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My latest article for The Majalla: So Long, Renaissance

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Morsi plays a zero-sum game

Egypt’s President Morsi is going head to head with the country’s judiciary after issuing a decree severely limiting their powers to rein in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt pic

On Thursday, 22 November, Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi went to war with the judiciary. He issued a seven-point decree that included the sacking of the country’s prosecutor-general and announced that all his decisions were immune to appeal “by any way or by any entity.”

Critics have called the move a brazen power grab; admirers call it a “revolutionary decision.” Both sides will agree, however, that the announcement will only further polarize an Egyptian society struggling to reach a consensus on how to proceed after Mubarak’s fall.

The main cleavage is one of Islamists versus non-Islamists. The Egyptian president belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the largest Islamist group, which claims that it has a popular mandate to implement the much-vaunted “renaissance project.” Ranged against him are liberals, leftists, and former regime elements entrenched in state institutions.

The Brotherhood may have won nearly half of all parliamentary seats in the November 2011 election, but the margin of Morsi’s presidential victory over his secular rival was a far more modest 51.7 percent against 48.3 percent.

Such a slim majority might not have been considered problematic had Morsi adopted a consensual style of leadership. But Morsi has favored a more aggressive, winner-takes-all approach that not only risks plunging Egypt into further turmoil, but also marks him out as a distinctly unoriginal Islamist.

Take his handling of the Constituent Assembly, the body tasked with drafting a new constitution. Having already stuffed it with his own supporters to ensure a favorable outcome—a presidential system with limited role for the legislature—it risked falling apart after prominent secular and Coptic members walked out earlier this month.
The controversy-prone body was already beset by questions over its legitimacy after the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) deemed the Islamist-majority upper and lower houses of Parliament (on whose basis the Constituent Assembly was formed) unconstitutional, albeit on a technicality.

In April 2012, the SCC again played the role of spoiler by ruling that the first Constituent Assembly was unconstitutional on the grounds of its non-inclusiveness, and was expected to pass a similar judgment on the current constituent assembly at the end of the month.

This threatened to derail the ratification of the Islamist-friendly constitution that the MB and their Salafist allies have been busy drafting; hence the fourth article of Morsi’s decree: “No judicial body can dissolve the Shura Council [upper house of Parliament] or the Constituent Assembly.”

In an address to his supporters, the Egyptian president said that his decision was meant to stop “weevils” from the former regime from blocking progress. It is true that judges at the SCC have been overly active in recent months, frustrating the drafting of a new constitution—which will pave the way for new parliamentary elections that observers expect would be won by the Islamists. That a small and unelected clique at the top of the judiciary should be disrupting Egypt’s democratic transition—and with it the MB’s consolidation of power—is a source of deep frustration for Morsi.

Egypt’s judiciary has come under criticism too from grass-roots activists, who accuse it of not doing enough to convict security personnel accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. In the past three months, three trials have found policemen and thugs accused of killing protesters not guilty, much to the anger of the victims’ families. The latest trial verdict was announced on 22 November, the day of Morsi’s decree. It proved to be a convenient excuse to make a move against the judges.

Had the Egyptian president stopped at replacing the Mubarak-era prosecutor-general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, he might have come away with his reputation intact. The decree he issued, however, emasculated the judiciary by exempting both Morsi and bodies controlled by the MB from any judicial review for the next three months at the very least. This will give him ample time to steamroll through vital decisions on the country’s future unchecked by the judiciary.

The audacity and breadth of Morsi’s decree sit ill at ease with the limited nature of his stated goals, and his three percentage point margin of victory. It is little wonder, then, that the division-wracked secular opposition united for the first time to challenge what it describes as “Egypt’s new pharaoh.”

The protest held in Tahrir Square on 27 November against the decree drew a respectable quarter of a million people, and the secularists promised further actions in a political escalation seemingly coordinated with the country’s top judges. Egypt’s appeal courts have already gone on strike in protest at the decree, a move unlikely to promote conciliation in an unfolding constitutional civil war.

Blanket measures

Morsi’s battle with the judiciary follows a number of successful campaigns to curb the power of other bodies that threaten the MB’s rise. In recent months, editors of independent newspapers and high-ranking members of the press syndicate have decried attempts by Information Minister Salah Abdel-Maqsoud to limit their criticisms of the government.

More recently, trade unions have complained that another MB appointee, the Manpower Minister Ahmed Hassan El-Borai, was attempting to “Brotherhoodize” the unions through a presidential decree that allows the government to appoint board members of unions.
The Egyptian Brotherhood’s tendency to want to dominate and control state institutions is not out of character for the organization. Next door in Gaza, the MB faction Hamas was unable to share power with Fatah after its triumph at the ballot box in 2007. Today, Hamas is more entrenched in its antagonism to its secular rival than ever before, a fact underscored by a recent statement by Mahmud Al-Zahar, Hamas’s chief in Gaza, who said that if Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas was to visit the territory, “he would be arrested.”

Time and time again, Muslim Brotherhood organizations across the Arab word have missed opportunities to build a durable and broad-based consensus for change and reform. Whether by inexperience or design, their policies tended to deepen division and make differences more irreconcilable. Where they have bucked this trend it has been under duress, as is the case in Morocco. Critics say that this raises serious doubts over the MB’s commitment to an inclusive democratic process in which compromise and consensus are essential pre-requisites.

But the bottom line for MB leaders like Morsi is that they feel no moral duty to make concessions to those that have been part-and-parcel of a system that has victimized the group and denied them their rightful place in Egyptian politics. The fact that a former foreign minister under Mubarak, Amr Mousa, should now emerge as the MB’s most vocal critic merely serves to delegitimize the opposition in MB eyes, and renders its calls for greater inclusiveness all the more hypocritical.

Amidst these claims and counter-claims, in Egypt what appears to matter is not so much changing the rules of power than the affiliations of those who have it—and who therefore enjoys its spoils. It is a zero-sum game where enemies must be crushed and power sought and accumulated for its own sake.

Prominent MB member Ali Abdel-Fattah did not recognize the irony when he brushed aside criticisms of Morsi by citing Gamal Abdel-Nasser as an example of a president who resorted to extraordinary decrees under the pretext of defending a revolution. “As long as [Morsi] is democratically elected,” he said, “he has all the right to issue such a declaration.” Before it was secularists side-lining Islamists, now it will be the other way around.

Egypt will not go the way of Zimbabwe by having ‘one man, one vote, one time.’ Nor will it go the way of Syria, thanks to a military that has preferred to remain above the fray. But there will be more protests, more disorder and more economic loss. A badly needed USD4.8 billion loan from the IMF has already been delayed because of the most recent instability, and the Cairo stock market plummeted for a second time in a single week.

That has not put off the combatants. The Supreme Constitutional Court announced that it was going ahead with plans to rule on 2 December on whether to dissolve the MB-dominated Constituent Assembly that has drafted the new constitution. That same assembly has since approved the draft constitution, which paved the way for a referendum. The battle for Egypt’s future goes on.

http://www.majalla.com/eng/2012/11/article55236175

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Categories: Arabs & Democracy

My latest article for Foreign Policy: Zombie Versus Frankenstein

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Published: 15th November

Last week, the leaders of the fractured Syrian opposition movement met in the Qatari capital, vowing to put aside petty squabbling and create a more inclusive body that would better represent the country’s democratic aspirations. The new organization, the brainchild of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and liberal opposition politician Riad Seif, was rather awkwardly dubbed “the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” — or “National Coalition” (NC) for short. Its purpose is to attract the sort of international recognition and support that has eluded the now discredited Syrian National Council (SNC) — and thus to boost the opposition’s chances of ousting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the surface, there are grounds for optimism. In stark contrast to the SNC, which was dominated by exile politicians, the new group has reserved a majority of seats for Syrians closely linked with the rebel movement — including delegates from the revolutionary councils formed in liberated parts of the country. This week President François Hollande of France held an impromptu press conference to announce his country’s recognition of the NC as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This followed a collective decision taken by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sheikhdoms to extend a similar level of recognition, coupled with promises of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the opposition.

The NC’s leadership too appears to be a step away from the old politics, with moderate Muslim cleric Muaz Al-Kahattib as president along with Riad Seif and female activist Suheir Al-Attasi as his deputies. All three of them left Syria recently and are largely untainted by the infighting that appears to have sunk the SNC, or any overt association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) that will alarm Washington. “The ball now is in the international community’s court,” Attasi said in Doha. “There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test.”

So it must have been a terrible disappointment when U.S. President Barack Obama declined to oblige. “We are not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile, but we do think that it is a broad-based representative group,” he said of the new coalition soon after his reelection last week. “One of the questions that we are going to continue to press is making sure that that opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria.” In other words, the NC has yet to prove itself before seeing any tangible rewards.

Obama was not alone in his cautiousness. Arab League ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday urged regional and international organizations to recognize the new body as “a legitimate representative for the aspirations of the Syrian people” but stopped well short of a full recognition. This may in part be due to Saudi reservations about the NC, which it views with suspicion given the prominent role played by Qatar and Turkey in its creation, and what it perceives to be the exclusion of pro-Saudi opposition figures from the unity talks. While Al-Jazeera provided wall-to-wall coverage of proceedings in Doha, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya looked distinctly uninterested. The Russians too are not happy; not only were their Syrian opposition friends in the National Coordination Body (NCB) not invited to Doha, but the NC’s blank refusal to negotiate with Assad cuts against the grain of Russian thinking on how to resolve the conflict. The picture is a mixed one at best.

But there’s another problem that’s been largely overlooked in the news reports, and it’s one that could threaten to hobble the opposition movement in the critical months ahead. The much-criticized SNC has been sidelined by the establishment of the National Coalition — but it continues to exist. Just two days prior to the start of the unity talks between the SNC and other opposition representatives that effectively created the National Coalition, the SNC held a low-key “restructuring” conference, also in the Qatari capital, under the watchful guise of the country’s foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani. The purported aim was to elect a new leadership. Why the SNC, widely believed to be defunct, should bother with holding an election when a new opposition coalition was due to be created just days later, is no mystery. The reason has a great deal to do with the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The SNC leadership election resulted in defeat for the leading figures of the group’s liberal wing — people like Washington-based politician Radwan Ziadeh. Ex-SNC President Burhan Ghalioun did not bother to contest the election, while another liberal figurehead, Basma Kodmani, resigned from the SNC in August. Needless to say, no woman and no Alawite made it to the general secretariat. The Muslim Brotherhood marshaled their votes and did what their opponents expected least: it booted them out of the SNC by democratic means.

In the end, the Brotherhood was left controlling some 75 percent of the members of the general secretariat. The picture is even more stark in the Executive Committee, the highest body in the organization: seven out of eleven members elected are either Brotherhood members or affiliates. Having failed to win a seat in the general secretariat, the leftist Christian, George Sabra, was chosen by the Brotherhood to head the SNC as a figurehead, but only after he accepted MB hardliner Faruk Tayfur as his deputy.

But why go to all the trouble when the same effort could have been focused on building up the NC, the supposedly new-and-improved formula for opposition unity? “The NC was the idea of Riad Seif and Ambassador Robert Ford,” says long-time SNC member Abdulrahman Al-Haj. “The SNC came under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to accept their plan, but we could not simply abandon the SNC without knowing that the NC is going to work.” That the SNC, refurbished under Muslim Brotherhood guidance, should still be regarded as a useful contingency by a significant swath of Syria’s opposition suggests that they lack commitment to making the NC work.

As a result, there are now two opposition coalitions, the NC and the SNC, that are meant to do the same job. In theory, members of the SNC have been given 40 percent of the seats in the new organization, but the group is allowed to maintain its independent structure and policy-making. What’s more, the SNC is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which condemns the NC plan as a U.S.-inspired plot to force the opposition to the negotiating table. And yet, the MB’s top brass sit at the head of the table in the NC. This was not the result that Ambassador Ford was hoping for, and may well explain why President Obama appeared so far unconvinced by the new body.

Meanwhile, the SNC is still alive and kicking, and thanks to its recent re-structuring, it has swelled its ranks so that even those wishing to by-pass it will struggle to find the manpower to create a credible alternative. With the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm and Qatar continuing to bankroll its operations, it will survive where many “credible alternatives” will fall at the wayside. Whether any of this helps the Syrian revolution defeat Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely.

None of this is what the NC leaders were hoping for almost a week after they had signed the draft agreement on Saturday to great fanfare. A tone of desperation was clearly discernible in a statement issued by the new NC president Muaz Al-Khattib earlier this week, when he urged Syrians inside the country to hold up placards reassuring the U.S. president of their support for the new group. Khattib’s move may have been naïve, but it shows that he understands one thing quite well: If the NC does not pick up momentum early on, including that vital recognition from the U.S., it may go the way of the SNC. Or worse.

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/11/15/zombie_versus_frankenstein?page=full

Categories: Syrian uprising

My latest for Open Democracy: Syria, the activists grow up

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Published: 14th November 2012
The course of Syria’s revolution since its idealistic early days has been a painful learning experience for many young activists, says Malik al-Abdeh.

The early days of Syria’s uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.

Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya(protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.

What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks – even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa – that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria’s revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital’s historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were “peaceful, peaceful”, “the Syrian people are one,” and “God, Syria and Freedom.” This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.

The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria’s people and the decency of Syria’s society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting – with a multi-party system and a free press – that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What’s more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.

Against the odds

The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later – after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight – it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria’s refoundation from a “state of nature” was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country’s steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.

The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi’a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.

What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. “The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed”, he laments, “it was a real wake-up call.”

But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. “People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism – in that order.” Now he explains, the order has been reversed. “A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them.”

Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. “The change was huge”, she says, “it was like Afghanistan.” What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. “There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves.” She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn’t agree. She wanted to advise, “but no one was prepared to listen.”

Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the “climbers” who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. “When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed”, he says. “There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures.”

Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition’s ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.

In fact, though, the activists’ fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).

The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists – from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities – gravitated towards the opposition’s political or military wings.

Between dream and reality

This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.

The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.

Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. “Syria” and “Syrians” were, in Albert Hourani’s view – referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 – “ancient entities but very modern notions.” The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.

Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.

This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.

The day after

Despite all this, it’s not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.

The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.

In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.

To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document.” It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising – as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way – will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called “a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion.”

In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.

http://www.opendemocracy.net/malik-al-abdeh/syria-activists-grow-up

Categories: Syrian uprising
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