In communities, cities, states, and countries throughout the world, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society organizations (CSOs), activists, and other actors play an important role in politics. Often, organizations and individuals collaborate with one another and come together as coalitions to achieve changes to a given policy or law. While coalitions are by no means new to Egypt, we believe there is an opportunity for more collective action among civil society actors especially as the new government takes shape and finds its footing in the post-revolution environment. What are coalitions? How are they formed? What are the components of a coalition and how can coalitions be successful? The form and function of coalitions varies depending on their members, their funding, and the context in which it is conceived. This piece attempts to highlight some of the common considerations when forming a coalition, potential pitfalls, and broad guidelines for coalition success.
Over the past several years, there has been a ground-swell of activism around issues of inclusion, political participation, and social justice in Egypt. Older civil society organizations, labor unions, and traditional development agencies have been joined by newer initiatives focusing on issues ranging from urban sustainability and heritage preservation to public space and transportation. Some of these initiatives are utilizing crowd-sourcing techniques, social media, and public performance to further their cause while the more established organizations have a wealth of institutional knowledge, political and professional networks, resources and experience. Their enthusiasm was undergirded by the hope for social and political change embodied in the spirit of the revolution.
However, over the past several months, the optimism of the revolution has died. The military reasserted itself in politics and carried out a campaign of widespread oppression in the name of security, stability, and the greater good while whitewashing its public image through public building projects, while placing severe restrictions on the media. The November 2013 anti-protest law effectively bans street protests and tens of thousands of social activists, journalists, and opposition leaders are in jail. The same men and women that the revolution sought to displace are quietly assuming their former positions of power and privilege in society, and much of the population is acquiescing to the new status-quo, grateful for a return to stability.
As hope for social change goes, so follows activism. New activists are struggling to keep their footing in the oppressive political environment and the more experienced activists are disheartened at a situation that is all too familiar. As the broader political climate in Egypt solidifies around a cautious conservatism and the space for dialogue and protest is shrinking, the collective influence of these actors is waning. The government has made the cost of outright contestation too high. Security forces have amply demonstrated their willingness to resort to violence when confronted in the streets. In turn, this violence is supported by many Egyptians who see this exercise of brute force as the state’s effort to achieve stability. While some groups are still willing to stage protests, most groups are not.
Faced with this new reality, the same question faces activists, intellectuals, unions, NGOs, and other actors who are unsatisfied with the extent of social change since 2011: what now?
The 2011 uprising was effective for three reasons: public support, mobilization, and focus. The revolution mobilized people from every segment of society around the singular demand for Mubarak to step down. Its success was limited because other demands were articulated either in principal only—bread, freedom, social justice, dignity, human rights, etc.—or if articulated otherwise, they did not enjoy the same popular support of the revolution’s principle objective or they met severe resistance from government and other elite quarters. If the revolution teaches us anything, it is that group action is more potent than acting alone; cooperation among diverse actors is essential to achieving social change; limited, single-issue demands are easier to achieve, but they do not guarantee broader social change; and community-based popular support is more powerful than an enthusiastic or professional minority.
“There is little evidence for the belief that uncoordinated action of a multiplicity of local actors … can either solve problems such as market and state failure or challenge authoritarian political elites on a scale sufficient to lift large numbers of people out of poverty and political subordination” (Houtzager 2003, 2). Independent, localized actors cannot challenge the dominant structures of power or attempt to change the behavior of the state without further collective action.
The depiction of the post-revolution activist environment at the outset of this article is not to suggest that there is a schism between the old and the new, but to illustrate the complementarity of these groups and the latent potential for collaboration among them. Initiatives birthed by the revolution can benefit from the experience of organizations that functioned under previous regimes while the older organizations may be well served to embrace the innovations and heterodox tactics of the new. It is extremely difficult anywhere, to achieve greater inclusion in the political process without coalitions that can manage competing interests within society and between society and the state. Many civil society actors are focused on single-issue reforms that can be “granted” by an authoritarian state rather than negotiated within the political realm in which representative and governmental decisions are made.
Coalitions can be a powerful tool through which individuals and organizations can affect social change. Coalitions are often at the forefront of social movements because they both work against hyper-localization and the fragmentation of civil society or the tendency of civil society organizations to distance themselves from the government either to avoid repression or co-optation. Across the globe, urban-based social movements have successfully reshaped local, regional, and national political environments and redefined the social agenda in their countries. From the urban popular movements in Mexico that played an integral part in the passage of the 2010 Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City to the Right to Information movement in India that resulted in the passage of a national access to information law in 2005, these popular movements can achieve success.
Will such change be possible in Egypt? The exercise of political power in Egypt is similar in many ways to countries like Mexico, Brazil, and India where coalitions or social movements have succeeded, at times, in creating social change around urban issues. Wealthy, upper-class citizens have a disproportionate influence on legislation, executive decrees, and government decision-making, corruption is endemic at all levels of society, large business interests are privileged over community concerns, and national governments often prioritize foreign investment over local interests in pursuit of overall GDP growth. However, despite their relative shortcomings, Mexico, Brazil, and India are all democracies. Collective action, open public discourse, protest, and political activism is deeply rooted in their societies. Local governments are accountable to local populations and political parties are robust and diverse.
Egypt’s political context is significantly more closed and, despite the social movements of the last three years, a culture of broad-based collective action has yet to take root. Political institutions are extremely resistant to change and parliamentarians and the president are the only directly elected positions in the country. As a result, government officials are more accountable to the executive branch rather than to the people. Today, state/society dynamics in Egypt are highly complex and unpredictable. Is collective action from the recent past relevant to the present climate in Egypt, and are the experiences of global coalitions relevant to Egypt? What follows is not to be taken as a literal “how-to” of collective action. It draws on the experiences of coalitions and “best practices” from many different countries, contexts, and causes which cannot simply be replicated. It does, however, highlight several patterns of collective engagement that have been successful in both Egypt and elsewhere that may be useful when strategizing for collective action.
Coalitions are a group of organizations, initiatives, or individuals who agree to work together to achieve social change for a particular goal (Tattersoll 2013). They are a “dynamic and potent strategy capable of achieving social change and expanding the power of organizations that participate in them” (Tattersoll 2013, Loc. 2605). Coalitions can be effective because they leverage resources, interests, and the expertise of their members to build political support for their cause.
Coalitions vary in terms of form, scale, and length of duration. At one extreme, there are the fleeting “letter-head coalitions” whose purpose is limited to publicizing a single issue and ‘members‘ do nothing more than add their signature to a letter, typically to a public official (Tattersoll 2013). At the other end, there are permanent coalitions that involve a high degree of cooperation, intensity, and participation among members. Coalitions may be broad-based alliances with hundreds of member organizations with deep roots in local communities that derive their power from their size or they may be limited to a group of professionals and academics working at high levels of government and within civil society to achieve social change. For example, the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organizations (FIHRO) in Egypt is comprised of 19 human rights organizations that operate at the highest-levels of policy making. Shortly after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, they issued a joint roadmap for a nation of rights and the rule of law and more recently, they issued a joint report on the state of human rights in Egypt to the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Whatever their make-up and purpose, coalitions are a form of group action. The term “coalition” is often used interchangeably with alliance, federation, or network. Other group actions or collaborative initiatives include information sharing networks like CLUSTER’s Cairo Urban Initiatives Platform, or coordinating councils that bring together complementary organizations on similar issues, such as the newly formed Urban Reform Coalition, or coalitions that focus on providing information and raising awareness about a particular topic such as the Egyptian Coalition Against Pneumonia.
There are three components to a coalition: members who are committed to the coalition’s cause, a common cause around which coalition members may act, and a common plan of action to guide the members to achieve social change.
Members: Who Belongs?
A coalition’s members are its core. A coalition’s success depends on the commitment of its members to the mission and their ability to cooperate with one another to achieve their goals. Selecting the right members will make or break the coalition.
There are two approaches to building a coalition’s membership: the open approach and the less-is-more approach. The philosophy of the open approach is the more members the coalition has, the better. If the capacity of a coalition is limited by the capacity of its members, the greater number of members, the more resources, technical skills, and expertise the coalition has to draw from, the more successful the coalition will be. The power of these coalitions to influence decision-makers is in their diversity, broad appeal, and broad constituency.
The less-is-more approach sees diminishing returns as the size of a coalition increases. Coalitions with fewer organizations but greater depth of involvement from those organizations are easier to build, manage, and mobilize. These coalitions are more nimble and more effective in advocacy work. Also, the fewer number of organizations involved in the coalition, the higher likelihood that the coalition will be able to agree more often on a wider range of issues and the lesser the possibility of a small number of organizations carrying the burden of the entire coalition while most organizations simply tag along for the ride (Tattersoll 2013).
In Egypt, where the political environment is severely restricted, there are other considerations in choosing different coalition structures. A larger coalition may have strength in numbers and the government may be more hesitant to crack down on coalitions with broad support. However, a smaller coalition may elude government surveillance and work through informal channels of power.
Herein lies an important ideological question for coalition members working in Egypt. The informal channels of power, the hierarchy of political intermediaries who provide access to influence and distribute resources and thrive on clientelism and patronage, is widely recognized one of the deeply rooted problems in the Egyptian political system (Selee 2011). A pragmatic, ends-only approach dictates that coalitions work within the existing system if there is a reasonable chance that they may achieve their goals, even at the risk of reinforcing the inequality of the informal power structures. A more idealistic coalition may insist on working through formal channels of power but risk not being able to accomplish their stated goals as easily. In a study of six women’s coalitions in Egypt and Jordan published before the 2011 Revolution, Tadros found that it was necessary to work “quietly” through networks and contacts to influence both formal and informal power and authority (2011).
Regardless of whether a coalition adopts an open-membership approach or the less-is-more approach, core members must be selected strategically. For smaller, community-scale coalitions, potential members should know and trust one another. For larger, regional or national level coalitions, the same advice applies, but Tattersoll recommends selecting organizations that have a strong track record of advocacy and success in mobilizing their constituencies and achieving success (2013). Here, some of Egypt’s older civil society actors may be able to apply their institutional experience to coalitions and assist newer actors in adapting to the political environment.
In addition to organizations, coalitions may want to involve key individuals as well. These include:
People most affected by your issue: Coalitions working to achieve social change are working on behalf of someone. For a housing coalition, these may be people who cannot access adequate housing or who face forced evictions due to insecurity of land tenure. For a health coalition, these may be people who cannot access health services or suffer from poor sanitation in their communities. Regardless of the coalition’s issue, the coalition should include people or organizations which represent people who are most affected by the issue at hand. Not only will these members bring an invaluable perspective to the coalition, they may also be the strongest supporters of the cause. Without adequate representation of the beneficiary group, the coalition may lack legitimacy with the people the coalition claims to represent. Often times, coalitions are founded and led by highly educated professionals with access to international institutions and funding. These individuals can be extremely important to the success of a coalition, but they are usually not directly affected by the issues the coalition is trying to address.
Policy makers and community leaders: Policy makers, and community, business, and opinion leaders can be useful to a coalition due to their broad support and access to influence. Policy makers, government officials, or political party leaders can give your coalition immediate access to the decision makers who can help achieve your policy objectives. Emerging leaders, especially youth, can be very beneficial as well. However, some policy makers or community leaders can be polarizing and may create political conflict. Coalition members must understand the political implications of involving any given personality or leader. Furthermore, every effort should be made to ensure that the politicians or community leaders do not co-opt the coalition to achieve their own political agenda.
Academics: Academics, especially “scholar-activists” can be an asset to any coalition for their deep knowledge of a given subject area. They can help frame a coalition’s argument, gather and utilize data to strengthen a coalition’s position, or provide theoretical rationale for a given tactic or approach to the issue. However, academics also have a tendency to want to further problematize issues and perhaps be less prone to action than other coalition members.
Experienced Activists: There is no substitute for experience in coalition work. An experienced activist will be aware of the different techniques and approaches that do and don’t work in any given context. However, it is also important that the coalition leaves room for experimentation in their approach and tactics, especially in a dynamic, rapidly evolving environment such as the one in Egypt.
People outside Your Field: Diversity is important in coalitions. The more diverse the coalition membership, the broader appeal the coalition will have. If you are a coalition working to increase education standards for primary school children, include doctors who can demonstrate the medical benefits of education on long-term health or business persons who need skilled workers to improve the competitiveness of their company. If you are a coalition advocating for an increase in the use of natural gas in industrial production, involve conservationists and industrial labor unions, but also community organizations representing communities close to the factories or farmer associations downwind from factories. However, diversity should not be an end in and of itself, but a means to strengthen the coalition. Too much diversity may dilute the core purpose of the coalition.
A Common Concern
A coalition must share a common concern, which operates at three different constituent levels: the participating organizations, the membership of the participating organizations, and the general public. The common cause of a coalition should overlap with the self-interests of the participating organizations. Contrary to the popular belief that participation in a coalition requires self-sacrifice by organizations, coalitions are strongest when they reflect the mutual self-interests of the organizations involved (Tattersoll 2013). This echoes Saul Alinksy’s work in community organizing in which he urged community organizers to recognize the self-interests of their constituency and use them as a motivating force (Alinsky 1971).
A coalition’s common concern and mutual self-interest may be sufficient to achieve marginal changes in government policy, but it is not sufficient to create broader social change. Broader change requires public support. For this reason, the most successful coalitions are those whose common concern aligns closely with the public interest. This does not mean that coalitions must be large to succeed. A coalition does not have to have direct support of the public, but the most successful coalitions are those that support a cause that reflects the public interest.
A Common Plan of Action
Formulating a common plan of action for a coalition requires as much focus on process as it does on outcomes. The plan will be formulated based on the strategic goals and objectives of the coalition and should take advantage of the various capacities, experiences and resources of each of the organizations. Despite the various methods that may be used to come to this plan of action, there are a few best practices to keep in mind.
Be inclusive. Coalitions are not a form of representational government. They function on the premise of unanimous decision making. If organizations views or opinions are disregarded too often, they will not stay in the coalition very long.
Be positive. Messaging, outreach, and advocacy are dramatically more powerful when they are stated in positive terms. This is known in psychology and social movement theory as a framing effect. For example, labor activists in the United States conducted campaigns against large corporations that resisted increases in minimum-wage laws. They demonized the corporations as unfair, unjust, and exploitative. They met with little success. The corporations and the politicians they supported were able to marginalize the activists by claiming that they were being unfairly singled out and that the activists had a grudge against them. Activists only started to gain traction when changed their tactics and framed their cause in positive terms. Instead of advocating against corporations and the politicians that support them, they advocated for a “living wage” that was necessary for people to lead their lives in dignity. Corporations and politicians were far less willing to be publicly against a living wage and activists have met with a great deal of success in the past few years.
Allow for flexibility and experimentation. Defining the goals, strategies, and tactics of the coalition narrowly may present challenges as different circumstances evolve. Multiple framings of the coalition’s issues can leave the door open to other organizations as well.
Don’t stretch the coalition. Coalitions are not meant to serve all of the interests of every organization involved. A coalition’s goals should be well defined, focused, and enjoy unanimous support. If an organization has goals that are outside the scope of the coalition, don’t force the coalition to take them up; they can create another coalition.
Coalitions are built on a foundation of communication and trust among member organizations. However, conflict and tension among members is an inevitable. Anticipating potential sources of conflict when the coalition is forming can help stave off internal divisions in the future and strengthening the relationships among member organizations. Here is a list of common challenges coalitions face when forming:
Organizational Autonomy: Many organizations coming into coalitions worry about losing their autonomy or having to share credit for their work, share information about their target populations or share funding. These are all issues that must be addressed at the outset. Participating organizations must understand what is expected of them and they must also see how the coalition will make them stronger, rather than weaker.
Poor Links to the Community/Constituency: With the exception of a coalition of experts with sufficient personal access to decision makers, coalitions require strong links to the individuals most effected by their cause. If member organizations don’t already have a strong presence in their beneficiary community with the ability to mobilize them, building a broader constituency should be among the coalition’s most important and earliest objectives.
Organizing Capacity: Many coalitions suffer from an inability to “get things off the ground” due to a lack of organizing capacity. Member organizations should consider sharing the responsibility for organizing or hiring a staff member to coordinate the activities and communication of the coalition (see below for more on hiring a staff member). Coalitions do not organize themselves nor will member organizations voluntarily take on the responsibility themselves without agreement from other members.
Bad Past Experiences: Organizations, individuals, or the target community each bring their past experiences to the table of the coalition. Some organizations may believe working together is not worthwhile or that the situation is hopeless. Some people may have worked with organizations or coalitions in the past that made big plans that did not bear fruit. For example, in some communities, where outside organizations have been involved for decades, residents may have grown skeptical or pessimistic about the possibility of substantial change.
Professionals, Know-it-Alls, and Saviors: Coalitions thrive on the diversity of perspectives, skills, and knowledge that each member brings to the table. Too often, people with advanced degrees, professional experience, business leaders, or politicians will approach a coalition with a host of ‘answers‘ to the ‘problems’ faced by a particular constituency and attempt to use the coalition to implement their agenda. Their input and experience is often invaluable, but it should be but one perspective among many and the ambitions of these individuals should be held in check.
Funding: The need for financial resources is an obvious one and the difficulty in obtaining them is equally understood. Self-sustaining coalitions that rely on member contributions are guaranteed to set their own agenda and act in ways in which they are comfortable. However, not all coalitions are able to do this and outside funding becomes necessary. However, whenever the coalition accepts funding, it is important to understand what limitations, expectations, or obligations come with it. The politics surrounding funding issues will sometimes push the coalition in unexpected or unwanted directions. In Egypt, coalitions that accept funding from Western institutions are particularly susceptible to criticism. They are easy targets for conspiracy theories and xenophobic critiques that are common in today’s media landscape. It is also important for coalitions to know the history of a donor’s relationship with other coalitions. Will the donor remain at arms’ length and allow the coalition to operate autonomously or will the donor require the coalition to take on a new agenda? Institutional donors have some clear benefits as well. First, they may have a long institutional knowledge of working with other coalitions in all kinds of political environments. Second, and more importantly, they can often help create the political space in which the coalition can engage government decision makers directly. For example, in Jordan, the British Council enabled a dialogue within government agencies and between the government and non-government institutions that was crucial to the success of the Coalition for the Protection of the Family against Violence (Tadros 2011).
Responsibilities and Commitments: Sometimes organizations will join a coalition with the expectation of using the coalition platform to amplify their own message and fail to recognize the obligations that come along with coalition membership. As with any group activity, the responsibilities, obligations and expectations for each organization should be clear at the outset and a mechanism should be put in place to hold members accountable for their commitments.
Setting the Agenda: Sometimes organizations join coalitions convinced of the value of their own work but fail to recognize the value of what other organizations are doing. A coalition agenda should reflect the areas in which the self-interests of all of the organizations involved overlap. No member should have to sacrifice their own self-interests to be involved. However, at the same time, if a member feels that their interests are always marginalized or are not at the core of what the coalition is trying to accomplish, they should evaluate the use of participating in the coalition.
Collective decision-making is as the heart of coalition work. The way in which decisions are made and the effectiveness of communication within the coalition plays an important role in a coalition’s prospects for success. The decision-making process is reflected in the structure of the coalition. The structure must consider who has authority to make decisions for the coalition, who is allowed to speak on behalf of the coalition, what rules govern the decision making process, and what are conflict resolution mechanisms? These are important questions that, if left unanswered, can bring a quick end to a coalition. Whatever the answers may be, coalition members must strive to build strong, trusting relationships with one another so that whatever conflict may arise over these questions can be managed.
Who Makes Decisions?
Who makes decisions on behalf of the coalition? Most coalitions, large and small, will have a steering committee that is vested with decision making authority to direct collective work. Steering committees deal with strategy, direction, and planning. With new coalitions, there is little need for a formal steering committee given that everyone involved with the coalition will be directly involved with the decision making processes. However, as the coalition grows, this core group of coalition members may form the steering committee of the coalition in the future. Eventually, steering committees may have a chair, sub-committees, or working groups. Coalitions may choose to elect steering committee members and establish term limits for committee members or they may choose to be more flexible in their rules. Regardless of size or form, a good steering committee is accountable to the coalition membership and can be changed by members.
A coalition requires leadership at two levels. First, is at the level of the coalition itself and second, within the participating organizations. Coalitions require leadership to guide and coordinate the coalition’s efforts. Coalitions require a collaborative and rotating style of leadership distinctly different from the kind of leadership than an NGO, business or community organization requires. Instead of having the final say about decisions, coalition leaders must promote a sense of inclusiveness among coalition members to achieve consensus on decisions. Strong leadership at the organizational level is necessary to ensure participation and buy-in to the coalition as well as implementation of the coalition’s plan. In the most successful coalitions, the organizational leaders are directly involved with the decision making process of the coalition.
Will a coalition require a dedicated staff member or members? Again, this is largely a question of size, but a dedicated coalition staff member to further the coalition’s interests can be a major asset in the early stages of the coalition. This person might be employed by one of the organizations and dedicate part of their time to the coalition. The staff member would be responsible for coordinating coalition meetings, circulating meeting minutes, and other administrative tasks. As the coalition grows, this coalition staff member might grow to a full time position and eventually, other staff may be hired to deal with finances, communications, and media outreach.
Over time, coalition staff may fill a vital leadership and coordination role in the coalition. Member organizations will rely on them to provide information and direction and the steering committee members may rely on them to provide advice on decision making. A strong coalition staff member will encourage further communication and collaboration within the coalition. A poor coalition staff member will serve as the default leader of the coalition and allow member organizations to detach from working with one another.
Planning for Growth and Change
Coalitions should be wed to issues, not individuals and organizations. Given an accommodating political environment, a well-structured coalition should be able to sustain itself until it achieves its goals. A coalition should be able to accommodate the entry of new members as well as endure the departure of others. No organization or individual should be so important to the coalition that it cannot survive without them. A coalition should also not wed itself to one particular tactic or approach. As with the development of the common cause, the coalition structure should be able to accommodate a changing political landscape.
Keeping Action at the Forefront
The initial stages of building a coalition are critical to the success of your collective mission. Process, form, function, and objectives must be agreed upon unanimously among coalition members in order to ensure that your coalition can function to advance your cause and achieve your goals. While coming to terms on these important details, it is also important to keep in mind that the primary purpose of a coalition is to act. In order to instill confidence in the organizing members of the coalition, it is important to identify and achieve short-term objectives that can be accomplished relatively easily. Many coalitions fail before getting started because they spend all of their time and energy coming to terms on rules of leadership, organizations roles, or administration without moving closer to their objectives. Finding a balance between organizing details and action should be a priority in the early stages of the coalition.
Coalition success can be measured in several ways. The most obvious measure of success is the frequency with which the coalition achieves their goals. Has the coalition convinced decision-makers to pass new legislation or adopt favorable policies? Has the coalition been able to help their constituents access new resources or have they received previously unavailable services?
A second measure of success is the ways in which the coalition shapes the broader political climate or public debate about their issues. Coalitions must recognize that the changes they seek are intimately linked to the political environment in which those changes are made. Has the coalition garnered support for their cause, drawn attention to their issues, shifted dominant values or ideals, and framed their issues as central to social and political reform?
In additional to these external measures of success, an effective coalition also increases its organizational strength and capacity to achieve future goals. The organizational strength of the coalition itself depends on the relationships of the members themselves as well as the capacity of member organizations. Therefore a successful coalition helps build sustainable relationships among its members to further their ability to take collaborative public action. Finally, the coalition fosters leadership among its members and their constituents, and provides greater resources to take future action.
There are some contradictions in some of these measures of success. For example, a coalition may achieve a major policy objective, but in the process, drain resources from other important programs or strain the relationships of member organizations, leaving little prospect for future work together. Alternatively, a coalition may be successful if it improves the organizational capacity of members to do their work even if the coalition fails to achieve its policy objectives.
Even the most successful coalitions don’t usually achieve all of these measures of success. There are inherent trade-offs in the decision making process. Coalition leaders should be aware of these tradeoffs and make decisions carefully.
Coalitions are but one form of collective action that can be used to help create political opportunities in Egypt. As we hope this piece demonstrates, there are no set rules or practices that can guarantee success for a coalition. Coalitions are very much a product of the political and economic circumstances in which they were founded, the types of member organizations in the coalition, and the personalities involved in leading the coalition. Success depends on the ability of coalitions to adapt to changing circumstances, organize to take advantage of political opportunities, leverage their collective assets, and strengthen themselves for future collective action. Something that we have stressed throughout this piece is the need for trust among member organizations and strong communication.
The space for open political dialogue is shrinking in Egypt. No organization, no matter how large or influential, can be as effective in creating this space as several organizations working together towards a common goal. Coalitions are not the answer to every political challenge in Egypt, but used and managed well, they can be extremely effective.
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