The Salafist Winter:  Aiding Post-Conflict Statebuilding in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya


Policy Paper

by Hrach Gregorian
CDFAI Senior Fellow 
July, 2013


Table of Contents

Executive Summary

n the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are confronted with major structural adjustment challenges that cannot be solved without the help of regional and international donors and private investment. After decades of one-man rule, their economies are in tatters, political institutions are fragile, civic society is underdeveloped, and security has yet to be firmly established. Progressive minded secularists are engaged in an uneven battle with conservative Islamists intent on consolidating power. The situation in all three countries is fluid, dynamic and dangerous. Violence is never far from the surface, and when it flares up regimes are shaken and unable to mount an effective response. These close neighbours are entering new territory with an untested leadership and with an administrative apparatus sorely in need of technical assistance. Only Libya possesses sufficient natural resource wealth that properly managed can help it recover without international financial assistance. The military takeover in Egypt has quieted the street for the moment, it remains to be seen if in its aftermath the country can be put on a sounder political and economic footing. Like Egypt, Tunisia requires substantial foreign aid and investment to right its economy. Security, education, employment, all must figure prominently in national development strategies. Support for secularist parties is essential to balance political power and to avoid the rise of religious tyranny. In all cases, international actors should be supportive of locally generated solutions, and highly attentive to sensitivities about foreign intervention. Outside engagement should be broad-based, and include regional intergovernmental organizations such as the Arab League. Such engagement must be sustained over a sufficient period of time to increase the likelihood that there will not be political and economic backsliding.



The Arab Spring, sparked by a single match in winter, now enters its winter of discontent.1 Actually, its second winter. It will take skill and patience on the part of champions of democracy and human rights, within the Maghreb and Egypt as well as among friends abroad, if the excesses of a Thermidorian reaction are to be avoided. Signs from Egypt are worrying.2 This is an uphill battle against determined foes of the open society intent on consolidating power, whether under the banner of Islam or the heel of jackboots. But it can be won through persistence, a long view and a clear-sighted understanding of key leverage points.

Change has come to many parts of the Arab world at a dizzying pace since the fateful day in December 2010 when a humiliated young Tunisian vendor, Mohamed Bouaziz,3 set himself ablaze in a supreme act of desperation. An ensuing shock wave of political resistance would be felt in Libya, Egypt and other points along the Arab crescent.4 Very few could have predicted, even so late in the day, that shortly after Bouaziz’s death, the second of only two men to have ruled Tunisia since independence would be sent packing. Nor that a similar drama would unfold on the Nile, causing the great house of Mubarak to be vacated.5 The Libyan kleptocracy was brought down some months later, through what was characterized as a heroic liberation struggle, aided by NATO-fired smart bombs.6 Regimes as close as Algeria and as distant as the Persian Gulf kingdoms scrambled to fashion unimaginative strategies for self-preservation. They dusted off a timeworn formula of economic largess and strong-arm tactics, with an added dash of largely empty political concessions. Levels of violence in the region generally tracked with how much a regime could afford to pay for peace.7

What follows is a short overview of developments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya since the 2011 revolts. Our objective is to take stock of the roiling, sometimes unhappy, recent history of transition in these counties. We consider steps that might be taken to reinforce the impulse toward a transformative and more enduring political dispensation. These are dangerous times. As one expert reader commented on an earlier draft of this paper, there is a growing crisis of legitimacy in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, especially now that revolutionary fervor is waning and aspirations for a brighter future are at the rock-face of Islamist political control and worsening economic conditions.


Egypt: So Islam is Not the Solution?

During the reign of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood worked diligently to project the humane face of Egyptian society, engaged in an uneven struggle with an autocratic regime that gave no quarter in matters of power.8 A professed champion of the poor and disenfranchised, regardless of faith, the Brotherhood’s banned, if tolerated, status did not prevent the emergence of its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) as the best-organized and most influential of the opposition forces that were grudgingly countenanced.9 It was not a complete surprise, then, that the Brotherhood quickly and effectively filled the power vacuum created by the swift fall of Mubarak. More surprising, perhaps, was the fact that the caretaker Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) allowed a new parliament to be seated. It was dominated by Islamists, some 25 per cent of whom were to the right of the Brotherhood.10 This process culminated in June 2012 with the presidential nod going to an unassuming, U.S.-trained FJP standard-bearer, Mohamed Morsi, in what by all accounts was the country’s first free and fair presidential election.11

During the short tenure of the Morsi regime, Egypt was gripped by a series of political and economic crises. In some cases, Morsi astutely capitalized on opportunities to tighten his grip on power. Such was the case in August 2012, when gunmen killed 15 soldiers at an army checkpoint in the Sinai. That tragedy allowed Morsi to force powerful Mubarak-era generals into retirement, including long-serving Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Army Chiefof-Staff Sami Anan. He also nullified a previously enacted SCAF constitutional declaration limiting presidential powers.12 At other times, Morsi overplayed his hand, which steadily undermined his legitimacy, leading to mass demonstrations, street violence and fatalities. In November 2012, he issued a highly controversial decree that substantially increased his executive and legislative authority and granted him judicial immunity. At roughly the same time, he rammed through a constitution that important segments of the polity considered undemocratic.13 Popular resentment boiled over, with large anti-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said. Protesters attacked government buildings and burned down Brotherhood offices in cities throughout the country.14 Security personnel went on strike, and parliamentary elections were postponed. Some started calling for the military to step in to fill a perceived deficit in – or some say a complete absence of – effective governance.15 The Egyptian army answered their calls on July 3, one year into Morsi’s term.

Egypt’s long-suffering citizenry may have been more tolerant of the Morsi government were it not for the continuing deterioration of the economy. Especially hard hit was a core Brotherhood constituency: the poor. In just six months of FJP rule, internal debt increased to 120 billion Egyptian pounds (EGP), well over $18.2 billion CAD. In the same period, external debt rose to 42 billion EGP from 34 billion EGP.16 Unemployment increased and the economy grew at less than 2 per cent annually. Foreign direct investment all but disappeared as concerns mounted about the domestic business climate and the countless impediments to commercial activity. The country’s stock index plummeted to half its peak in 2008. Worst of all, there appeared no vision, no plan for a way out of the economic cul-de-sac that was threatening the stability of the state. Morsi and the Brotherhood had proved adept at winning elections, but they faced mounting challenges in efforts to govern effectively. This meant, foremost, getting the economy back on its feet.17 Morsi was hard pressed to maintain at least some continuity with past policies to retain patrons like the United States and international financial institutions such as the IMF. At the same time, he had to demonstrate to his base that he could affect improvements in livelihoods.18 He tried to woo back fugitive businessmen with legislation designed to settle financial disputes and launch overseas trade missions to attract investment. At the same time, he had to be careful not to be seen as too closely aligned with the so-called “fat cats,” whose profiteering and profligate lifestyles enraged the masses, particularly post-2004, when nominal economic liberalization produced breathtaking cases of crony capitalism.19 In the end, the contradictions proved impossible to reconcile.


Freedom Yes, But Tunisians Need Work

Although more moderate, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, like its Egyptian counterpart, is divided internally between accommodationists and hard-liners, modernizers and traditionalists.20 It must walk a fine line in its dealings with the body politic. This means balancing the demands for greater orthodoxy from dogmatic Salafis on its right with calls for political and economic liberalism by center-left non-Islamists. The non-Islamists already suspect Ennahda of being too cozy with religious conservatives, not unlike Egypt’s FJP. Also like its post-revolutionary neighbours, Tunisia is stuck in a half-way house, where power has yet to be truly consolidated, where the deeper aspirations of the revolution have yet to be realized and where a new national identity to guide state policy has yet to be forged. The structural issues that fed the revolution have not gone away; in many cases they have intensified. These include uneven development between affluent coastal cities and an impoverished interior; a lack of public services, especially for the poor; shortfalls in education, housing, health care, and security; continuing paucity of employment opportunities across the board; and an aloof, unresponsive administrative apparatus, which is most pronounced at the municipal level.21

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the political uncertainty of the moment and the deep fissures in Tunisian society than the February 6 assassination of Chokri Belaïd. A popular opposition figure, Belaïd publicly criticized Ennahda for doing too little to curb violence perpetrated by gangs of religious extremists, which earned him the enmity of conservatives and Islamists. Pro-labour and pro-democracy, a strong voice for progressive secularism, he expressed the concern of many that Islamists were hijacking the revolution. Crowds gathered in front of the Interior Ministry post-assassination, calling for the ouster of Ennahda. Rioting and tanks were again seen on the streets of Tunis. Prime Minister Hamadi al-Jabali announced the dissolution of the government and the appointment of an interim cabinet of apolitical technocrats to replace the Islamist-led coalition. Nevertheless, Belaïd’s Popular Front party withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly. On February 19, following the collapse of the interim cabinet plan, which was opposed by hard-liners in his party, Jabali resigned. Ennahda selected Ali Larayedh as the new prime minister, which unleashed a new wave of protests.22 As a concession to the opposition, Rachid Ghannouchi, the Ennahda party leader, proclaimed he would allow independents to head “sovereign” ministries in the next government. During this invent-as-you-go process, thousands marched in support of Ennahda and the Islamist government.23

The killing of Belaïd, and recent arrests of suspects identified as radical Salafists, has raised the specter of a deepening struggle for control between Islamists and secularists. This could determine the fate not only of Tunisia, but of the region as a whole. As Christoph Scheuermann wrote in Der Spiegel not long after the assassination:

Tunisia is the laboratory of the revolution, and the experiment being conducted there could affect the entire region. Islamists and secularists are testing if and how they can peacefully coexist. It is an attempt to establish a form of democracy shaped by Islam. It isn't looking very good at the moment, however, now that the initial euphoria is gone. The country has become divided, primarily between those who want an Islamic state and others who prefer a Western-style democracy. The rifts are deep, which is why Belaïd was more than just another victim of the revolution. Indeed, his murder was an assault on the emerging democracy in Tunisia.24


Libya: More Like Post-War

Eight months of war in Libya, which included international forces, finally brought about the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in October 2011. In the aftermath, the Libyan landscape bears the scars of war more than of revolution.25 As in other post-war theaters, the requirements of peacebuilding are daunting: disarmament, demobilization and reintegration; security sector reform; arms control; civic society building; economic development; governance; civil service; national reconciliation; and the devolution of power to the 100 tribes that have always been the country’s unofficial arbiters of power.26 In fact, there are questions about whether the nation of Libya represents anything more than the three traditional city states, Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica, which were first cobbled together by the Ottomans in the 16th century. Large caches of weapons have disappeared overnight and mercenaries who had propped up Gaddafi’s security apparatus have returned home to cause new mischief. The large contingent of foreign workers who once did the low-skilled work that Libyans could not or would not do have also vacated the country. An interim National Transitional Council has struggled mightily to see the country through transition.

The council’s tasks are unenviable. A cult of personality and sibylline style of leadership skewed Libyan society in ways both predictable and perverse. The country suffers from fragile leadership, a government with limited capacity and contested sovereignty. Corruption is rampant. National security, border control and policing remain a challenge. There are no parties or civil society institutions to speak of, and economic development is slow to gain traction.27 Large numbers of young people received a substandard education or one that left them ill-equipped to fill many of the best jobs on offer. These jobs have consequently gone to foreigners.

Many among the young, a growing demographic, remain unemployed or are employed only in public sector positions. Living standards are low, despite billions in export earnings. There is a lack of affordable housing. As in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists and secularists are vying for greater control of the franchise.

The good news is that Libya is no longer subject to the whims of a ruthless demagogue. This, after 42 years of repression (preceded by Fascist occupation) is of no small consequence. While sectarian clashes continue, the electorate rejected Islamic extremists in national elections held in July 2012. The oil industry is rebounding faster than expected, which will help finance the heavy expenditures necessary to rebuild the country’s social and physical infrastructure.28 GDP is on the rise, and the relatively small population (estimated at some 5.6 million in 2012) means resources properly managed and wealth more equitably distributed can effectively meet the requirements of post-war reconstruction and economic revitalization.29


What Is to be Done?

North Africa and the Middle East never experienced an industrial revolution. The regions’ political evolution is more reminiscent of 18th century post-monarchist Europe than, say, Europe at the end of the Second World War. Of the three countries covered here, only Libya possesses sufficient oil wealth to run up the development ladder and achieve per-capita wealth close to that of potential economic models such as Qatar and Dubai. Egypt and Tunisia will require substantial foreign aid and investment to improve their economies and to meet domestic and foreign obligations. A premium must be placed on youth employment. No single challenge is as pressing and as directly linked to social stability as this. Closely aligned is the requirement of high-quality education, the sine qua non of upward mobility. Jobs and education, indeed public welfare generally, rely on economic expansion and effective governance.

These are areas that present ample opportunity for Western engagement. It goes without saying that such engagement must be sensitive to local political realities and carefully calibrated to align with the absorption capacity of each state. Economic investment, private and public, must be immediate and substantial. Political support, on the other hand, must be proffered in a subtle, nuanced manner, highly attuned to sensitivities growing out of a long and difficult history with the West. It must exhibit patience, good will and persistence. Early vigilance must not give way to creeping complacency. Organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood are in it for the long run. Given their head start and organizational acumen, they have made major gains in the power vacuum created by fragmented and bickering opposition parties. External support to more progressive, secular movements, particularly those aligned with European parties, must be expanded to ensure that people in the three countries have viable alternatives to being ruled predominantly – potentially exclusively – by Islamists or military backed strongmen.

Egypt presents the greatest challenge. While the recent putsch was ostensibly for political reasons, fact is, it was driven far more by self-interest than ideology; the army’s primary concern is protecting its considerable financial assets. It is prepared to work with most any civilianpartner as long as the result is continuation of its privileged position in Egyptian society. Public posturing aside, the most devout Muslims recognize that Islam is not going to solve the country’s massive structural problems. They well appreciate the need for clean government, economic opportunity, capital investment, modern education and technical expertise. Nationalists as much as they are Islamist, Egyptians are most sensitive to perceived foreign intrusion in domestic matters. The most promising avenue to change, then, is through quiet but sustained support for political parties that are dedicated to affecting a locally branded turn to greater democracy. The so-called Twitter generation has earned a voice at the table, but it does not have the organizational capacity to serve as a unifying umbrella, under which disparate groups can turn platforms into policy, the way parties do.30 Regardless of who succeeds Morsi, financial support should be proffered of a magnitude necessary to stabilize the economy and avoid a still looming macroeconomic crisis. Economic recovery will require hard choices, including selling to an already frustrated public the need for additional near term sacrifices. Programs that encourage small business and direct youth toward entrepreneurship are critical.

Military co-operation efforts and, crucially, police training programs in Egypt must be stepped up to ensure that the security sector responds effectively – including with an appropriate use of force – to social unrest and shifting public expectations. Similar training programs are essential in Tunisia and Libya, where regional and tribal elements pose threats to the authority of the central government. In Libya in particular, the army and police are overshadowed by local militias, who currently possess superior firepower. In both countries, as in Egypt, security-training programs must be broad-based and include partnerships with the EU and the Arab League. Training for state institutions that have at best a limited capacity to deliver public services is a necessary ingredient in any comprehensive effort to aid reconstruction. This includes strengthening the judicial system, upgrading the civil service and providing technical assistance to build capacity, particularly at local levels. While a diverse and vibrant media has always been a feature of Egyptian society, this sector is not as well developed in Libya and Tunisia. Thus, media training and capacity-building should figure prominently in assistance programs.



[1] For an overview, see John R. Bradley, After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked The Middle East Revolts
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution,
Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012); Wael Ghonim,
Revolution 2.0: A Memoir and Call to Action (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012; James L. Gelvin, The
Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Need to Know
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Alex Nunns and Nadia
Idle (eds.), Tweets from Tahir (New York: OR Books, 2011). The author is also grateful to Gregory Aftandilian,
George Irani and Claude Salhani for their invaluable insights.
[2] Heba Saleh, “Death sentences fuel anger at Morsi,” Financial Times, March 10, 2013,; “Deadly clashes in Cairo as Egyptians rally,” Aljazeera, February 2, 2013,
middleeast/2013/02/ 201321142037321188.html; Karim Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Egypt’s Divisions Deepen as Protests Rage Outside Presidential Palace,” New York Times, February 1, 2013,; “A difficult way
forward in Egypt,” International Crisis Group, July 3, 2013, 2013/mena/a-difficult-way-forward-in-egypt.aspx; Zenobia Azeem, “Egypt’s Brotherhood Must Be Assured in Politics,” Al-Monitor, July 3, 2013,
[3] Costica Bradatan, “Uprising in Tunisia: a political act of self-immolation,” The Globe and Mail, January 31, 2011,
[4] Habib Ayeb, “Social and political geography of the Tunisian revolution: the alfa grass revolution,” Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 38, No. 129, September 2011, pp. 467-479.
[5] Stephen M. Walt, “Why the Tunisian revolution won’t spread,” Foreign Policy, on line, January 16, 2011,
[6] “NATO chief Rasmussen ‘proud’ as Libya mission ends,” BBC News, Africa, October 31, 2011, While the operation in Libya received support across a wide
spectrum of western opinion, not all observers accepted the dominant narrative. Russian Premier Vladimir Putin
asked, “Who gave NATO [the] right to kill Gaddafi?” For a highly
critical analysis of the NATO campaign, see Maximilian C. Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya
and Africa
(Montreal, Baraka Books, 2012).
[7] Ethan Bronner and Michael Slackman, “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest,” New York Times,
March 14, 2011,;Kevin Carmichael, “The Saudi solution to unrest: buy peace,” The Globe and Mail, February 11, 2011,; Brandon Friedman, “Battle for Bahrain, What One Uprising Meant for the Gulf States and Iran, World Affairs, March/April 2012,
[8] Joel Campagna, "From accommodation to confrontation: The Muslim Brotherhood in the Mubarak years," Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 50, No. 1, Summer 1996, pp. 278-304; Abd al-Monein Said Aly, and Manfred W. Wenner, "Modern Islamic reform movements: the Muslim Brotherhood in contemporary Egypt," The Middle East Journal, Vol. 36, No. 3, July 1982, pp. 336-361. For a collection of penetrating articles see, “Egypt, The Uprising Two Years On,” Middle East Research and Information Project, Volume 42, Winter 2012.
[9] Eric Trager, “The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood, Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2011; Toni Johnson, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 3, 2012,
[10] Matt Bradley, “Islamic Parties Dominate Egypt Parliamentary Elections,” Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2012,
[11] Matthew Weaver, Brian Whitaker and Tom McCarthy, “Egypt’s historic election,” The Guardian,
[12] Kareem Fahim, “Egyptian Officials Fired Over Soldiers’ Killings in Sinai,” New York Times, August 8, 2012,
[13] Omar Ashour, “Morsi: Egypt’s Democratic Dictator?” Think Africa Press, December 5, 2012,
[14] “Deadly clashes in Cairo as Egyptians rally,” Aljazeera, February 2, 2013,
[15] James M. Dorsey, “Egypt’s Soccer Tragedy: Prelude to a Military Crackdown?” Time, February 2, 2012,,8599,2105997,00.html.
[16] “Egypt: Egyptian Economy After Revolution of January 25,” Cyprus Embassy Trade Centre, Cairo, 2013,; Hafez Ghanem, “Two Years After the Egyptian Revolution: A Vision for Inclusive Growth Is Needed,” Up Front, The Brookings Institution, January 25, 2013,; “Egypt Overview,” The World Bank, September 2012,
[17] Arshad Mohammed and David Stamp, “Egypt needs to fix economy, strike IMF deal: Kerry,” Reuters, March 2, 2013,
[18] Ian Black, “Mohamed Morsi: a spectacular balancing act,” The Observer, September 16, 2012,
[19] Heba Saleh, Egypt woos Mubarak-era Businessmen, The Financial Times, February 4, 2013, 
[20] “Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge,” International Crisis Group, February 13, 2013,; “Tunisia: Confronting Social and Economic Challenges,” International Crisis Group, June 6, 2012,
[21] John Thorne, “In post-revolutionary Tunisia, ‘it’s (still) the economy stupid’,” Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2012,
[22] Charles Levinson, “Tunisian Islamists Name New Premier,” Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2013,
[23] Mohamed-Salah Omri, “The perils of Identity politics in Tunisia,” Aljazeera, January 27, 2013, 
[24] “Arab Spring at Risk: Belaïd Assassination Exposes Deep Rifts in Tunisia,” 884242.html.
[25] Mohammed El-Katiri, State-Building Challenges In Post-Revolutionary Libya, U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, October 2012,; Tom Parry, “After the revolution, Libya still living under the gun,” CBC News, September 14, 2012,
[26] See Nicolas Pelham, “Libya’s Restive Revolutionaries,” Middle East Research and Information Project, June 1, 2012,
[27] Ann Marlowe, “The Fading of Libya’s Post-Revolutionary Glow,” Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2012, 
[28] Lahcen Achy, “Libya: Seven Keys to post-revolution resurgence,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2011,
[29] Abigail Hauslohner, “Libya’s oil sector makes quick recovery after 2011 revolution,” Washington Post, March 16, 2013, revolution/2013/03/16/a9042efa-8655-11e2-9d71-f0feafdd1394_story.html. 
[30] See Alaa Bayouni, “Lack of Unity stalls Egypt’s youth revolution,” Aljazeera, February 13, 2013,  


About the Author

Hrach Gregorian is President of the Washington D.C.-based research organization, the Institute of World Affairs (IWA). He is member of the Graduate Faculty, School of Peace and Conflict Management, Royal Roads University; Adjunct Professor and Research Fellow, Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary; Adjunct Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, American University; Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria; and Senior Fellow, Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute. For over three decades Gregorian has been active in deep cultural and risk analysis in fragile states, with field experience in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central and East Asia.

Gregorian served as one of the founding directors of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He developed the Institute’s first professional training program in conflict analysis and negotiation. The course was offered to senior members of the US State Department, USIA, Voice of America, and USAID. A similar course was developed for foreign affairs officials in Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Thailand. He is also one of the co-founders of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, the largest US-based membership organization of institutions and professionals in the field of peace and conflict management.

Gregorian’s work on stability and peace operations in fragile states has taken him to twenty-five plus countries. For the May 2010 meeting in Gatineau of G8 Senior Officials, he prepared and presented the analytical paper on effectiveness and coherence of G8 security sector capacity building efforts in vulnerable states. His current publications have focused on interagency coordination in peace operations, capacity-building in fragile states, and energy and conflict.

Gregorian’s op-ed pieces have appeared in U.S. and Canadian newspapers. He has made presentations before professional societies, academic institutions, government agencies, and on television and radio. He has been awarded research and applied project grants by foundations and government agencies in the North America and Europe. He is the recipient of American University’s Capital Area Peacemaker Award, and a Boston University Distinguished Alumni Award. He sits on various boards.

Gregorian earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Brandeis University, and his B.A. at Boston University. He and his wife of 38 years, Judith Lynn (Kramer), reside in Vienna, Virginia and are the parents of three grown children.


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