e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution


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e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution

  1. 1. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution eDemocracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution Hend Alhinnawi University of Southern California 1
  2. 2. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution Abstract The Middle East, home to the world’s authoritarian regimes and brutal dictatorships,witnessed a revolutionary transformation in 2011, beginning with Tunisia and spreading toEgypt, Libya and Syria. Years of frustration, oppression, unemployment, poverty and unfairliving standards, pushed people into the streets and massive protests soon erupted. On January25, 2011, Egyptians took to the streets and ultimately ended the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak.During this 18 day revolution, Egyptians used ICTs, mainly satellite television, mobile phones,and social media to organize protests, provide crucial information and share their movement withthe world. Additionally, face-to-face communication was essential in not only facilitating thisrevolution, but in building a network based on trust between the protesters. The movement inEgypt has been referred to as the “Facebook and Twitter revolution,” and undoubtedly, socialmedia played a crucial role. However, the high diffusion of satellite television, mobile phonesand the face-to-face communication culture in Egypt were the defining factors in spreadinginformation, organizing protests and influencing public opinion and actions. This paper willexamine various research on the Arab Spring, and particularly the Egyptian revolution to furtherunderstand how the different channels of communication played out in Tahrir Square, and whichwere ultimately more influential. 2
  3. 3. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution Introduction After nearly 30 years in power, the Egyptian people said kefaya (“enough”). In 2011,something incredible happened in the Middle East. It started in Tunisia, and it quickly spread toLibya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia and there is no end in sight. This Arab awakening,fueled by ICTs, including satellite television, mobile phones and social media has every regimein the region sitting scared, desperately trying to hold on to their thrones. On January 25th, 2011,it was Egypt’s turn to rise. With a populationexceeding 82 million, Egypt is the 15th mostpopulous country in the world. 1 Under HosniMubarak’s rule, there was vast corruption,high unemployment (almost 10%), low wages(Egypt’s GDP ranks 113/154 countries),police brutality and judicial abuse of power.While dissatisfaction had been brewing for years, the 2010 killing of an Egyptian blogger namedKhaled Said sparked protests that would eventually lead to Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power. Political activism in Egypt was nothing new, in fact, there were many protest earlier inthe years demanding political, economic and social reform. In 2011, and capitalizing on themomentum in Tunisia, the protests in Egypt took an interesting and unexpected turn. In 18 days,people occupying Tahrir Square, and under massive international pressure, forced HosniMubarak to resign. While there are many theories on how and why this happened, there issufficient research suggesting that effectively combining the internet, satellite television, mobilephones, face-to-face communication and social media is what made this particular uprising asuccessful one.1 Referenced from CIA World Fact book/Egypt 3
  4. 4. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution The Spark In 2010, police beat and killed Khaled Said, an Egyptian blogger, who had posted a videoonline of police officers sharing the spoils of a drug bust. Within days, a Facebook page titled“We Are All Khaled Said” was established and it had over 80,000 followers. “All of us areKhaled Said, because all of us might face the same destiny at any point in time." 2 When peopletook to the streets on January 25th, 2011, to protest government corruption, torture and failures,no one dreamed that 18 days of protesting would end a 30 year dictatorship. The protests fueled by the killing of Khaled Said were different. They came at at a timewhen ordinary citizens could post their stories, share their thoughts and express to the worldwhat was happening in their cities. The large penetration of satellite television, face to facecommunication and social media were the key ingredients that made the difference in Egypt.Unlike previous protests, the world was watching the events unfold in Cairo, 24 hours a day,seven days a week. By the time the protesters in Tunisia were in the streets, Egyptian youth wereready to follow. The spread of information about events across the region through satellitetelevision, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter fueled these protests and allowed for asolidarity among the populations living under these dictatorships. “By expanding access topolitical, social, and spiritual narratives beyond the control of the state, satellite broadcasting andthe Internet have encouraged different ways of relating the self to the culture at large, and in sodoing, they have offered the building blocks for individuals to imagine themselves as part of thewider world in ways never before possible. Both a reflection of and a catalyst for theglobalization and regionalization of culture, the flood of information, entertainment, andmediated experience of the wider world forces Arabs to live in the larger narratives of global2 Referenced from: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/02/02/eveningnews/main7311469.shtml 4
  5. 5. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutionmodernity. It is within this context that the masses of young people in Egypt refused to acceptany longer the reality imposed upon them by the regime of Hosni Mubarak.” (Elseewi, p. 5) Egypt is the second biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, receiving more than $2 billion ayear. The money is used to support police and army related activities, which is widelycondemned for its perpetration of human rights abuses. 3 “This, too, is a crucial part of the basiccontext because it not only informs us about the overall weight of the Internet when matchedagainst other tools: It tells us what was at stake to topple Mubarak. Finally, and related to thispoint, we think it is important to differentiate between the importance of penetration rates forshaping public opinion to convince a critical mass, and for organizing certain political efforts.”(Alexander, p.8). I would argue that in the case of the Egyptian revolution, the Internetpenetration rates were important in both shaping public opinion, inside and outside of Egypt,while simultaneously playing a role in organizing political efforts. Wael Ghonim An Egyptian citizen named Wael Ghonim was instrumental in the Egyptian revolution.Ghonim, Head of Marketing for Google in the Middle East and North Africa is an Internetactivist and has now made history when he started the Facebook page “We Are All KhaledSaid.” After creating the page and calling for the anti-government protests on January 25th, heworked to mobilize protesters on the ground, and was subsequently arrested by the Egyptianauthorities. Wael Ghonim was jailed for 11 days, his family presumed that he was dead. OnFebruary 7th, 2011, Ghonim was released and he made a statement to Dream TV, CNN andother satellite based television stations. His interview was emotionally moving and he called forthe end of the Mubarak regime. Wael used news and media outlets in Egypt and globally to send3 Figures and statement are referenced from Human Rights Watch, 2004. 5
  6. 6. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutiona message of unity among the Egyptian youth and called them to action. Across the Middle East,people felt empowered. They became citizen journalists, and even if they themselves didn’t haveaccess to the Internet, they asked their friends to post their thoughts and videos. During a CNNinterview in 2011, Ghonim stated: “I always said that if you want to liberate a society just givethem the Internet. The reason why is the Internet will help you fight a media war, which issomething the Egyptian government regime played very well in 1970, 1980, 1990, and when theInternet came along they couldn’t play it.” (Russell, p.4) Access to the Internet gave people the opportunity to tap into different channels,including news stations and social sites. It was key in connecting the protesters to a globalpopulation, and show the world first hand what was going on in their country. “Dictatorshipswork best in darkness; they capitalize on ignorance as well as fear. But today, more and morepeople know things, all kinds of things – political, cultural, social. They vacuum up informationfrom an ever-growing universe of sources. Some of what they acquire is accurate, some of it not.Conversation, which is an essential element of democracy, is more pervasive and ranges fartherafield than ever before. All this is a function of the connectivity enabled by social media alongwith other information and communication technologies.” (Seib, p.14) The Internet In “Analyzing the Role of ICTs in the Tunisian and Egyptian Unrest from an InformationWarfare Perspective” the authors discuss how political and social activists use technology,including the Internet, to further their objectives. The Internet provides immediate access toaudiences, and in turn creates a situation where social warfare and information can thrive. Thepaper provides numerous examples of how ICTs were used successfully in previous uprisings. 6
  7. 7. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution“...mobile phones and online social networks have been used to orchestrate anti-governmentprotests in the Philippines, Iran, Moldova, and Urumqi in China (Pillay, van Niekerk & Maharaj,2010). The first use of ICTs in a protest context in Africa was in Mozambique during the 2010riots over the increase in food prices (Jacobs & Duarte, 2010). The unrest in North Africa and theMiddle East is the latest in this emerging trend of using ICTs to facilitate mass protest actions.”(van Niekerk, Kiru & Maharaj, p.2) The proper use of ICTs in a revolution is not only crucial interms of disseminating information, but also for delivering a message to a global audience,ultimately creating a psychological frame that influences media coverage and perceptions. According to “The Egyptian Revolution: Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution”Egypt has 23 million broadband Internet users, and 9 million mobile phone Internet users. TheMinistry of Communications and Information Technology (2010) reports that 80% of householdshave mobile phones and 30% have access to the Internet. In March 2009, Facebook launched anArabic version of its website, and within two years, the number of Facebook users had tripled.This is particularly important because a high percentage of Egypt’s demographic is young, and itis expected that in less than 10 years, the majority of the Egyptian population will be Internetusers. According to the United NationsDevelopment Program and Arab HumanDevelopment Report in 2009, few postindependence Arab states havetransitioned to a democratic government,and subsequently, civil society falls victimto restrictions that hinder their ability to 7
  8. 8. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutionoperate. Adding on to this issue is the high percentage of young people living under theseoppressive governments. “This “youth bulge” makes the Middle East one of the most youthfulregions in the world, with a median age of 22 compared to a global average age of 28 (UNDP,2009). However, many youth are unemployed, with 33% of Egypts youth staying at home(Hokayem, 2011). This lack of employment among many youth, combined with nepotism,corruption and state repression, has seen the Arab social contract fracturing (Hokayem, 2011),making many countries ripe for a people’s revolution.” (van Niekerk, Kiru & Maharaj, p.5) The combination of an angry youth population, coupled with ICTs created the perfectenvironment which led to protests and a revolutionary movement.“The Arab world has alwaysbeen an early adopter of “mass media” technology. Egypt, in particular, is perceived as a leaderin the adoption of technology and also as the country with the largest number of Internet users inthe Arab world (Abdulla, 2007). Lynch (2007) argues that Egypt has some of the most activepolitical bloggers in the Arab public sphere, with Arab political blogging becoming morepolitically relevant. This is supported by Etling et al., who contend that Egypt bloggers comprisethe largest structural cluster in the Arab world. Blogs intersect and compliment existingtransnational media, allowing for dissident groups and their sympathizers to tap into themainstream (Ajemian, 2008).” (van Niekerk, Kiru & Maharaj p.5) In 1999, the government launched a campaign aimed at expanding Egypt’s informationtechnology capabilities by offering free Internet access, low-cost computers, and communityInternet centers. “According to Internet marketing research firm Internet World Stats, inFebruary 2010, more than 21% of Egypt’s population of 80 million had access to the Internet,and more than 4.5 million used Facebook (Internet World Stats, 2011). Additionally, more than70% of the population had a mobile phone subscription (Arab Republic of Egypt Ministry of 8
  9. 9. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day RevolutionCommunications and Information Technology, 2010).” (Eltantawy & Wiest, p.6) Access to theInternet allowed bloggers to blossom in Egypt, and it became a platform for tackling tabooissues. “In the early 2000s, several Egyptian bloggers became prominent for tackling thornyissues. The initial blogs were only published in English, but the development of Arabic softwareencouraged the creation of more blogs in Arabic, thus attracting a wider domestic audience(Hamdy, 2009). As the Egyptian blogosphere grew, activists began utilizing othercommunication technologies, including social media like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and cellularphones. April 2008 marked the first Egyptian instigated cyberactivism attempt, in which activistscreated a Facebook page to join textile workers in Mahalla on a general strike. Although theFacebook page attracted 70,000 supporters, the strike was harshly defeated by state securityforces.” (Eltantawy & Wiest, p. 6) Ultimately, the knowledge gained using social media duringthis protest, proved useful in the 2011 Tahrir square uprising and subsequent revolution. In “Media Ecologies, Communication Culture, and Temporal-Spatial Unfolding: ThreeComponents in a Communication Model of the Egyptian Regime Change” the authors discussthe importance of how the social evolution and liberal control policies in Egypt, enlarged thevirtual space that was critical for a public sphere to form before the revolutionary movementgained momentum. “The increasing popularity and the more censored traditional mass mediaspace, along with the liberal Internet control policies, enlarged the virtual space for a criticalpublic sphere before the revolutionary movement gained momentum. It also established a virtualplace to both express dissenting voices and flourish counter-hegemonic discourses. Although thisexpanded public realm is mostly occupied by social elites, online discussions helped to create anawareness of possible political change within a previously a political youth that helped intransfering the virtual uproar to the streets and the traditional mass-mediated public sphere. In 9
  10. 10. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutionthe pre-protest period, Egyptian Internet activists used Facebook predominantly as a platform forknowledge seeking and sharing. They established transnational networks between activists inArab and non-Arab countries in order to exchange information about strategies for successfulpolitical resistance and protest.” (Rinke & Roder, p.5) Satellite Television The wide spread access to satellite television in the Middle East, played a large role in thespread of information, particularly coverage of the revolutions, which brought a sense of unityand support from different communities across the region. “Comparing the sputtering, fact-challenged official state television coverage of the revolutionary demonstrations withinternational broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, BBC, and CNN dramatically illustrated thatEgyptian television was no longer able to impose its preferred reality upon its citizens. Egyptianstate television has to deal with the realities of competition with the hundreds of Arabic-languagechannels being broadcast on satellite television throughout the entire Middle East, as well as withthe masses of people creating their own media truths on YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, andother Internet sites.” (Elseewi, p.4) Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s former Director General statedthat Al Jazeera’s role was to liberate the Arab mind. “We created the idea in the Arab mind thatwhen you have a right, you should fight for it." 4 In 2011, the ability for citizens to look to different sources for the truth became apowerful tool in fighting the media war around these revolutions. They were no longer criminals,animals or illegitimate fighters disrupting everyday life. Satellite television gave people a chanceto see from different sources what was really going on. “As state television showed scenes of theNile flowing comfortingly, calmly through central Cairo, as it has always flowed, Al Jazeera4 Referenced from: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/11/28/the_big_think 10
  11. 11. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day RevolutionEnglish and Arabic were broadcasting from inside Tahrir Square when violence broke outbetween government thugs and demonstrators. Meanwhile, middle-class demonstrators wereposting their videos and tweets online. Repeated attempts by the Egyptian government to shut AlJazeera down, either through violent or technical means, failed. Their attempted shutdown of theInternet and the mobile phone networks in the entire country resulted in an outcry from theworld, who was watching, and from neutral Egyptians. It was never clearer that reality was nolonger solely in the hands of the state. It also became clear that, just as the state had failedEgyptians in terms of job creation, human rights, education, the environment, and everythingelse, it had also failed in its ability to dictate cultural reality.” (Elseewi, p.4) Authors of “Media Ecologies, Communication Culture, and Temporal-Spatial Unfolding:Three Components in a Communication Model of the Egyptian Regime Change” point toanother important factor within the ecology of the Egyptian uprising when discussing televisionbroadcasting. “Due in part to high illiteracy rates and a cultural preference for orality, televisionis a highly popular medium in the Egyptian public sphere. We can differentiate between threekinds of TV networks: national state-run channels, national private satellite channels, andtransnational satellite channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The coverage of the state-ownedchannels under the Mubarak regime was devoid of criticism toward the political elites, andinterviews or talk programs were carefully orchestrated and supervised by the informationministry. This type of reporting also characterized coverage of the political protests, andtherefore, it stood in sharp contrast to the transnational channels, which showed hundreds ofEgyptians demanding their civil rights. State television promoted a dishonest version of eventsand broadcast calm scenes of Cairo street traffic or aired patriotic songs in favor of theestablished regime. All of this happened against the backdrop of a recent top-down liberalization 11
  12. 12. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutionof the Egyptian media system during the last years, through which the Egyptian government hadreacted to the development of media globalization, and which had led to a more pluralistic mediaenvironment dominated by private satellite channels and more independent newspapers (Khamis,2008). These developments were generally regarded as having resulted in an expanded criticalpublic sphere. The role of transnational media outlets was yet another important element duringthe revolutionary process in Egypt.” (Rinke & Roder p.7,8) Mobile Phones In the midst of the protests in Tahrir square, people used their mobile phones to documenttheir struggle through pictures and videos that would go online within minutes.When 72% of theEgyptian population owns a mobile phone, they quickly become a great tool to utilize. Inaddition, most social networking sites allow you to post messages using short message services(SMS) in case the Internet is sparse or inaccessible. For example, a protester can text or tweet astatus update or even your geographical location with a message. According to “MediaEcologies, Communication Culture, and Temporal-Spatial Unfolding: Three Components in aCommunication Model of the Egyptian Regime Change”, sensitive information aboutdemonstration venues and guidelines were spread through e-mail and short message services(SMS). “Communication through these technologies draws more on personal networks servicesand therefore, it allowed for both a more flexible spread of semi-public information services anda mobilization of people who were not connected to social network sites. People were also askedto print out protest guidelines and distribute them among their friends and colleagues. Theprotest organizers also used SMS to spread the call for support of the protests in various forms:either physically, by joining the demonstrators on the streets, or symbolically, by just waving theEgyptian flag from balconies. This likely was an effective approach to reaching a large number 12
  13. 13. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutionof people. One important reason for that is the fact that, according to Ghannam (2011), 72% ofthe Egyptian population uses mobile phones.” (Rinke & Roder p.6,7) Oral Communication The communication culture in the Middle East thrives on oral and face-to-facecommunication. It factors in trust, family, friends and is essential in how social networks areformed. “Oral communication, more so than in the Western world, has a striking advantage increating the resource of trust, and thus it was indispensable in the creation of a protest movementthat was based to a large extent on one-to-one mobilization. The culturally specific functions oforal modes of communication necessarily interact with the two other components of an empiricalcommunication model of the Egyptian Revolution.” (Rinke & Roder p.3) Their research suggeststhat while in Western socities, e-mail, phone calls and handouts are more central incommunication, for the Egyptian revolution, there was “need for orality.” Distinct cultural normsand forms of communication in Egypt dictated specific patterns in which political protests unfoldin terms of time and space. “The “need for orality” during the early stages of protest formation,for example, tends to lead to locally entrenched pockets of an initial resistance where an identityand organization for the movement is developed and spread, especially under authoritarian rule.Similar examples of such a cultural specificity are the local concentration of politicalcommunication among citizens in the Friday Mosque and the consequences of Friday being thetraditional day of public political protest for the temporal dynamics of the revolutionarymovement. (Rinke & Roder p.3) 13
  14. 14. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution Social Media According to the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report, there is alarge growth of Arab Facebook users. “The total number of Facebook users in the Arab worldstood at 27,711,503 as of April 2011, up from 21,377,282 in January 2011, an increase of 30percent. The number had almost doubled since the same time the previous year (14,791,972 inApril 2010).” (Seib, p.11) Regimes in the region had not fully understood the magnitude ofsocial media and how the public was consuming it. In 2011, there were an estimated five billionmobile phones in use, and two billion people who had access to the Internet. People are able toconnect to one another virtually anywhere in the world, and that creates new kinds ofcommunities. 5 That means people were able to connect to Facebook using their mobile phones,and that in turn connected them globally to numerous communities. The high mobile phonepenetration in Egypt also meant that people were able to call one another, send text messages andeasily disseminate crucial information, including protest sites and location of the secret police.“Unlike 20th-century nationalistic or Islamic transformations, this change is not accompanied byor born out of strictly defined ideologies. Instead, we are witnessing the result of ongoing deeptransformations in the practices of cultural consumption and production in the Arab Middle East.This change is represented and put into motion by a transformation in the ability of “regularpeople” (i.e., those with access to limited resources) to consume new kinds of media, as well asto produce and distribute their own media via social networking, YouTube, and other electronicdistribution networks.” (Elseewi, p.1) Facebook and Twitter proved to be powerful tools during the 18 day revolution in Egypt,because unlike television, these outlets provided a more raw sense of what was going on in thestreets. “Television functions as a distancing technology while social media works in the5 Referenced from “Real Time Diplomacy” by Philip Seib 14
  15. 15. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutionopposite direction: through transparency of the process of narrative construction, throughimmediacy of the intermediaries, through removal of censorship over images and stories(television never shows the truly horrific pictures of war), and through person-to-personinteractivity, social media news curation creates a sense of visceral and intimate connectivity, indirect contrast to television, which is explicitly constructed to separate the viewer from theevents.” (Seib, p.15) As protesters poured into Tahrir Square, police and military stood readywith tear gas and guns. At one point, when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet,hackers worked to restore a connection. “Within hours, the OpenMesh Project, a volunteer-based initiative, was working to create secondary wireless Internet connections. The projectcreated mobile routers connected through mobile phones and personal computers. Technologycompanies donated low-cost mini routers. Innovators donated patents.” (Russell, p.3) The act bythe Egyptian govenment to shut down the Internet speaks volumes to the power of the Internet,and how it was used to share stories and information with audiences within and outside of Egypt.In our world today, shutting down the Internet will not stop protesters from conveying amessage, there are other ICT tools in place, including mobile phones with built in cameras andsatellite television. During the protests in Egypt, respectable news organizations, including the BBC and AlJazeera had live feeds from Egypts’ streets, facebook updates, text messages and that created acontinuos process of information that was beamed to audiences worldwide. An interview withone of the protesters noted that during the early stages of the revolution, Twitter provided amechanism by which contact were made between activist and journalist. “During the sit-in inTahrir, people from the international media often looked for our hashtags [grouped messages],and got in touch with us through Twitter. This was how we got to speak on their shows. So some 15
  16. 16. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolutioncommunication with the mainstream media internationally started on the social networks.” 6(Alexander, p.5) The interviewee goes on to explain that during a blackout, there was littleinformation coming out of Egypt. Hence, bloggers, activists, journalist collected the informationphyscially and transmitted it physically or electorically, so they can spread the word about whatwas going on in Egypt. “For an important layer of Egyptian opposition activists, we argue thatthe Internet similarly became a sphere of dissidence. As one of the interviewees, Noha Atef,explains, it was a place where people could and did meet others who shared their opposition tothe Mubarak regime and exchange information about protests: To have a space, an online space,to write and talk to people, to give them messages which will increase their anger, this is myfavorite way of online activism. This is the way online activism contributed to the revolution.When you asked people to go and demonstrate against the police, they were ready because youhad already provided them with materials which made them angry. (Interviewee Atef, 2011)”(Alexander, p.5) Conclusion In the midst of the Arab awakening, ordinary citizens had become journalists, and thesejournalist aided by ICTs, were bringing viewers all over the world their side of the story. A sidenot filtered by the government, and not censored by broadcasting guidelines. The Egyptianrevolution demonstrates the power of ICTs, including satellite television, mobile phones, socialmedia and when combined with face-to-face communication, can yield powerful results. 76 Referenced from an interviewee, Gharbeia-20117 Chart referenced from “Media Ecologies, Communication Culture, and Temporal-Spatial Unfolding: ThreeComponents in a Communication Model of the Egyptian Regime Change.” 16
  17. 17. e-Democracy: Egypt’s 18 Day Revolution Medium How it Worked What Did it Do?Social Sites, blogging, Twitter, Pre Protest: Mobilization, Facilitated Pan Arab IdentityFacebook knowledge, raised political and broke the barriers of awareness. traditional mass media spheres. During Protest: Mobilization, disseminating information, sharing experiences.Transnational Television Pre-protest Period: Renewed Engagement withStations Arab Journalism Practices Transnational Public Sphere Popularity of TV as oral medium mass media coverage During Protest: Popular spread of events of protestEmail, SMS, Mobile Phones During Protest: Cooperation Combined with a preference with TV Channels spread for Oral Communication information. provided information and built trust between the protesters.To the Egyptian people fighting this revolution, the ICT technology combined with face-to-facecommunication made all the difference. The world was watching them, debating their issues,tweeting about them, sharing Facebook posts and You Tube videos, and combined with theirfight for in the streets pressured Hosni Mubarak to step down. 17
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