Us-egyptian Relations since the Arab Spring: Balancing Interests and Values By Dr. Vaughn P. Shannon, Ph. D



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US-Egyptian Relations since the Arab Spring:

Balancing Interests and Values

By 


 Dr. Vaughn P. Shannon, Ph.D

Associate Professor of Political Science

Wright State University

 and


Joshua Cummins, M.A.

CENTCOM - Middle East/Central Asia Research Assistant

Lockheed Martin, Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management

 Any opinions, analysis, recommendations, or conclusions should be attributed to the author(s), and is not necessarily the view of DISAM, DSCA, DoD, or the USG



Introduction

            The United States (U.S.) has had an important strategic relationship with Egypt since the Camp David Accords of 1978.  As a bulwark against Soviet expansionism during the Cold War, the guarantor of safe passage through the Suez Canal, and signatory to Arab-Israeli peace on Israel’s western front, Egypt brought many advantages as a friendly power to the U.S.

            That friendship had its price, of course. From 1979 until the Iraq War, Egypt was the number two recipient of annual American military and economic aid, behind Israel. Egypt receives $1-2 billion annually, part of the price of sealing peace after the Camp David Accords (the same reason Israel is the #1 recipient since 1979).  Naturally, Security Cooperation (SC) relations between the U.S. and Egypt have become among the most important in the region over the past 30 years.

            Another price of this geo-political bargain was working with a notably autocratic Egyptian state.  Like the Shah of Iran, Egypt kept politics from being radical and anti-American, but at a price of repression that challenged U.S. espoused values of democracy and human rights.       This uncomfortable relationship between interests and values was brought into stark relief with the Arab Spring of 2011.  The regime of Hosni Mubarak was ended, bringing with it the possibility of democratic hopes and security fears.  Whatever the hopes and expectations of managed transition to a democratic Egypt after Mubarak, the United States confronted successive uncomfortable realities, including the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as power brokers in the new regime and the 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military.  At each of these stages of the Arab Spring, the United States has had to ponder the balance of interests and values.

This article examines the politics behind this balance, and the implications of the new military regime for U.S. relations with Egypt and the broader Middle East.  Security Cooperation Officers (SCO) working with Egyptians should be aware of the context for the continuing relationship that includes a government that came (back) to power in an anti-democratic coup and the marginalized and radicalized portion of Egypt who may turn its ire not just against the new military regime but the superpower that continues to supply it.

Interests and Values in U.S. Foreign Policy

The government of the United States, like all countries, pursues its national security interests while trying to satisfy domestic pressures and maintain legitimacy among its public.  Like other democracies, the sensitivity to domestic interest groups, electoral politics, and opposition parties is particularly acute.  The U.S. system is “open” and “society-dominated,” making U.S. policy exposed to various voices and influences (Risse-Kappen, 1994).

One societal influence on U.S. foreign policy is the cultural notion of exceptionalism. Americans have thought themselves to be special, different, above the fray of “normal” selfish world politics.  The U.S. defends values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights. For example, Woodrow Wilson took the U.S. into World War I to make the world “safe for democracy,” refusing to join Britain and France as formal allies so as not to be tainted by the imperial ambitions and aims of those countries.  The self-image of Americans is to be on the side of “right,” not just “might,” and this constrains foreign policy choices in ways that can confound and frustrate allies, as the above example shows.

However, exceptionalism in American attitudes and culture does not translate to a purely noble foreign policy.  The U.S. is a normal superpower, driven by power, security, and self-interest.  So the distinction of American policy is not that it “acts better” but that it has to be better and justify its actions in ethical frameworks.  Sam Huntington (1982) portrayed this struggle between interests and “the American Creed” as an exercise of “national cognitive dissonance,” saying “Americans have never been able to live up to their ideals” but “they have also been unable to abandon them.”  The result, then, is a foreign policy that can appear contradictory, inconsistent, almost at war with itself.  At best, US policy is nuanced and complex, and at worst, it undermines unity and coherence in purpose and strategy and allied confidence in the commitment of American support.

Take the Arab Spring for example.  American values naturally side with protesters against autocracy in the call for freedom and democracy.  The U.S. wanted to show it was on the right side of history, promoting freedom and human rights and showing the Arab world we were not ruthless and hypocritical supporters of authoritarianism.  Three of the four leaders to exit the Middle East stage, though – Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, and Saleh of Yemen – were explicit American allies. In the previous decade, the U.S. had even begun a thaw in relations with the fourth ousted ruler, Muamar Qadaffi of Libya, who turned in their WMD programs in exchange for normalized relations.

But the United States has not consistently pressed for freedom and change, partly because of power competition with Russia and China in places like Syria, and partly because frustrated allies in the region have drawn a line, as in the case of the Saudis shielding Bahrain’s regime against opposition uprisings there.  For the Saudis and other Gulf monarchs, American “values” are a threat to the regimes and to stability in a region the U.S. deems strategically vital.

It is this paradox in American foreign policy, that we are “damned if we do” support democracy, and “damned if we don’t” by propping up and aiding authoritarian states, that leads to a complicated policy that not only confuses outsiders, but raises fears of conspiracy and rife within Middle East political culture (Pipes, 1998).  Uncertainty of American intentions may lead Arab allies to seek security elsewhere, such as China or Russia, both of whom have recently sold arms to the Saudis and Egyptians respectively.

What does this mean for U.S.-Egyptian relations? Below we expand on these themes in the case of the U.S. response to the Arab Spring in Egypt.



The Way Things Were: US-Egyptian Relations, 1979-2010

Egypt has long been a strategic ally of the United States. However, this was not always the case.  In the 1950s, during the rule of Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt formed a close partnership with the Soviet Union (Weinbaum, 1985).  Nasser was succeeded by Anwar El Sadat in 1970, and Sadat was more open to building a relationship with the United States. This culminated with the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978, and Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel.  This also led to a mutually beneficial relationship between Egypt and the United States, which has made Egypt the second largest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid since 1979, only behind Israel.

The Camp David negotiations, which resulted in a peace treaty signed by Prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat on March 26, 1979, ushered in a new era in the Arab-Israeli dispute and U.S.-Egyptian relations (Quandt, 1986).  The negotiation process set the stage for an official peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979.  The Camp David Accords was a victory for American values and interests as it secured a U.S. partner in Egypt and made progress on the Arab-Israeli issue.  Even though this event was seen as hugely successful in the United States, many in Egypt and the Arab world viewed the Camp David Accords and subsequent peace treaty as a failure because it overlooked the Palestinian issue (Quandt, 1986).

The United States provided Egypt with an annual average of $2 billion in economic and military assistance since 1979, including Economic Support Funds (ESF), Foreign Military Financing (FMF), Nonproliferation, Anti-terrorism, Demining, and Related Program (NADR), and International Military Education and Training (IMET) (Sharp, 2009).  Annual aid to Egypt and Israel make up nearly 43 percent of the entire foreign assistance budget (Clarke, 1997).  U.S. funding to Egypt helped upgrade its aging Soviet military hardware, as well as modernize the country’s infrastructure (Sharp, 2009).  However, Sadat did not live long enough to reap the full benefits of his relationship with the United States, having been assassinated October 6, 1981, and succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak.

Under Mubarak, Egypt maintained a close relationship with the U.S. throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  This included bi-annual joint military exercises beginning in 1983, and also led to Egypt being a strategic partner in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (Clarke, 1997).  The Council on Foreign Relations writes, “During the Gulf War, Egypt’s support was central to Arab participation in the war against Iraq; Egypt’s willingness to keep open its canal in crisis and allow overflight and refueling cannot be taken for granted” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2002, p. 1). Through the Office of Military Cooperation in Cairo, U.S. delivery of security assistance and defense cooperation were cemented in the post-Cold War era (Davison, 1994).

The security environment after September 11, 2001, strained U.S. relations with Egypt somewhat.  The balance between interests and values came into play once more as the Bush Administration began to pressure Egypt and other regional authoritarian allies to make political reforms toward democratization under the “Freedom Agenda.”  These demands were not welcomed by Mubarak’s regime (Sharp, 2005; Brownlee 2012).  Egypt also displeased the Bush Administration when it refused to send troops to Afghanistan or Iraq in 2001 and 2003 (Brownlee, 2012).  In 2008, members of the U.S. Congress began to discuss cutting some aid to Egypt as a result of human rights violations, religious freedom, and women’s rights, which are contrary to U.S. values (Sharp, 2009).  However, under Mubarak’s rule, Egypt remained a close ally to the U.S. for strategic and counterterrorism purposes until February of 2011.



US-Egyptian Relations in the Arab Spring, 2011-2014

Four distinct phases define U.S.-Egyptian relations since 2011: (1) the revolt against Mubarak in January-February 2011, (2) the transitional phase 2011-2012, (3) the phase of President Mohammad Morsi, 2012-2013, and (4) the new phase of military rule since July 2013.



Phase 1: The People versus Hosni Mubarak, January-February 2011

The first challenge for the Obama Administration was how to respond to popular revolt in allied authoritarian countries in the Middle East.  This became a balance of interests vs. values as the US weighed calls for democracy against having a stable regional ally in Hosni Mubarak.

Inspired by events in Tunisia, protesters took to the streets of Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 25, 2011, demanding reform.  The protesters called for an end to injustice, corruption, substandard economic conditions, and ultimately for the removal of President, Hosni Mubarak (Hellyer, 2011).  There was a combination of causes that led to the eruption of protests in January of 2011.  The first cause was the unstable economic conditions and the growing gap between the poor and the wealthy in Egypt (International Crisis Group, 2011).  The Egyptian people found it increasingly hard to make a living, which they blamed on a growing sense of corruption in their government.  To add to this sentiment, the November 2010 elections were largely perceived as fraudulent, in which “the widely reported rigging, thuggery and subsequent boycotts of the election resulted in a parliament in effect without an opposition” (International Crisis Group, 2011, p. 2).

When protests inflamed in Tunisia in December of 2010, it created the perfect storm.  The sudden fall of Tunisian President, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, proved to the Egyptian public that their protests could succeed.  Lynch (2012) writes, “The televised Tunisian miracle is what galvanized Egyptians and convinced them that they too could hope for real change” (p.88). A mass protest was organized and executed on January 25, 2011.  What began as a thousand protesters quickly grew to tens of thousands. The protesters were not deterred when security forces met them in the streets with rubber bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades.  When the police could not stop the protesters, the Mubarak regime shut down access to the internet in an attempt to sever communication.  However, instead of thwarting the protests, this only added momentum. Violence soon erupted between the police, Mubarak’s supporters, and protesters (Lynch, 2012).  In the coming days, the protests continued to grow, and by January 29 the Muslim Brotherhood announced its full support of the movement (International Crisis Group, 2011).  The police forces were quickly removed and the Egyptian military was deployed, but vowed not to shoot at civilians.

When the Egyptian military did not stop the protests, it became a turning point in the movement, which spelled the end for the Mubarak regime.  Lynch (2012) writes, “Once Mubarak lost the military, the real focus shifted to the political bargaining and brinksmanship among the protestors, the military, the Mubarak regime, and international actors (primarily the United States)” (p. 92-93).  Mubarak tried to quell the protests by announcing reforms and stating that he would not run again in the September 2011 elections, but the protesters were not impressed.

On the same day, February 1, 2011, President Obama called for Mubarak to step down, which shocked other American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Jordan.  The U.S. decision to side with the protesters proved the U.S. would stand up for the values of freedom that Obama espoused in his famous 2009 Cairo speech.  For the next several days, Mubarak did not heed President Obama’s calls to step down.  Pro-regime “thugs” violently engaged the protesters in the streets of Cairo, but the revolutionaries were not deterred (Lynch, 2012).  The Obama Administration continued to apply pressure to the Mubarak government, and Mubarak continued to stubbornly refuse.  Finally, on February 11, 2011, newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, announced that Mubarak had finally stepped down and transferred his powers to the military (Soueif, 2014).



Phase 2: Managed Transition, February 2011- 2012

After Mubarak resigned, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that it would be overseeing Egypt’s transition to democracy.  The United States attempted to assist in this transition by allocating an increase in ESF in order to boost Egypt’s economy. Sharp (2014) writes, “In the weeks following Mubarak’s resignation, the Obama Administration reprogrammed $165 million in already-appropriated ESF for support to Egypt’s economy ($100 million) and political transition ($65 million)” ( p. 30).  The military quickly announced that it had dissolved the parliament and suspended the constitution (BBC News, 2011).  The SCAF proclaimed that Egyptians would soon be able to vote on a new constitution, a new parliament, and a new president (International Crisis Group, 2011).

The first vote came in March of 2011, when Egyptians considered the constitutional amendments.  Turnout was not as expected, with many of the opposition boycotting the vote, but the amendments were passed with over 70% approval (Hellyer, 2011).  However, a large portion of the opposition still criticized the amendments, arguing that they continued to grant the president too much power (Aljazeera, 2011).  Even after the constitution had been revised, many Egyptians were not satisfied and took to the streets to protest the military rule (New York Times, 2011).  Violence continued to erupt during the summer of 2011 as security forces clashed with protesters.  Despite reported human rights abuses during this time, the U.S. maintained a close security cooperation relationship with the transitional government (Sharp, 2014). American tear gas canisters were found being used against protesters by the SCAF, which only added to the resentment by the opposition movement toward the United States.

At the time of the constitutional amendment vote there became an obvious rift in what was the anti-Mubarak movement.  Many of the liberal democratic seeking protesters urged Egyptians to vote “no” on the amendments because they did not achieve enough, while the Muslim Brotherhood pressed its supporters to vote “yes”.  Hellyer (2011) writes, “The Muslim Brotherhood decided that now was the time to attempt to consolidate its position as a key player in Egyptian politics. It managed to alienate most other groups fairly quickly, beginning with the constitutional referendum” (p. 1317).  Liberal opposition groups wanted time to form political parties and wanted a completely new constitution.  They saw the Muslim Brotherhood as making deals with the military to quickly grab power before the opposition could organize (Chatham House, 2011).

 Parliamentary elections began in November of 2011, and despite opposition boycotts, there was a large turnout.  Maha Azzam (2012, p.4) writes, “Although the process was long and convoluted, the elections were acknowledged to be free and fair by the vast majority of observers.”  As expected, the Muslim Brotherhood received the majority of votes and a large electoral win.  The Muslim Brotherhood would ride this parliamentary momentum into the presidential elections in May and June of 2012.  Many of the liberal opposition groups were displeased with the presidential election because they saw it as a Muslim Brotherhood candidate running against a Mubarak – regime candidate, reinforcing their concerns over a secret deal between the Brotherhood and the SCAF (Azzam, 2012).  In a close election, with 51.7% of the vote, Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, became Egypt’s next president.  

Phase 3: Democracy and the Brotherhood, 2012-July 2013

The Muslim Brotherhood was simply the most organized body in the Egyptian politic, with roots deep and wide dating back to the 1920s.  The Muslim Brotherhood was found by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 within a colonial context, in opposition to the British-installed and supported government under “protectorate” status (Mura, 2012).  Its popularity continued to grow until it was banned by Nasser in 1954 after an assassination attempt (Ezzat, 2011).  After the crackdown by Nasser, the Brotherhood went underground for decades developing a vast network of charities and social services (Vidino, 2013).  It continued to gain popularity and was able to return to the political scene, running its candidates as independents, in the 2000 and 2005 parliamentary elections (Otterman, 2005).  However, Mubarak once again cracked down on the brotherhood in 2008 and 2009, jailing key members and banning independent candidates from running in elections (Trofimov, 2009).  The Brotherhood once again stepped back from the limelight.

Even when the anti-Mubarak movement started in early 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was not among the early protesters in Tahrir Square (Shenker & Whitaker, 2011).  However, its members soon saw political opportunities in what started as a liberal call for democracy, and the Brotherhood joined the calls for Mubarak to leave.  After the toppling of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was officially legalized, and it soon achieved its ultimate goal with the ascendancy of Mohammed Morsi (BBC News, 2011).  The United States retained its close relationship with Egypt through the transfer of power from the SCAF to President Morsi.  President Obama praised President Morsi for negotiating a cease fire between Israel and Hamas in November of 2012 (Birnbaum, 2012).  The U.S. also went forward on its ESF package of $190 Million to Egypt in March of 2013 (Sharp, 2014).

However, as members of the Brotherhood celebrated in the streets of Cairo in June of 2012, the youth activists who began the January 25 Revolution remained skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood’s true intentions.  Egyptian author, Ahdaf Soueif, writes, “We were in the terrible position of having to choose a president who was either a MB (Muslim Brotherhood) candidate or a military remnant of the Mubarak regime” (Soueif, 2014).  Their suspicions were realized in November of 2012 when President Morsi assumed authoritarian-like powers.  Morsi made himself and his decrees untouchable by Egyptian laws and judicial review (Birnbaum, 2012).  Opposition leader, Mohammed El Baradei, accused Morsi of acting like a “new pharaoh” and taking more powers than Mubarak had ever held (BBC News, 2012).  The power grab was condemned by both Freedom House and Human Rights Watch as a violation of human rights (Freedom House, 2012) (Human Rights Watch, 2012).  Thousands of protesters soon hit the streets clashing with Morsi supporters and riot police in Tahrir Square (Fahim & Kirkpatrick).  Richard Spencer writes, “Protesters describe Mr. Morsi as ‘Egypt’s new pharaoh’ and said his declaration on Thursday night was a ‘constitutional coup’ (Spencer, 2012).  The United States expressed concern over Morsi’s decree, but the Obama Administration refused to overly criticize the Egyptian president (Fahim & Kirkpatrick, 2012).  This once again became a balance of interests and values for the Obama Administration as the situation in Egypt deteriorated.

Protests intensified in the coming months as divisions within the Egyptian population became more apparent.  Hamza Hendawi (2013) writes, “Egypt has become increasingly divided between two camps, with President Mohammed Morsi and Islamist allies on one side and an opposition made up of moderate Muslims, Christians and liberals on the other, a schism essentially over the country's political future after decades of dictatorship” (p. 2).  By June 2013, Cairo once again erupted in protests, which some argued were larger than the protests to depose Mubarak in 2011 (Soueif, 2014).  It was a coalition of liberal revolutionaries, moderate Muslims, Christians, remnants from the Mubarak regime, and even police officers who on June 30, 2013 called for the military to step in and depose Morsi (Souief, 2014, p. 224).  On July 3, 2013, the military answered the calls and intervened, thus removing Morsi and reclaiming power in Egypt (Kirkpatrick, 2013).

Phase 4: Back to the Future:  Military Transitional Rule, July 2013-present

            Back to square one, the military was in control, the Muslim Brotherhood was driven underground and branded terrorists, and the rest of the Egyptian people were forced to pick a side or accept the return of the status quo ante.  An important question presented itself: can the United States support the Egyptian powers th

that removed a democratically elected government in Cairo?  The 1974 Trade Act stipulates consideration of human rights in financial dealings with other countries, to be determined by the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs (Management of Security Cooperation, 32nd edition, pp. 16-7).  More specifically, Section 7008 of Public Law 112-74, the most recent foreign operations appropriations act, states “none of the funds appropriated…shall be obligated or expended to...the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat…in which the military plays a decisive role” (Sharp 2014, p. 33).  This sounds like the situation in Egypt, in which case aid to Egypt would have to be cut not just in principle but principle enshrined in law.

            Of course, the matter is who determines what a coup is, and whether events in Egypt constitute a coup.  The Obama Administration’s position on this matter has been a delicate, or certainly interesting, dance.  Upon a review of circumstances, the U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki claimed July 26, 2013, that the “law does not require us to make a formal determination...as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination” (Sharp 2014, p. 34).  In other words, no authority is demanded or granted to call it a coup, so the law need not necessarily apply.

            This does not mean, however, that the United States has given the new Egyptian government a free pass in the name of national interests.  Balancing principles, the U.S. has consistently called for the return of “democratically elected civilian government” (Sharp 2014, p. 34).  The U.S. suspended the delivery of four F-16s in July, and after a brutal and bloody crackdown on protests in August, the Obama Administration suspended U.S. participation in scheduled military exercises with Egypt (Operation Bright Star).  In September and October, the administration followed up with freezes in aid and equipment delivery, “pending credible progress toward and inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections” (Sharp 2014, pp. 34-35; “In Crackdown Response, US Temporarily Freezes Some Military Aid to Egypt.” New York Times, 2013).

            One would think such course was a prudent, principled stand to nudge Egypt back toward democracy, but there is a danger.  The new (old) regime, consolidating power and fighting domestic instability and economic woes at the same time, has the option of looking for alternative sellers.  If the U.S. pushes its case too hard, relations with Egypt could be pushed to the brink and 35 years of strategic stability lost.  Some sign of this possibility is in Russia’s February 2014 arms sale to Egypt.  A Russian pledge of $2 billion in arms, including the sale of MIG fighters, emphasizes the substitutability of American hardware and cooperation, threatening to give Moscow new inroads with their former Cold War ally.  Notably, Russia simultaneously endorsed the military government and its likely frontrunner for President, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. (USA Today, February 13, 2014).  The U.S. downplayed the episode and continues to assert “shared interests” with Egypt, but that in itself reveals the complicated nature of balancing interests and values in the case of Egypt (Nasser, 2014).



Conclusion: Where To Go From Here

            Instability continues to define Egypt, perhaps more-so since the ouster of the Morsi government and the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood.  On the third anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings against Mubarak, three separate bombings hit Cairo.  The January 2014 attacks included a suicide bombing at the Cairo Security Directorate, and two others aimed at police vehicles and a police station.  A group called the Partisans of Jerusalem (Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) took credit for the attacks, as well as a previous bombing in December 2013 that killed sixteen police and injured a hundred others.

In February, the interim Egyptian Government of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi suddenly resigned, some say to provide cover for current Defense Minister General Sisi to run for President, a candidacy Sisi announced late March 2014 (Kirkpatrick 2014).  The announcement came amid a number of strikes over the past few days by public transport and textile workers, doctors, and garbage collectors.  Beblawi acknowledged the sharp increase in strikes, but claimed no government could address all the demands of its people in such a short amount of time.  He said the government "made every effort to get Egypt out of the narrow tunnel in terms of security, economic pressures, and political confusion" (Kingsley, February 24, 2014). 

Whether the next elections are real or rigged, boycotted or not, Egypt will be dealing with months, if not years, of turbulence as a result of the 2013 ouster of Morsi and the banishing of the Muslim Brotherhood from legitimate politics.  Having labeled them as terrorists, some are responding with terrorism, while others simmer in discontent under the pressures of economic turmoil and political oppression.  The United States will continue to dance the line between interests and values, leaving American emissaries in Security Assistance Management in the position of representing this complex set of ideals driving American foreign policy.  It is not a new game necessarily, since it defined US-Egyptian relations from 1979-2011, but it is newly complicated by the post-Arab Spring world in which democratic yearning coexists openly with radical Islamist groups and traditions of military authoritarianism. 

 About the Authors

Dr. Vaughn Shannon is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wright State University. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio State in 2001, and specializes in international security, political psychology, and Middle East politics.

Joshua Cummins is a government contractor working as the CENTCOM-Middle East/Central Asia Seminar research assistant at DISAM. He received a Master’s in International and Comparative Politics from Wright State University in 2012. He completed his Master’s thesis on Middle Eastern public opinion, and his other research interests include Middle Eastern politics, US foreign policy, and Middle Eastern history. 

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