a general anti-imperialist tone.

NT: What do you think has been and will be the impact of North African revolutions on black Arabs and north/south relations on this African continent, perhaps as reflected in the African Union’s position on Libya?

AM: With regard to North Africa proper rather than the upper Nile Valley, it’s been relatively bad news for African-Arab relations in both Libya and Sudan. Afro-Arab solidarity couldn’t be sustained in the end. And so a divorce has taken place. And that’s a major setback in relations between Arab and non-Arab Africans more generally. On the other hand, the Libyan situation almost compensates for the disaster in Sudan, because Gaddafi is the first major leader of an Arab African country who regarded himself as an African first and an Arab second. And this was ages ago. This is not just what has happened just now. I’ve had opportunities to chat with him about issues of this kind, and I sometimes found myself defending the Arabs against this Arab leader.

So Gaddafi did in general (though it was fifteen years ago) regard his African constituency as more sincere and carrying greater promise for fulfillment than his solidarity with the Arabs. And he regarded himself eventually as a successor to Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and the pan Africanists rather than a successor to Gamal Abdel Nasser as a pan-Arab.

That is why so many of his residual friends in the world have been disproportionately Africans. Fellow Arabs just threw him under the bus and invited the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to do what they liked with him. He was betrayed by the Arabs, but it is not surprising that his residual friends have been black Africans.

NT: Can you comment further on the position on Gaddafi and the Libyan revolt by African leaders in general, but also, if you like, more specifically on the response of the African Union?

AM: Well, fifteen years ago when I had conversations with him, Gaddafi indicated greater pan-Africanism. But more recently he wanted to be part of the vanguard of speeding up pan-African unification. And he was elected as chairman of the African Union and he chaired and financed one or two major conferences in pursuit of rapid regional unification towards continental unity.

Much of the dream, as in the case of Kwame Nkrumah, was excessively optimistic. And of course you can’t distinguish between the dream which is primarily for self-promotion and the dream which is genuinely part of patriotism. But that’s not unique to Gaddafi or any leader from Napoleon to George Washington. You always wonder how much is self-promotion and how much is patriotism. In the last few years, we have seen Gaddafi move towards trying to speed up regional African unification, but on terms which were relatively unrealistic in their optimism.

NT: So does this Africanist part of Gaddafi’s career or his pan-Africanism in particular, position African leaders from the sub-continent differently towards what is going on in Libya, versus what has been happening elsewhere?

AM: Well, African leaders are focused on the African part of the Arab world for the moment, and do not handle Arab countries outside Africa. It is clear that the only two successful uprisings so far among a dozen Arab uprisings in the Arab world as a whole have been in Africa. Those in Tunisia and Egypt have been successful in ending the old regime, but not yet successful in opening up a new era. Only the African part of the Arab world has succeeded in, for the time being, destroying the old order.
But it’s still uncertain what kind of new order would replace it.

In the case of Libya, the Libyan opponents of Gaddafi moved very rapidly towards becoming an armed insurrection rather than a protest movement. That’s one of the things which people keep forgetting as to why the Libyan uprising didn’t work out as smoothly. The Egyptian phenomenon of February 2011 was protest; it wasn’t rebellion. It was protest. And even when the protesters were provoked by misbehavior of the security forces and some injuries and killings that took place both in Cairo and in Alexandria, they maintained a nonviolent nature of protesting. And this is also true of the Tunisian uprising. There were victims of the security forces, but the people who were in revolt were mainly unharmed and articulated values that did not require weapons.

The unfortunate part of the Libyan situation is that the opponents of Gaddafi moved rapidly towards turning it into an armed rebellion. So the protesters became more than just protesters. They became rebels or insurrectionists, and armed. And then the fact that they sought military support from outside their own country increased the difference between Egypt and Tunisia on one side and Libya on the other. So the Libyan situation became more clearly a civil war, whereas Tunisia and Egypt were primarily civil conflicts but not full scale civil war.

NT: So let’s move on to the issue of Islam in Africa more generally. What do you think is the future of Muslim-Christian relations in Africa after the end of “larger” Sudan (Sudan as it existed from 1 January 1956 until 9 July 2011), both within countries that have significant representation of both groups like Nigeria and Kenya, and between states that are largely made up of members from only one of these religions?

AM: The Sudanese part is definitely a sad divorce. And the government in Khartoum has not been trying to find ways of creating good neighborly relations apart from accepting the secession. They should have attempted a little more to make it easier for southern Sudanese who might have voted for separation, but are caught up in this situation of having invested so many of their years in northern Sudan.

The British allowed the Irish, after conceding Irish autonomy and later independence, considerable free movement into the United Kingdom and back. And I don’t mean just Northern Ireland; I mean the Irish Republic. The citizens of that country, long before the European Union, enjoyed considerable freedom of movement into the United Kingdom. And I was hoping that the northern Sudanese authorities would have similar generosity, giving the southern Sudanese some freedom of movement and not just treating them as foreigners.

At the moment, unfortunately, General al-Bashir is not leaning in that direction. He’s been very reluctant to consider the dual-nationality concept, and he’s been very protective of monopolizing the Sudanese currency exclusively for the north. So it’s a very different attitude from that of the British when they had to engage in the divorce with the Irish. The Irish were very angry with the English for centuries of domination. But when the separation came, there was a greater readiness to accept generosity. And I hope the northern Sudanese will move in that direction later. The initial reaction has been relatively un-generous towards southern Sudanese.

And then in general, there is another country with regard to Muslim-Christian relations whose solution is different from Sudan. And that is in Cote d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast. Not many commentators refer to the sectarian divide in the conflict which has taken place there. In general, Cote d’Ivoire has had a slight majority of Muslims since independence. And yet it has been ruled since independence almost exclusively by Christians, at least at the very top. Now in the case of Ouattara who is now president and a Muslim, he was allowed by the founding president of independent Ivory Coast to hold a high position. When Ouattara was elected President at last, there was a Christian revolt. But French intervention in 2011 favored the Muslim Ouattara. So in Cote d’Ivoire, we see a more interesting and optimistic situation than that in Sudan.

Then, Tanzania has as many Muslims as Christians and has had a remarkable rotation of the presidency due to a combination of term limits and an emphasis on religious rotation. The founding president, Julius Nyerere, was of course a Christian. He was very popular, genuinely popular. And then Ali Hassan Mwinyi, a Muslim, succeeded him. In his case, he just accepted his two terms of five years each, and was followed by Benjamin Mkapa, who was again a Christian. And now there is another Muslim in office. It’s not in the constitution. There is a pragmatic rotation of the presidency in Tanzania, given the nature of the divide of the country between Muslims and Christians. And the divide is much closer than many people realize.

Finally, I might add something else which started off very well, but has slightly deteriorated in the smaller country of Senegal. The country has an overwhelming majority of Muslims, nearly ninety-five percent. But for the first twenty years of its postcolonial experience, it had a Roman Catholic president without cries of “jihad” and “down with infidels,” in a relatively open African society. And then after twenty years of Leopold Senghor, he was followed by a Muslim president, Abdou Diouf. And then once again, this was a rather unusual situation, the first lady of Senegal in the next twenty years was a Christian first lady in a presidency headed by a Muslim. So in general, there were four decades of remarkable ecumenical politics in Senegal. Now, things are not as smooth as they were in those first four decades. But precedents were set which will probably help Senegal to recover some of that spirit of cooperation between Christians and Muslims.

NT: Do you find the tension that has arisen recently around Coptic identity in Egypt worrisome? Or do you see it as relatively minor, despite concerns raised by some about the possibility of religious/ethnic conflict in post-revolutionary Egypt?

AM: It’s serious. The country as a whole was overwhelmingly Coptic before the Arab conquest of the seventh century. And it is quite remarkable that there is still a significant Christian presence, although the percentage is quite small. But that they have survived for fourteen centuries of coexistence with Muslim authorities is an interesting phenomenon. And most of the time, they worked quite well. Recently things are turning for the worse.

Boutros Boutros Ghali would never have become secretary general of the United Nations if he, as a Coptic, didn’t rise within Muslim Egyptian society and become a kind of secretary of state within Egypt before he became eligible for consideration as secretary general of the UN. So this was a Christian Egyptian married to a Jew in a society which is overwhelmingly Muslim and was permitted by the realities of the situation to rise so high. Indeed, he would not of course have become secretary general if the Egyptian government had rejected him. The United Nations insists that whoever is nominated for secretary general must begin with the support of their own government. And there have been cases of a Ugandan who was rejected by his government in Kampala and never made it for that job. So that was a plus sign in Egypt.

The administrations of both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak favored good relations with Coptic Christians. But unfortunately, things are sometimes difficult if countries have populations which are expanding too rapidly, have generational imbalances between the youth and the elders, have inadequate jobs for young people emerging from colleges. It poisons wider relations in the society.

NT: In your remarks, you generally seem hopeful about what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt. However, it could be said that what we’ve seen, even in the successful North African revolutions such as those in Tunisia and Egypt, is a difficulty to transform what has been garnered in people power into potentially transformative political authority. What do you think this bodes for the future of social protest on the continent—including, for example, what’s happening in Malawi right now, and who knows where else in the near future—given what we know especially of the history of governance in Africa and postcolonial nations.

AM: If you witness a situation where there is an attempt at democratization from below, which is what has been attempted both in Tunisia and in Egypt this year, the trouble is that it is very much like the uprising from the collapse of the Bastille in the French revolution. The proletariat taking over the system is eager to assert itself. And then it creates a period of adjustment. In the case of the French revolution, that included a period of actual terror. The French terrorized each other. And then, unlike the Egyptians, that particular revolution from below was so anti-royalist that the entire royal family was executed.

On the other hand, there is attempting democratization from above, of which in the Muslim world the best example is really Turkey. In that instance, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk engaged in major political, social, and cultural changes that were orchestrated by a political elite led by him. And in general, they had a sense of where they wanted to take the country, which is much easier than if you are dealing with the equivalent of the Bastille being broken down by inmates. So we have to have our fingers crossed whenever there is this attempt at orchestrating big fundamental changes from below, by what begins as mob action. But it can work. And at the moment, in the case of Egypt and Tunisia, it does look hopeful.

The problem with major uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa is that they have not been primarily liberal except in terms of wanting liberation rather than liberty, ending colonialism, etc. When a major leader in sub-Saharan Africa wants to change society from above, it hasn’t been in the direction of liberal reform; it’s been in the direction of Ujamaa in Tanzania—a form of socialism combined with African cultural nationalism, but without adequate guarantees for individual liberties and open society.

I once described Kwame Nkrumah as a great African, but not a great Ghanaian because his policies domestically were not good for Ghana. But his policies for the African continent were ahead of his time. And then in the case of Gaddafi, I have had occasion to say that he is a good African but a bad Libyan. He is a paradox, like Nkrumah, being negligent of the immediate domestic constituency but being visionary with regard to continental ambitions, etc. Gaddafi was a bad Libyan because of considerable neglect of certain important liberties for the Libyan people. But I regard him as an important African leader who demonstrated that it is possible to be a leader of an Arab African country and still regard yourself as primarily African first, and Arab second.

NT: Would you care to comment on developments in Malawi?

AM: Well, it is less of a comfortable uprising, but it definitely shows an eagerness to tame political power. The country started off very badly under Hastings Banda who monopolized power in Malawi for a long time. But the country gradually demonstrated that it was possible, even for such a major tyrant as Hastings Banda, to step down without major collapse. And you have an interesting experiment with a Muslim president in Malawi for a while. So the country has had fluctuations which make it different from what we’ve been talking about with regard to North Africa. And I think in general, Malawi is showing greater changeability than Zimbabwe.

So I’m more optimistic about the future in central Africa of liberal democratic values, more optimistic about Malawi than about Zimbabwe right now. But I hope that both countries emerge triumphant after their present leaders.

NT: So what are the prospects for stable democratic regimes in North Africa going forward in your opinion? And especially in light of Western intervention, not only by the US, in these civic conflicts?

AM: Well, I’m not optimistic about liberal democratic order in Libya. But I think both Tunisia and Egypt do stand a chance of gradually consolidating. I think because Egypt is a very ancient civilization, it may have to overcome a lot of older traditions, if you like, the pharaonic impediments to democratization. Egypt has had five thousand years of bureaucracy.

I would regard Tunisia as standing a better chance of democratization. I’m even on record as trying to forecast that the first female president of an Arab country will be in either in Tunisia or Egypt. We have had female presidents of Muslim countries in Turkey, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, and in Indonesia. But there hasn’t been a single female Arab rising to the top of political order. And my forecast, for what it is worth, is that the two Arab countries that stand the best chance of breaking down that particular gender barrier of democratization are Tunisia and Egypt. In the case of Tunisia, they have made more progress with regard to empowerment of women than Egypt. The Egyptian women are better educated, but not necessarily better liberated than Tunisian women. But both countries are likely to lead the Arab world in this aspect of democratization.

NT: What do you mean exactly by pharaonic impediments to democratization?

AM: Well, in societies which have a long history of dictatorship, there are major difficulties in breaking down those entrenched traditions because the population tends to accept pharaonic power disproportionately, and sometimes to almost deify the leader at the time.

In the case of modern Egypt, the nearest approximation to pharaonic proportions of hero worship was Gamal Abdel Nasser rather than Hosni Mubarak. So Gamal Abdel Nasser became hugely popular. And when he died very suddenly in 1970, people were throwing themselves off roofs in suicidal mourning as they absorbed the death of this major figure. It is almost as if they were ready to build a pyramid in his honor. And he himself used to say he was the first real Egyptian leader after centuries of post-pharaonic occupation by the Greeks, the Romans, Byzantium and the Arabs.

I’m worried that these ancient tendencies of accepting power at the center which go back in Egypt thousands of years and not just centuries, may themselves prove an impediment to rapid democratization. Egypt’s ancient political culture of deference to authority is dying, but not fast enough. I hope I am wrong. If Egyptians become democratic within the next fifty years, I hope my children will celebrate, because that will be faster than I was expecting it to happen due to that built-in lethargy of pharaonic traditions.

NT: In the international media at least, Libyan rebels are credited with the capacity to form a new state in the way that south Sudan is not, despite sympathy for the plight of southerners in news coverage. How would you compare the resources for state-making in a post-Gaddafi Libya versus south Sudan?

AM: This is definitely a legitimate concern that south Sudan is at risk of becoming a failed state and that Libya, stands a better chance of becoming a viable modern, though perhaps not democratic, state with elements of tribal power. Endowed with great wealth the Libyan situation is likely to be more positive than south Sudanese prospects at the moment.

In south Sudan, part of the problem is gross neglect, not just by Arabs since the mid-1950s, but by the British before that. The British have been forgiven for their total neglect of south Sudan, incredibly! There they were, ruling Sudan under the banner of Anglo Egyptian Sudan. Apart from trying to save southerners from Arabs and putting limits to Islamization, there is very little the British did for infrastructure, education, etc. And they have been forgiven by the international community.

Northern Sudan bears the brunt of neglect in the south, when in fact most Arabs since 1956, and the British since they inherited Sudan from the Byzantine Empire, neglected basic infrastructural development of that country, which makes it much harder for both North and South right now to create viable states. Then, of course, they are quarreling about oil with the north. And that’s another sad thing. The shared oil resources could be an opportunity for cooperation, not always an opportunity for competition and hostility. The Sudanese have not as yet, both north and south, found the right balance of sharing resources and being good neighbors.

NT: On the topic of oil, and political Islam in particular, Fouad Ajami, in The Arab Predicament (2nd ed., p. 209) cites you saying that “the ‘barrel of oil’ and the ‘crescent of Islam’ were linked and October 1973 represented a resurrection of Islam.” Please feel free to correct or clarify the statement, if the quote is inaccurate, or taken out of context. But if this quote is accurate, would you say that “Islam” declined when the price of oil did in the mid-1980s—and was re-resurrected in the last several years with the price of oil reaching its all-time high, at least in nominal dollars? If instead we understand Saudi economic power in relation to the United States’ exploitation of Islam during the Cold War, primarily as a tool against secular Arab nationalism—as does Mahmood Mamdani in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim?—what role can we expect for oil rich countries in Africa and the Middle East in the next years, especially in view of the selective interventionism displayed by the superpowers in recent months.

AM: Well, there’s no doubt that petroleum has been both a curse and a blessing for the Muslim world. And the particular piece of my writing to which you are referring had the title of “The Barrel of the Gun and the Barrel of Oil.” It was a piece on how the oil sector created cultures of militarization in the Muslim world, partly because of the greed of industrialized countries’ need for oil. So oil could be a source of power, which it has been for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is an important player in the world economy and indeed in world policy, mainly because of oil power.

But I have always tried to distinguish between the real failures of Muslims and alleged the failures of Islam. And the failures of Muslims have included not being able to manage and use even Allah’s bounties. The Muslim world is blessed by enormous resources of oil, led by the country which is the main custodian of Mecca and Medina, etc. And yet, although Islam must have contributed to this particular bounty, the Muslims themselves have abused those riches, and sometimes have allowed themselves to be bought by the West in ways which are anti-Islam.

Unfortunately, these abuses have also impeded democratization of countries like Saudi Arabia, although there are elements in the Gulf area as a whole including Kuwait, which give us optimism that Arabs can begin to modernize their societies, and even have the beginnings of democratization, in spite of being rich in oil and in spite of being spoiled by extravagance. In the smaller Gulf areas, there are signs of hope. But in general, in Saudi Arabia, the signs of hope are not in the service of democratization, but in terms of being an important player in the global economy and in the world system.

NT: Would you say that spring 2011—call it an Arab or African Spring—has already reshaped our understanding of political Islam?

AM: Yes, this particular year is definitely going to count as an important phase, comparable to the collapse of Communism in its potential towards reforming the societies which were previously ruled tyrannically. And then in addition, some of the major convulsions during my lifetime in the Muslim world, have had “plus” consequences.

One was definitely the changes in Turkey, which are getting better now. For awhile, there was too much fundamentalist secularism in Turkey, to the extent of being intolerant of other people’s more sacred beliefs. The Turks are beginning to find a better balance within secularism and Islam. And then there is the Iranian revolution, also a major event in the Muslim world because it created repercussions in other areas of Islam, some of them under-observed because they’re mainly cultural rather than political. The political side of the Iranian revolution received disproportionate attention from the media, but there are major social changes which have occurred.

And now this Arab Spring. The combination of the Turkish Ataturk revolution, the Iranian revolution, and the Arab revolution, are likely to be counted in the period which covers my own lifetime as among the most important events affecting the Muslim world. The results of the partition of India, which created Pakistan, is still a work in progress with considerable anxiety as to whether it was a plus when the British, the Muslims, and the Hindus finally agreed to have the British India partitioned. Or whether it was a minus in the repercussions which followed later on. So the Pakistani side of the Muslim story still hangs in the balance. The Turkish, Iranian, and Arab reforms have been hopeful and promising so far. And we have our fingers crossed, as they say.

NT: I’d like to conclude with a question or two about the geography of the North African revolution. Looking at the space of Tahrir Square since January, we find protesters carrying pamphlets displaying everything from personal grievances, civil demands, comic provocations, koranic verses and engaging in communal practices and displays ranging from revolutionary rock to group prayers, to silent protest. And as you might know, the very security of Tahrir Square has become the purview of revolutionaries after the elective withdrawal by the police force. What do we learn from the political and cultural negotiations and acts in loci of agitation such as the public square?

AM: Well, the public square in Cairo symbolized by Tahrir—is definitely a platform which can accommodate large numbers of people and which is not too circumscribed by security forces. This has given the Egyptian protesters a bigger advantage than anything that the Syrians could remotely command in their more menacing political predicament. The Syrian security forces are less patriotic towards fellow citizens, than the Egyptians were.

In general, we mustn’t forget that these societies are still developing, have important areas of fragility, and revolutions take a while to consolidate themselves. Some rapidly become civil wars, as in the case of both France and post-Tsarist Russia with the coming of the civil war after the 1917 revolution. Other societies that have seen revolution have sometimes deteriorated rapidly into major conflicts and terror. On the Arab side of the current Middle Eastern changes, there is a lot of hope that it won’t deteriorate into massive civil war in spite of the Libyan conflict. But we can’t be too optimistic when we’re confronted with what is happening in Syria and when we are confronted with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s involvement in an African civil war. We are, as Africans and as Arabs and as human beings, both worried by what is happening in the Arab world and inspired by its potential. And I hope that potential is fulfilled politically before very long.

NT: Finally, do you think it would be fruitful at this juncture to reevaluate “North Africa” as a meaningful geographic designation—or as geographers would say, a “geographic scale”—of historical analysis as we think forward about social developments on the continent?

AM: Yes. If we just limit ourselves to talking about it as a sub-region, the way we talk about southern Africa or we talk about ECOWAS as a West African organization. It does make sense, when we are talking about sub-regions—western Africa, southern Africa, eastern Africa, and north Africa. And also within North Africa, in the past, there’s a tendency to distinguish the Maghreb section of North Africa from the rest of North Africa.

So making North Africa into a more cohesive whole would help the pan-African ideal, and may also reduce the tendency for North Africa to insist on emphasizing its Arab-ness and to be inadequately committed to the African continent. We need to cultivate a readiness on the part of North Africans to lead the rest of the Arab world. At different moments, Egypt has led the rest of the Arab world successfully. We need to widen the credentials of leadership from Egyptian (national credentials) to North African ones (sub-regional credentials), so that the relevance of a revolutionary movement in North Africa would be extended to the African continent as a whole. Africans, north and south of the Sahara, need to learn from each other —and distinguish between what to emulate and what to avoid.

This interview conducted in July 2011 was first published in Transition, an international review of politics, culture, and ethnicity published by Indiana University Press.

Nirvana Tannoukhi is assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She studies and teaches postcolonial literature and culture with a focus on Africa.


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