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No to Military Trials

Several political forces and presidential candidates have reportedly reached an agreement with Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi on amendments to the heavily criticized constitutional principles. The Brotherhood and Islamist groups, however, rejected the agreement and threatened to escalate street protests leading to a “new revolution” on January 25, if the draft document is ratified.

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Magdy Samaan, Stephen McInerney and Michele Dunne (left to right)

EgyptSource blogger Magdy Samaan spoke at an event co-hosted by the Hariri Center, the Wilson Center and Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington announcing the blog's launch and previewing Egypt's elections.

Michele Dunne, director of the Hariri Center, participated in the discussion with panelists Magdy Samaan and Ibrahim Houdaiby (who joined the conversation from Cairo by Skype), moderated by POMED director Stephen McInerney.

Houdaiby, a freelance journalist and political analyst, identified three major challenges that could complicate Egypt’s three-stage parliamentary elections, slated to begin on November 28: 1) security challenges, 2) media censorship and 3) the need for an independent judiciary.  A dysfunctional security apparatus that has failed to fully redeploy civilian police officers since the January uprising appears ill-equipped to maintain order at polling stations, particularly if voters turn out in record numbers as expected (recent polling data indicates that almost 90 percent of Egyptians intend to vote, compared to 41 percent in the March constitutional referendum). Meanwhile, an unhealthy media environment characterized by state censorship and corruption will hinder transparent and accurate coverage of the elections. Nearly 10,000 judges will be responsible for supervising polling stations, but Houdaiby cited concerns that the judiciary may lack sufficient independence to adequate monitor the voting process.

Election results are difficult to predict in light of the diverse political field and lack of identifiable leaders, as well as the fact that millions of Egyptian who have never voted before are likely to participate.  Houdaiby said that polling data suggest that some 27 percent of Egyptians support Islamist movements, including about 15 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood. Polling data indicates that Egyptians are primarily concerned with political and economic rather than ideological or religious issues, a trend that will undermine popular support for Islamist parties that fail to address voters’ practical concerns in their platforms, according to Houdaiby.  He predicted nonetheless that Islamist parties might capture about 45 percent of the seats in the new parliament.

Magdy Samaan, a freelance journalist and blogger for EgyptSource, agreed with Houdaiby that Egypt’s deteriorating media environment and the ongoing detention and censorship of journalists are impeding the development of an open society and pluralist political system. Samaan also warned that despite the ruling military council’s stated intention of transferring power to an elected civilian government, there are signs that the military is seeking to preserve and even expand its political and economic privileges in the post-Mubarak system, including a constitutional provision to shield its budget from parliamentary scrutiny.  Far from playing a constructive role in the democratic transition, participants noted that the military leadership is deploying many of the same tactics used by the Mubarak regime to intimidate and silence its critics.

Michele Dunne echoed Samaan’s concerns about the military’s intentions, noting that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) efforts to wrest control of the process of choosing members of a constituent assembly calls into question what the powers of the new parliament will actually be.  There is a widespread expectation that the elections scheduled to begin November 28 will be fairly run, a first for Egypt.  At the same time, however, the new electoral system is so extraordinarily complicated that even well-meaning electoral administrators might make errors or differ in their interpretation of important issues such as seat allocation.  This raises the real possibility of violence and unrest surrounding the elections, which could disrupt the process and detract from the legitimacy of results.  

Stephen McInerney described the features of the electoral system as well as electoral monitoring, noting that there remain many uncertainties about the details of the system and whether domestic monitors and international observers (being called “witnesses”) will be able to watch all phases of the voting and counting process.  Some results (for the one-third of “individual” seats) will be announced immediately, whereas the other two-thirds (“proportional” or party list seats) will not be announced until the end of the process—mid-January for the People’s Assembly and mid-March for the Shura Council.  With rumors and leaks of results likely, this phased announcement of results might also lead to suspicion about rigging and possible violence.

For additional coverage of the discussion, please visit POMED’s website. The Wilson Center has produced an audio recording of the event.

Supreme Administrative Court

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and other major political forces signed a statement threatening to stage mass protests on November 18 if the SCAF refuses to withdraw its controversial draft constitutional principles by November 16.  Meanwhile, a major court ruling affirmed the right of former NDP members to compete in upcoming elections.  Semi-official statistics indicate that more than 1,500 former NDP members have registered to run as independents or on other party lists.

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Map of Egyptian Political Parties

Jacopo Carbonari has shared via The Arabist a schematic diagram that sheds some much-needed light on the relative ideological orientation of Egypt's political parties. In addition to positioning the parties along two axes -- religious/secular and left/right -- the map shows the distribution of parties among the four major coalitions: 1) the FJP-dominated Democratic Alliance; 2) the liberal-oriented Egyptian Bloc; 3) the Salafi-led Islamist Alliance; and 4) the youth-driven Completing the Revolution Alliance. In addition to the four official coalitions, the map also identifies the informal category of NDP remnants, representing 7 new parties. It is unclear to what extent the NDP-affiliated parties will cooperate in the upcoming elections, but their candidates -- many of whom benefit from pre-revolutionary patronage networks and tribal backing in rural regions  -- will be serious contenders in the upcoming elections. 

Egypt is preparing for its first real multi-party parliamentary elections without the grip of Hosni Mubarak and his abolished National Democratic Party (NDP), ousted over nine months ago. The electoral law finally announced on October 8 has made the Egyptian electoral system one of a kind: with 2/3 of parliament to be elected via proportional party lists and 1/3 through first-past-the-vote system, while retaining the quota of 50 percent for workers and farmers. Further complicating the process is the arrangement of huge electoral districts that make it difficult for candidates or parties to feasibly reach voters with their campaigns. Parliamentary elections will start with the People’s Assembly (Lower House) on November 28.  This will be the first stage of a three-round system to elect 498 members to parliament in a process set to end in January 2012.  A similar process will be used for the Shoura Council (Upper House) elections to choose 180 members during a period from January to March 2012.  In light of the complexity of the new electoral system, international and domestic monitors will have a particularly important role to play in scrutinizing the multi-stage polling process and reporting any irregularities that may arise. However, new regulations on election monitoring have troubling implications for the ability of monitors to effectively supervise the voting process.  

Initially, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had refused to allow international monitoring (Morakaba in Arabic) of the parliamentary elections saying that “we reject anything that affects our sovereignty,” a statement that was very disappointing to pro-democracy groups. But perhaps taking into account backlash from Egyptian civil society and the international community, the SCAF backed down from its position and announced that local and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would be allowed to “follow” the elections.

On October 17, the High Electoral Commission (HEC) issued a decree to regulate the process; clearly indicating that only registered local as well as international NGOs would be able to watch the elections. The question of election monitoring in Egypt has been long debated, and the Egyptian authorities have always taken a strong stand against international observation, seeing it as an infringement on sovereignty. Despite some initial positive steps taken by the HEC toward the NGOs like extending the registration period and issuing accreditations for free, human rights activists are still skeptical that the HEC will allow monitors full access to all stages of the polling process, including the all-important counting facilities where elections results will be tabulated. Albeit welcoming the decision to allow election “followers,” civil society groups and NGOs fear that the HEC won’t accredit their teams on time for the elections and that a “follower” (Motabe’ in Arabic) will not be endowed with any meaningful authority. As for the foreign groups, in addition to being registered, they have to get pre-approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) before they are able to even apply for permits. So far, the Carter Center is the only foreign entity that will be allowed to follow the elections after being invited by SCAF.

Confusion over the vague terminology of election “followers” and uncertainty over whether or not they will be allowed to supervise all aspects of the electoral process is adding to concerns over Egypt’s highly complex and evolving electoral system. This chaotic system underwent several significant changes before it was finally announced – after repeated delays – by the SCAF in October. 

An earlier draft of the electoral law released by the military council on May 30 drew criticism from most political parties and revolutionary forces. Parties and analysts were stunned by the SCAF’s lack of transparency and  shocked that the law had been drafted without any consultation with political groups and civil society. The care-taker government and SCAF came back in July after meeting with political parties to approve new amendments to the original draft, but many remain concerned about the confusing structure of the electoral system and its uncertain implications for the composition of the next parliament.

The parliament to be elected holds an extreme importance to most Egyptians and indeed the political parties, as the first elected assembly of the post-Mubarak era and the one that will be responsible for drafting the new constitution through selection of a 100-member constituent assembly. According to Article 56 of the Constitutional Declaration released following Mubarak’s stepping down on February 11, the SCAF holds authority of the President and Parliament until elections are held.  Given the importance of the upcoming elections, the latest changes to the electoral law – which reflect the chaotic political environment and lack of clear guidelines or framework for a transition – are particularly troubling

Most of the parties, especially those formed after the fall of Mubarak, have no or limited experience and insufficient time to build national constituencies. This explains the amount of complaining and whining about each step in the process. They have been focusing more on issues not of high importance for Egyptians. According to polls conducted, security and economy come on top of everything else Egyptians look for now. On the other hand, the SCAF is clinging to power using the rights given to it by the Constitutional Declaration, which led to a lot of criticism. The military junta was accused of not being serious about reforms and the public began to question their motive for not identifying a clear timeline for transitioning power to civilians; and many began to suspect that the generals wanted a weak parliament that won’t challenge their powers during the transitional period. This was apparent on several fronts, such as the court decision to allow Egyptians abroad to vote; the controversy over the supra-constitutional proposal presented by Dr. Ali al-Selmi, Deputy Prime Minister for Political Affairs; and a momentous court ruling on November 11 banning former NDP members from running in the parliamentary elections.  

The fact that all of the previous examples have occurred just weeks before the start of  elections is probably not a coincidence and suggests that the SCAF and the interim government  not only lacks a vision for Egypt’s transitional period but is also determined to keep the post-Mubarak political order as opaque as it was under the former regime.


Freedom and Justice Party campaign rally during Eid al-Adha festivities in Mansoura

 Much has been said and written since January about the influence, power and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in Egyptian politics post-Mubarak. A well organized, structured and financed organization that has grown considerably in strength since its establishment by Hassan El Banna in the late 1920s, the Brotherhood and its official political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is by far the most prepared political force in Egypt when it comes to the upcoming People’s Assembly elections.  But putting aside the fearful tone in local and international newspapers, anxiety within Egyptian liberal movements and western political powers, coupled with the recent electoral success of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Al-Nahda Party (suggesting Islamist support is on the rise in the region), a much more fascinating internal battle is raging, one that could very well prove to show that fears of an Islamic Egypt are unfounded …at least for now.

The Freedom and Justice Party vs. the Brotherhood

The Freedom and Justice Party’s greatest struggle is not about the Revolution, politics, or Islam. It is a simple case of branding.  With their political and street support waning in light of their confusing rhetoric over the percentage of seats they aim to win, and their overtures in support of Sharia Law and its place in the Egyptian constitution, the Brotherhood can ill afford a slip-up as basic as this.

As candidates hit the campaign trail, competition in the streets is beginning to distinguish the political heavyweights from their less serious counterparts who have little chance of winning representation in the next parliament. Although the Freedom and Justice Party is widely assumed to be one of Egypt’s strongest and most popular political forces, the party’s inability to brand itself effectively is proving to be its biggest obstacle. In continuing to use the same logo as the Brotherhood organization on its advertising and the ongoing public and internal debate over whether to use the Brotherhood’s traditional "Islam is the Solution" slogan versus the less ideological "The Good for Egypt," the majority of voters seem unaware that the Brotherhood now carries a new name in the political arena. This is particularly true in rural areas, where the Freedom and Justice party’s campaign is being overshadowed by a barrage of Brotherhood activities, especially targeting the poor, including the hundreds of toys and kilos of meat distributed during the recent Eid al-Adha festivities. These services are nothing new to supporters of the Brotherhood, but the fact that they are continuing during the campaign season is causing confusion among voters and even some candidates who are having trouble distinguishing the new Freedom and Justice Party from the familiar Brotherhood social movement.  This phenomenon is most notable in the Upper Egypt governorates of Qena and Luxor, where the Brotherhood organization has in recent years enjoyed strong support.  

The Brotherhood as an organization is undeniably popular – polls since March have consistently shown an approval rating of 30 percent – but many voters will head to the polls unaware that the group’s official political wing has adopted a new name, and as a result, they will be looking for the Brotherhood’s name on the ballot without recognizing the FJP. Furthermore, the media’s tendency to use the Brotherhood’s traditional name as a catch-all for the political party is also adding to its woes, creating a branding problem that may cause the FJP to lose ground to more liberal parties as Election Day looms.

In a large field of 52 other parties, most of which are comparatively weak and disorganized, the Brotherhood’s decision to join the Democratic Coalition – which was partially motivated by its desire to calm fears of an Islamist takeover -- has failed dramatically. Having cornered smaller parties into accepting a majority of 80 percent Freedom and Justice representation on the joint lists, the coalition eventually filed their candidates in late October under the FJP’s name. However, even with the support of more moderate parties (such as al-Ghad and the Nasserites) on their lists, the Brotherhood’s traditional support base alone will not be enough to translate into a majority of seats in Parliament. This is due to the fact that Egyptian society is overall becoming increasingly moderate in its ideological orientation. Fear of the Brotherhood and other Islamists was originally manufactured by Mubarak to hold onto power amidst growing calls from a US administration pushing for democratic reform, but now this fear has become real and widespread in the Egyptian street, and many citizens are genuinely concerned about the extent to which the Brotherhood might mix religion with politics in the new system.

Many Muslims carry the same view: We do not want our religion dictated to us. Although fears of an “Islamist takeover” cannot easily be reconciled with the relatively moderate proposals outlined by Freedom and Justice Party’s manifesto – calling for a civil state, and democratic partnership with all political powers – anxiety about the Brotherhood’s political intentions appears to have shifted the majority of moderate Muslims toward the path of more centrist parties such as al-Wasat , Eladl, and the old, comfortable Wafd.

Whilst other parties remain crippled by their own fears of the Islamists, the Brotherhood continues to fail in capitalizing on the weaknesses of its competitors. Two weeks before the start of parliamentary elections, if you ask most Egyptians about the Freedom and Justice Party, the answer you’ll most likely get is: “Who?...” Others will simply confuse it with many of the new parties emerging using similar names, such as the Eladl Party and the Freedom Party, to name but a few.  If the party continues to struggle with branding and name recognition on the campaign trail, those who fear a Brotherhood victory will probably be relieved by the election results. 

Photo Credit: The Egypt Report

Egypt campaign banner

Parties and movements are divided on whether or not to participate in a protest planned for November 18 to demand a swift transfer of power to civilian leadership and reject the supra-constitutional principles. The Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance and most major Islamist forces including the Salafi Nour Party have issued statements rejecting the principles, but Tagammu’ is backing the principles and the Wafd has yet to announce its official position. 

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Voting in November 2010 parliamentary elections

In two weeks, Egyptians are expected to turn out in unprecedented numbers for the country’s first ostensibly free and fair elections.  But while Egypt’s rapidly proliferating parties are enthusiastically campaigning for seats in the post-Mubarak parliament, recent changes to the electoral system may have troubling implications for the political diversity and legitimacy of the next elected People’s Assembly. Under growing pressure from new political parties that fear exclusion from a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and resurgent NDP remnants, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has made several rounds of revisions to the electoral system in recent months, including the geographic expansion of voting districts.  While it is impossible to predict what impact these changes might have on the election results, the amendments have only added to the confusion surrounding an already complex and opaque electoral system and could disadvantage candidates from smaller parties that lack the resources to compete effectively against wealthier rivals in larger, more populous districts.

Although Egypt’s political scene is more diverse than ever – at least fifty-five new parties have formed since the revolution – most of these nascent political forces are likely be shut out of next political system in the face of stiff competition from the Muslim Brotherhood and NDP remnants. Ten months after the revolution, Egyptians are finally on the verge of electing a civilian government, but there is no guarantee that November elections will produce the genuinely representative leadership that was envisioned by protesters in Tahrir Square.

Quick Facts about the Current Electoral System:

  • Available seats: Candidates will compete for 498 seats in the People’s Assembly (lower house) and 270 seats in the Shura Council (upper house). The SCAF will appoint up to 10 additional members of the People’s Assembly and 90 members of the Shura Council.
  • Timeline: Polling for the People’s Assembly will be conducted in three stages, starting on November 28 and ending on January 10. Shura Council elections will run from January 29 through March 11.
  • Candidates and parties: At least 15,000 candidates have registered for the People’s Assembly and Shura Council elections, both as independents and as party-based nominees. Over 55 political parties have registered for elections, at least 35 of which were formed after the January uprising. 
  • Electoral system design: Mixed system for both the People’s Assembly and Shura Council in which two thirds of the seats will be allocated through a list-based proportional representation system and one third through a majoritarian individual candidacy system. Both independents and party-based nominees may compete for the individual candidacy seats.
  • Farmers/workers quota: At least 50 percent of all People’s Assembly and Shura Council members must be farmers or workers.
  • Women’s quota:  There must be at least one female candidate on each party’s list for a given district. This requirement has replaced the Mubarak-era gender quota that reserved approximately 12 percent   of the parliamentary seats for women. 

The Pre-revolutionary Electoral System:

Much of the pre-revolutionary electoral system outlined in the now-defunct 1971 Constitution remains intact, although significant changes have been introduced that may impact the representation of women, religious minorities and minor political parties. Under the voting system that was in place for the last round of parliamentary elections in November 2010, 508 of the 518 seats were filled through two rounds of voting in two-member districts through a majoritarian individual candidacy system, with the remaining ten seats filled by presidential appointees. In 2010, the NDP also introduced a 64-seat quota for female representatives. Although this decision was hailed by international observers as a victory for women’s rights, it was primarily motivated by the ruling party’s desire to further consolidate an already overwhelming parliamentary majority by padding the People’s Assembly with female NDP loyalists. The 1971 Constitution also reserved fifty percent of the People’s Assembly seats for workers and farmers, a relic of the Nasser system that has been preserved in the current electoral system.

Timeline of Electoral Law Amendments:

  • May 30, 2011: A new draft electoral law introduced by the SCAF in May 2011 outlined a hybrid system in which two thirds of the People’s Assembly seats would be filled according to the existing two-member district, individual candidacy system (preserving the fifty percent quota for farmers and workers), while the remaining third of seats would be allocated through a closed-list proportional representation system.  New and liberal political parties immediately criticized the draft, claiming that the individual candidacy system had facilitated ballot fraud and voter intimidation under Mubarak’s rule and would likely give an unfair advantage to independent candidates affiliated with the NDP.
  • July 7, 2011: The interim government approved additional amendments to the People’s Assembly Law and Shura Council Law setting the number of seats in the People’s Assembly at 504 and the number of Shura Council seats at 390. Most importantly, the revisions restructured the electoral system in response to widespread criticism of the individual candidacy component. Under the revised law, 50 percent of the seats would be allocated through the proportional representation system while the remaining 50 percent would be allocated through the individual candidacy system.
  • September 25, 2011: A new round of amendments introduced in September 2011 significantly altered the structure of the system again, in an attempt to accommodate smaller and secular parties that feared a sweeping victory by former NDP candidates in races contested through the individual candidacy system. Under the latest amendments, only a third of the seats would be allocated through the individual candidacy system, while two thirds would be decided by the proportional representation system. Despite the reduction in individual candidacy seats, most parties continued to criticize the electoral law and Article 5 in particular, which barred political parties from fielding candidates for the third of seats to be allocated through the individual candidacy system. The two most powerful electoral coalitions, the Egyptian Bloc and the Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance, both rejected the amendments, claiming that Article 5 would marginalize parties and open the door for NDP-affiliated candidates to sweep the seats reserved for independents.
  • October 9, 2011: After the Democratic Alliance and several other parties threatened to boycott the elections, the interim government agreed to remove the controversial Article 5 from the electoral law, allowing parties to compete in the individual candidacy races.

Potential Consequences of the Electoral System:

Given this rapid succession of amendments, voters are parties are struggling to keep up with the evolution of an opaque and highly complex electoral law. With just two weeks remaining before the start of elections on November 28, criticism of the electoral law remains widespread, and voters fear that the system will not only allow NDP remnants to gain a foothold in the next parliament, but will also marginalize minority and female candidates. The current design of the electoral system could lead to several adverse outcomes:

  • NDP bias: The latest amendments to the electoral law leave open a window of opportunity for former NDP candidates -- most of whom are running as independents --  to dominate the individual candidacy races in districts where the former ruling party's patronage networks and power base are still intact, even though the elimination of Article 5 has opened the 83 individual-candidate seats to contestation by parties as well as independents. Although an administrative court in Mansoura issued a decision on November 11 banning former NDP members from competing in the upcoming elections, the ruling is geographically limited in scope -- applying only to the governorate of Dakhaliya -- and the mechanisms for enforcement remain unclear. Meanwhile, other courts have been sympathetic to the NDP: On November 13, an Alexandria judge threw out a case seeking to ban former NDP member Tarek Talaat Mustafa from competing in elections on and upheld his right to run for parliament.
  • Marginalizing women and minorities: In races determined by proportional representation, female and minority candidates are inevitably placed low on party lists, virtually guaranteeing their defeat. The removal of the 64-seat quota for women has further disadvantaged female candidates. 
  • Security challenges: Under the highly complex electoral system, elections will be dragged out over a period of three and a half months in three separate stages, posing a daunting administrative challenge to the judiciary body (Higher Electoral Commission) responsible for supervising elections as well as the security forces tasked with maintaining order. The individual candidacy system has historically been criticized for encouraging violence, as it leads to highly personalized contests in which independent candidates could resort to hiring thugs or other dangerous strategies to intimidate rivals. Another factor increasing the likelihood of violence and misconduct at polling stations is the large size and diversity of electoral districts, which were reconfigured in the round of amendments issued in September 2011. The redistricting process significantly decreased the number of constituencies from 222 to 126 for the individual candidacy races, with 58 constituencies reserved for the proportional representation system, at least doubling the geographical size and number of voters for each district. By increasing the volume and diversity of voters at individual polling stations, the enlarged districts will likely lead to intensified competition and even violence between rival political forces.
  • Campaign spending:  The creation of larger, more populous districts will require candidates to spend more money on campaigning and voter outreach, giving a significant advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood and former NDP candidates who possess the resources and patronage networks to mobilize voters. Smaller parties that lack deep pockets and well-established constituencies will have difficulty competing in an electoral system that favors the wealthiest candidates.
  • Pitting Islamists against Secularists:  The structure of the electoral system is likely to intensify polarization between Islamist and secular political forces, as the weaker parties in each camp are forced to form ideological alliances in order to run viable campaigns in enlarged districts that require increased spending and voter outreach efforts. Egyptian political scientist Mazen Hassan predicts that the Muslim Brotherhood will be the primary beneficiary of this polarization trend, as individual candidates will not be able to win in larger, more populous districts solely on the basis of their popularity and personal networks without the backing of the Brotherhood or another party with the resources and campaign apparatus to support multiple candidates.

Whether these factors will conspire to undermine a clean and transparent polling process remains to be seen, but the complexity of the electoral system certainly will not make a successful democratic transition any easier.

Freedom and Justice Party rally

Islamist groups including al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya threatened to bus in supporters from across the country to Tahrir Square for an open-ended sit-in starting Friday, November 18, to protest the draft constitutional principles issued by Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy last week. Meanwhile, Egyptian expatriates began the online voter registration process on November 9 through the High Election Judicial Commission website. Egypt’s economy remains under heavy strain, with the unemployment rate rising to 11.9 percent for the third quarter of 2011 compared to 8.9 percent during the same quarter in 2010. 

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Bassem Youssef Interview

While some seek to achieve political change through protests and elections, Egyptian YouTube sensation Bassem Youssef is determined to transform Egypt’s political landscape with comedy.

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