Tag Archives: Egyptian protests 2011

Three years since Mahalla

by Edd Mustill

Today Egypt’s April 6th Youth Movement is celebrating its 3rd birthday.

On April 6th 2008, an attempted general strike occurred in Egypt, called by the textile workers of Mahalla. The April 6th Youth Movement was formed initially as a group in solidarity with the Mahalla workers.

The police attempted to stop the strike by forcibly taking over the factory. Within two days, the security services had moved to arrest the strike leaders. They shot and killed Mahalla residents, including a 15-year-old.

The events of April 6th 2008 were part of the strike wave that took place in Egpyt in 2006-8. Some said it marked the broadening of the strikes into political strikes. It gave impetus to other social movements in the country.

April 6th were among those who first called this year’s protest which ousted Mubarak, and are working for further democratisation and for a continuation of the revolution. They recently campaigned against the constitutional changes drawn up by the military, arguing that Egypt needs a completely new constitution.

Today we should remember that the struggle of the Egyptian workers did not just appear on our TV screens out of nowhere. It has been, and continues to be, a long, hard, and bloody fight. Mahalla has been, and will no doubt continue to be, on the front line.

To the workers and students of Egpyt, to the twentysomething-year-old veterans of revolutionary agitation… solidarity on April 6th.


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Egyptian revolutionary leadership

Al Jazeera English have a short and fascinating documentary on their youtube channel, made before Mubarak’s resignation, about the April 6 Youth Movement’s role in the Egyptian uprising.

The film touches on the group’s relationship with other opposition forces and with the army, its practical direct action training and medical aid, and how it has been influenced by Serbian student group Otpor (where its logo comes from).

Among other things, the film points out that the movement was not completely spontaneous and dates back at least three years to the Mahalla textile strike.

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Solidarity with Egyptian workers

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Should we be calling for a general strike?

by Edd Mustill

At the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) conference a few weeks ago, one of the most interesting debates was around whether or not we should, at this point, call for a general strike in Britain as part of a strategy for defeating cuts. It was the first time in a long time that I changed my mind numerous times during the course of a political discussion. I ended up abstaining (cop-out, I know).

The idea of a general strike is being pushed strongly by Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party, and less so by the Socialist Party. The cuts are a general attack on the working class that require a general response, which, so the argument goes, logically leads us to conclude that a call for a general strike is necessarily the correct call to be making.

There have been one or two general strikes in British history; the 1926 strike is indisputable, some say the Chartist “Sacred Month” in 1842 constituted a general strike as well. On other occasions, general strikes have been threatened or nearly materialised, such as in 1919 or 1972.

To drop a dead Russian into my article… Trotsky said that “a general strike, particularly in the old capitalist countries, requires a painstaking Marxist account of all the concrete circumstances.” What is needed to make the slogan of a general strike any less empty than raising the slogan “revolution now”?

A few months ago Charlie Kimber (now National Secretary of the SWP) argued in Socialist Worker that the demand for a general strike is made possible because the rhetoric of trade union leaders shifts leftwards. We can start talking about it when they do, or at least when they talk about the fact that they’re not talking about it. Apparently the need for a general strike is implicitly raised by the union leaders themselves. Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party (SP) puts across a similar argument, saying that the TUC’s pledge for co-ordinated strike action has “unconsciously raised” within the working class the idea of a general strike.

According to these arguments, the ability of the workers’ movement to actually carry out a successful general strike is not a major factor. For some in the SWP the fact that people are, apparently, really angry, is enough proof that a general strike would be pulled off if one were called.

But what sort of general strike are people usually talking about? Most calls for a general strike focus on a 24-hour stoppage, such as has frequently occurred in Greece recently. Hannah Sell has pointed out that numerous 24-hour general strikes in countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy have failed to defeat austerity policies.

1926 - the right model?

The idea of such “warning strikes” is to increase the confidence of the working class. According to the SP, they are to form part of a programme where everything acts as a springboard to something else. So a chain of action develops which looks something like: local protests > a national march > a one-day public sector strike > a one-day general strike > an indefinite revolutionary general strike(?)

The first round of industrial action here, a public sector general strike, could effectively happen legally by different unions balloting separately and co-ordinating their strikes to take place on the same day.

There is a problem though. A one-day “general strike” is not really a general strike. Would this sort of “general strike” pose the question of power in the way that all classical general strikes supposedly do? No. No-one will seriously question where power lies in society just because the TUC, for example, tells them not to go into work on May 1st, especially if they know they will be back in work on May 2nd.

Socialist Worker on September 28th defined a general strike as “when all workers walk out on the same day,” but actually it is much more than that. Real general strikes are called as open ended actions, but cannot last indefinitely (people need to eat). So they raise the question of how to organise society in a different way, without the bosses. This began to happen, for example, in France in 1968. For a revolutionary general strike to be successful, the workers’ movement needs to be capable of rising to these challenges.

We are in a situation where even the more militant unions are finding it very difficult to win clear-cut victories. Witness the RMT in the London Underground dispute over job losses, and the FBU’s long-term battle over changes to shift patterns, for example.

What would a clear-cut victory for a One Day General Strike be? The government abandons its cuts programme? The government collapses? Or we have a successful staging post from which to launch the next, Two Day, General Strike…?

Spain 2010 - set piece?

For unions to be in a position to win serious disputes, we need seriously organised rank-and-file networks that can direct these disputes. Raising a general strike in the manner popular on the British left can lead to the faintly ridiculous spectacle of someone like NUS president Aaron Porter signing a petition in favour of a general strike, on the same demonstration that he is chased off by a militant section of his own union’s membership.

Set-piece strikes will not roll back the government’s programme or force their resignation. Jeremy Drinkall of Workers’ Power (WP) argues: “The events in Tunisia show how to bring down a government – just the threat of a general strike sent dictator Ben Ali fleeing the country. That’s why the Con Dems are so keen to avoid one.”

Perhaps in Tunisia the threat of a general strike toppled Ben Ali, but in Egypt the reality of what was effectively a general strike last week failed to bring down Mubarak.

In the last few days, the Egyptian working class has muscled its way even into the Western media explicitly, because strike action appears to be spreading. We could reasonably suggest that a sort of mass strike process has been going on in Egypt since the Mahalla textile strike in 2006.

A century ago Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet, The Mass Strike, attempting to analyse the strike wave in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution, and the prospects for something similar occurring elsewhere. In it she makes a distinction (at least in English translations) between the general strike as an event and the mass strike as a process. A general strike refers to an all-grades strike in a particular industry, or a general stoppage in a geographical area like a town or city.

The mass strike can last months or years, it can contain within it victories and defeats. It can explode in one industry even as it dies down in another. Within it, political and economic questions are inseparable:

“It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now it is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing set of phenomena.”

Sounds remarkably like Egypt to me. So, simplifying things a lot, we can see the effectiveness of the mass strike in Egypt as against the impotence of the set-piece “general strike” in Greece.

I’m not necessarily saying take the general strike off the table altogether. At NCAFC conference, WP comrades made the very reasonable point that if we as revolutionaries don’t raise it, it won’t get raised. But we always have a responsibility to explain properly what our slogans mean. What sort of thing do we want to see? A series of show-piece strikes, or the situation that Luxemburg describes above?

Let’s take a small scale example. The BA cabin crew dispute has taken the form of a series of set-piece strikes, which are now fighting only for the restoration of working conditions that were taken away as a result of the first strikes. It has lasted well over a year, with large gaps between action, rather than escalation. An alternative proposal would be, for example, to broaden the strike out across the industry, where there is a tradition of unofficial action among some baggage handlers (see the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005). We need to build rank-and-file networks, and popularise militant forms of industrial action like this. These are the sorts of actions that can create the conditions in which a real general strike could be successful.

It is worth mentioning that any action in Britain even remotely like what has happened in Egypt – political strikes, wildcat strikes, work-ins – would be illegal because of our anti-union laws, so were it to take place it would take on a political character because it would bring the working class directly up against bourgeois law. Egypt shows that fighting political and economic battles cannot be separated. A lazy call for a legalistic general strike risks artificially separating them, not to mention making the TUC General Council and union leaderships into something they are not (i.e. radical).

I’m still willing to be convinced that there are ways in which the general strike slogan could be raised right now that make sense. But I think we should prioritise rank-and-file organisation, and the broadening out of disputes at the grassroots through militant action, before we hold our breath for the TUC to deliver the goods.


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Statement from April 6th Youth Movement

This is a statement from the April 6th Movement, sent to their Facebook group a few minutes ago. April 6th was among the first groups to call the current wave of demonstrations in Egypt:

The Egyptian youth Stood & fought against the Tyrants , and we faced their bullets with bare Chests , with all bravery and patience , so hail for the great Egyptian people who made this revolution ,
and so we confirm that victory is in the fall of Mubarak and his Regime .

From the 25th of January “The Egyptian Uprising” we brought down the dictator’s legitimacy…
Who rule Egypt now is the Valiant Egyptian people… to maintain our peaceful uprising and to continue protecting ourselves and our country against the Sabotage of the terror regime‘s thugs.

We will continue what we started on the 25th of January, we the Egyptian youth of who were not deceived by Mubarak’s speech which aimed to absurd the Egyptian people’s feelings, and underestimated their mentality as it has been used for the past 30 years ,with the same fake speeches and promises, and delusional election programs which none of it came to reality.

Mubarak came to this kind of false talk, as a thought from him that the Egyptian people still can be deceived and believe his false words
as he just replaced some of his thugs by others and still killing and arresting people,Mubarak lost credibilty and will never gain it again from his the Egyptian people as they know now how to fight for their rights and ready to die for it.

We wil not accept any kind of negotiatons before Mubarak departs..
We will not give up until we achieve our demands..

April 6 Youth Movement
Egyptian Resistance Movement

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The February Theses

by Anne Archist

Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…


1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…

Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].

True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

I don’t have anything to add here…

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

I don’t have anything to add here either.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.


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Egypt: Symbolism and leadership

by Edd Mustill

نبيل مرموش Revolution is about taking POWER.. not waiting on a square thinking it will be delivered on a silver plater.

So says a contributor to ongoing debates on the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, from where calls for some of the recent protests originated.

I am of the opinion that a march on the presidential palace on Tuesday would have triggered a chain of events that would have brought down the regime. The army, having said publicly that it would not fire on the protesters, would probably have fragmented and let the protesters out.

None of this can be said with any certainty of course, but many of the same conditions still exist now, on Friday. The biggest difference is the presence of pro-Mubarak forces, organised and armed, which appear to be mostly security forces, or at least driven by security forces. They basically seem to constitute a fascist militia.

The symbolism that has been attached to Tahrir Square in recent days is incredible. Geographically, it is the heart of the revolution. It has hosted one of the biggest political gatherings in world history. But at this point holding onto the square in itself is meaningless. It is not a centre of political power. The regime is happy for people to stay there, surrounded by its militia, who can and probably will attack and kill protesters as they leave in small groups as the night goes on.

In this situation, the best solution seems still to be a march on the presidential palace. According to Al Jazeera’s live stream, the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups oppose such a march because it may spark violence. But there is already violence; the violence of the regime targeting protesters holed up in Tahrir Square. It is impossible to tell what the plans of the opposition are, if indeed there are any. Having labelled today as the “Day of Departure,” what will they do if Mubarak doesn’t depart?

Yesterday Al Jazeera interviewed a British-based academic who argued that if and when the army fragmented it would be along horizontal, not vertical, lines. In other words, the rank and file would join the revolution and the officer corps would remain loyal to the regime. She even compared the situation to Russia in 1917. The army is doing nothing for one of two reasons. Either the generals fear it will fall apart as soon as they give orders to intervene, or they are waiting for the ideal moment for a military takeover. The longer the opposition waits, the more likely the army is to intervene decisively for the regime.

Of course, we cannot tell comrades in Egypt what to do, but I have no doubt that thousands of people around the world who are watching events unfold are willing them to do one thing: March.

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