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‘Umar Makram: The "Patron Saint" of Tahrir Square

January 31st, 2012 Comments off
‘Umar Makram Statue

Over the past year, as Egypt’s drama has played out, I have periodically noted some of the deeper historical aspects of some of the scenes of the action. On the day Husni Mubarak resigned, I posted “A Brief Biography of Tahrir Square,” and when the religious clash occurred near the Radio-TV building, popularly known as “Maspero,” I explained how an innocent antiquarian/archaeologist named Gaston Maspero ended up with his name gaining notoriety.

‘Umar Makram Mosque from Tahrir

In that same vein, I thought I’d introduce another historical note: ‘Umar (or Omar) Makram. We’ve had occasion a number of times to mention the ‘Umar Makram Mosque, which sits on Tahrir Square and has functioned as both a prayer center and, more than once, a field hospital for the demonstrators. In more peaceful times, the mosque is a popular site for celebrity or prominent funerals (and weddings), given its prominent location on Cairo’s main square (which as we have noted before, is round.) In fact, a funeral from ‘Umar Makram is a sign of prestige (a sign the departed has, so to speak, arrived.)

I have used the phrase “patron saint” of Tahrir Square in my title, but ‘Umar Makram is not even buried in the mosque named for him, but in one of the city’s vast cemetery complexes. Despite its popularity and prestigious role, given its location, the mosque (left) is not an ancient one: it dates only from 1948.  The statue of ‘Umar Makram looking out at Tahrir Square (above right) is even newer, dating only to 2003.

Egyptians who paid attention in their history classes should know who ‘Umar Makram was, but I suspect most foreigners, even those living in Cairo, probably don’t.

‘Umar Makram

Naqib al-Ashraf Sayyid ‘Umar bin Husayn Makram (1750 or 1755-1822) was a leading religious figure of his age, a center of resistance to Napoleon’s French invasion in 1798-1800, and a key figure in winning religious support for the recognition of Muhammad ‘Ali as viceroy of Egypt, and thus the establishment of the Muhammad ‘Ali dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952 (and reigned until 1953). Ultimately like many kingmakers, he fell afoul of the king he had made too well.

I should note that I can’t post a lot of links for further reading here; there isn’t that much about him on the Internet; even his Arabic Wikipedia page is pretty sparse. There is a longer account with more detail here, however, also in Arabic. So for my account I am forced to find other sources as well, and, since I’m old enough to predate the World Wide Web by a considerable margin, I still have a collection of an older information retrieval system technology, known as books. I’m drawing much of this from Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot’s Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali and from various accounts of the French expedition.

‘Umar Makram was born in Asyut in Upper Egypt around 1750 or 1755. He attended Al-Azhar, and was also a descendant of the Prophet. In 1793 he was chosen as Naqib al-Ashraf, a post in Ottaman administrative system that had both religious and civil functions as head of the body of descendants of the Prophet. In effect he shared religious leadership with the Azhari leadership and the heads of the Sufi orders. He was politically active in leading resistance to high taxation even before the French arrived.

When Napoleon’s French expedition landed near Alexandria in 1798, Makram helped organize resistance to the French. After the French defeated the Mamluk military forces at Imbaba, Cairo was left undefended except for local militias raised by Makram and the other religious leaders. After Napoleon took Cairo he declined an offer of a position and retreated to Bilbays, leading a resistance in Sharqiyya province. He retreated to Gaza and eventually to Jaffa, where in 1798 the French, during their invasion of Palestine, caught up with him. He was returned to Egypt and sent into internal exile in Damietta.

After Napoleon’s return to France, Makram returned to Cairo, and in 1800 led a new uprising against the continuing French occupation.  With the French departure, Makram’s prestige as an activist who could mobilize the religious establishment and the street (including organizing boycotts by shopkeepers and other forms of protest) enhanced his influence in the anarchic years that followed the French withdrawal.

The French occupation had severely crippled the power of the Mamluks, and struggles for power among various Mamluks and Ottoman attempts to reassert authority in Egypt led to several years of internal struggle. Makram and the religious ‘ulama’  plaid an activist role. In 1805 he and the other religious leaders to depose the Ottoman viceroy, Khurshid Pasha, and replace him with the Albanian military leader and adventurer Muhammad ‘Ali. Thus he and his allies were instrumental in bringing to power the man who would dominate Egypt for a generation and found the dynasty that would rule onto the mid-20th century.

Muhammad ‘Ali in 1840

For several years, the alliance between Makram and Muhammad ‘Ali held. The religious establishment supported Muhammad &lsqluo;Ali’s rejection of the Ottoman Sultan’s firmans attempting to transfer him out of Egypt, land backed his ongoing struggle with the Mamluks (which would end with the destruction of the Mamluks in 1811). When a British expedition took Alexandria in 1807 (the Ottomans were allied with France in the Napoleonic Wars, so Britain was at war with the Porte from 1807 to 1809), Makram helped organize resistance in Cairo while Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha was fighting a Mamluk insurrection in Upper Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Pasha frequently used Makram and the religious establishment for justification in his efforts to tax and control the Mamluks’ iltizam feudal lands. Eventually, though, the alliance frayed, as Muhammad ‘Ali’s efforts o centralize power led him to covet the rizqa endowment lands of the religious establishment. Makram’s frequently demonstrated ability to organize the Cairo street and mobilize against a political figure. Kings tend to distrust the kingmakers who made them, fearing they might do it again with someone else; Pashas apparently entertained similar suspicions.

In 1809, Makram sought to lead a revolt against this taxation and was stripped of his posts. He had finally met a match he could not outmaneuver, and was retired to internal exile in Damietta and, eventually, to Tanta, where he died in 1822.

Makram’s resistance to the French made him a symbol of opposition to foreign occupation, leading to a revival of interest in him during the national struggle against the British. Ironically, the now-iconic mosque on Tahrir Square was erected during the reign of King Farouq, the great-great-grandson of Muhammad ‘Ali.



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A New, Bilingual Egyptian Opinion Journal: Midan Masr

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

A new, bilingual monthly newspaper and online site called Midan Masr has launched; they publish their content in both English and Arabic, and translate articles so that the content is the same in both languages. Their English homepage is here and their Arabic here.

They offer a lengthy statement of purpose stating that they welcome all points of view on matters Egyptian. Excerpts:

Midan Masr’s mission is to be a focal point for this rich, passionate, and heated explosion of voices and opinions. Midan Masr will commit to reflecting the full spectrum of discussion and debate taking place regarding issues that affect Egypt. 
We are a neutral and independent monthly paper that solicits and publishes opinions from a cross-section of political, religious, ideological, and philosophical persuasions that reflect the full spectrum, richness, and complexity of the debate taking place in Egyptian society.   
We strongly encourage and welcome first-time writers, seasoned writers, bloggers, photographers, cartoonists, and ultimately anyone who wishes to express his or her opinion on any of the issues affecting Egypt to submit their contributions in Arabic or English to info@midanmasr.com. The newspaper is available throughout Egypt . . .

While our inaugural site covers a broad range of topics and points of view – we are acutely aware that there are many points of view and ideologies that are not reflected in this issue. This is not for lack of attempting to cover those points of view; rather it is a reflection of the authors that we have been able to reach. We will actively continue to broaden the ideological and geographic diversity of contributors – with a particular focus on Egyptian authors from provinces outside of Cairo.

It looks promising, but I’m glad there’s both an Arabic version and a print version, giving it some chance to be read outside just the Cairo intelligentsia.


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Falconry and Chicanery

January 31st, 2012 Comments off


Falconer in Qatar

The hunting trip is a time when falconers night spend up to six weeks away from their homes, families and business in the desert. These days the trip need no longer be frugal and it is possible to provide every comfort.

So writes the Qatari veterinarian Faris al-Timimi in his 1987 book Falcons & Falconry in Qatar (Doha: Ali bin Ali Press). I met Dr. al-Timimi in 1988, when I was conducting research in Qatar on the seasonal almanac knowledge of the Gulf. He showed me some of his prized falcons and explained the long established practice of hunting with falcons in Qatar. At that time a superb falcon might be worth $30,000, so I can only imagine what a prize falcon would sell for in today’s commercially enhanced Qatar. Unlike many other sports, where the animals are domesticated and, in Darwinian terms, bred for the task, the best hunting birds are said to be those captured young in the wild. Those that are captured and kept for a future hunting season are those who excel at catching the bustard (Chlamydotis undulata), known in Arabic as the houbara.

There is a rich literature on Arab falconry,known as bayzara in Arabic. In his 10th century bibliographic survey of Arabic books, Ibn al-Nad?m listed ten books on the subject, in addition to the numerous references that would have been found in other kinds of texts. Today both texts and videos are only a click away in cyberspace, including sites devoted specifically to falcon hunting in Qatar. Al-Jazeera recently posted a photographic montage on the most recent hunting expeditions in Qatar. In addition to the use of falcons, followed by high-speed cars rather than racing camels, there is the use of hunting dogs. While the trajectory of a falcon on its prey is purely natural, the sport of hunting dogs has reached a true dog-days syndrome, as an contraption-bound gazelle along a mechanical path substitutes for the open range, the host of SUVs spurting up dust. I do not doubt that Abbasid princes or Mamluk sultans would have adopted the same vehicular superiority, if they had known it, but there is something pitiful about an animal trapped in a mechanical game that does not give the prey a sporting chance.


The “sport” of the canine chase in Qatar

Daniel Martin Varisco

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Syria’s Crisis Deepens: Does Internationalization Loom?

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

The events of the past five days in Syria may be a game changer, both domestically and internationally. Last Thursday, opposition forces said, 100 people were killed. Massacres were alleged in two towns. The daily death toll has been rising. On yesterday, Monday, AFP reported another 29 persons killed, including 23 civilians and 6 members of the security forces. Troops moved into the rebel-held town of Rankus north of Damascus, after besieging and shelling it for days. Rebels blew up a gas pipeline. Rebel troops, made up of deserters, ambushed a minivan carry 6 regime military personnel on their way to quell the rebellion.

On Sunday, the al-Hayat writing in Arabic had reported that 66 persons had been killed in violence. Some 22 of the dead were regime troops. That half the dead were combatants suggests a further militarization of the conflict.

Opposition spokesmen said that on Sunday troops killed at least 5 persons inside Damascus in neighborhoods taken over by the opposition. The army then went on to rebel-held Ghuta just east of the city, where at least 26 were dead in clashes after the regime sent in 2000 troops backed by 50 tanks. The fighting neared the capital itself. They described the battles as the fiercest of the whole uprising. “It was urban warfare,” once said. “There were corpses in the streets.”

Units of the armored division were sent to some six cities over the weekend, with the army shelling places such as Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour, and Idlib. Regime use of tanks and artillery against its own population had provoked international intervention in Libya.

On Saturday, about 50 Syrian troops in the province of Homs had defected.

The contest between the Baath Party in Syria and its opposition over the past year has been surprising in its perseverence and longevity despite a stand-off that has given neither side any real reason for optimism. Usually when a popular movement has no real successes for months on end, it gradually peters out, as happened in Iran in 2009-2010. In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, the movement had had little success in the capital or the second largest city, Aleppo. Massive crowds in the capital are important because they can be so large that security forces can no longer control them, and they can suddenly move on the party headquarters, the Ministry of the Interior, or the presidential palace. Their lack in Damascus has allowed the regime to survive. Opposition figures argue that the security forces are simply too strong in the capital, and that if there were less repression, the crowds would be out in large numbers. This argument is not entirely convincing. Egypt’s Amn al-Dawlah or state security police were no slouches either, after all.

But the extremeness of the violence in at least part of the capital this weekend marks a new level of challenge to the regime, and the very perseverence of the uprising all these long months, with the violence now spreading to the capital, bodes ill for the survival of President Bashar al-Assad. The high officer corps is loyal to the regime, being either relatives of the president or drawn from the same Allawi, Shiite sect as he. But the more brutal his army’s tactics, the less legitimacy he retains, and the brutality necessary to repress keeps being ratcheted up.

The intensification of the violence comes, as Ian Black at The Guardian notes, as the regional and international politics of the Syrian crisis is coming to a new boil. The Arab League’s observer mission, manipulated by the regime and proven useless, has been withdrawn. Two high Arab League officials are briefing the United Nations’ Ban-ki Moon and the League may go to the UN Security Council for an intervention, as it did with Libya. Russia expressed dismay at the Arab League decision. Russia has a naval base in Syria on the Mediterranean, and has long viewed Damascus as a client, going back to Soviet times, and wants to forestall UN intervention there.

The UNSC is expected to take up the Syria issue again on Tuesday. That the Security Council may become more aggressive in seeking an international resolution of the crisis frightens Bashar al-Assad, since most likely the international community would pressure him to step down and start a transition to a new order in Syria.

So far, Russia and China have run interference for Damascus at the UN. Russia may be especially reluctant to back down on Syria given the upcoming presidential election, in Which Vladimir Putin will want to look strong against the West. The Libya intervention was extremely unpopular in Russia, where it was seen as neo-imperialism, and forestalling American and European meddling in Syria might make Putin look strong at home.

On the other hand, the more brutal the regime becomes, and the more unpopular, the more Russia risks taking a big fall in the whole Arab world if the Baath collapses. Sami Moubayed argues that Russia is now backing an Arab League/ Saudi plan calling for Bashar al-Assad to delegate most of his power to his second in command, Farouk al-Sharaa, who should form a national unity cabinet with members of the opposition Syrian National Council in preparation for moving to new elections. (This plan resembles the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for Yemen, which, while so far implemented, has not worked very well). But that Russia is planning to meet Syrian oppositionists and seems to be content with al-Assad being pushed at least somewhat aside indicates that the president’s days may be numbered.

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Turkish Finesse: "There is no [good] end for this. The end is certain. The question is how painful it will be!"

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

The president said authoritarian rulers in the Middle East have two options, which he said are either carry out reforms or face foreign intervention. “If they do not do that and do not bring order to their lands, foreign intervention will be inevitable,” he said.
“Some think that we want war in Syria. Turkey has done everything in its power for a transformation under the leadership of the president. We did everything except beg for it, …We worked so hard [to convince Assad]. We told him that one day you will regret it, one day you will say, ‘I did this and that, but it will be too little, too late, … Syria is unfortunately on a path of no return. The important thing is that this process is not dragged out. There is no [good] end for this. The end is certain. The question is how painful it will be,” the president also said…
The president was also asked about the comments that the region has been dominated by Iran during the interview. He played down an alleged Turkey-Iran rivalry in the Middle East…”



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"It seems that our arm-twisting with the Russians hasn’t borne fruit!"

January 31st, 2012 Comments off
“… Syrian human rights activists said they are placing increasingly desperate hopes on the UN.
“It has become the last chance for the Security Council to Act,” Syrian pro-democracy activist Radwan Ziadeh told Yahoo News in a telephone interview from New York Monday.
Ziadeh is one of a group of Syrian opposition activists who had just come from a meeting Monday with Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin. So far, Ziadeh said, the Russian envoy gave no sign Moscow would budge on its opposition to a resolution condemning Assad.

Syria is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East. “But we hope in last minute negotiations Russia agrees to not use its veto, to at least not block a resolution,” Ziadeh said.
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said Monday that the United States and allies would back a resolution drafted by Morocco on behalf of the Arab League. She said that since the draft does not call for Libya-style military intervention or even new sanctions, the resolution should not raise objections or require extended debate. Still, she did not rule out the idea that Russia would block the measure.
Russia’s continued objection to Security Council condemnation of Assad has both political and economic components.
“Basically there are domestic constraints that [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin is under because has his own election process and … his giving in to pressure abroad and dumping Assad would not look good for him domestically given he has faced protests at home,” Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Yahoo News Monday. “It seems that our arm-twisting with the Russians hasn’t borne fruit yet.”



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Ziocons hard at work: "How the Americans will feel proud?"

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

Message is: ‘Invade my country, kill my people, but do it well!’

“… He expressed concern that Americans “will face the same problem as they faced in 2003,” when a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and unleashing a wave of sectarian violence.
And he said he did not understand how U.S. President Barack Obama is able to characterize Iraq as a free, stable and democratic country.
“What sort of Iraq we are talking about?” he asked. “How the Americans will feel proud? How the American administration is going to justify to the taxpayer the billion of dollars that has been spent and at the end of the day the American saying, ‘Sorry, we have no leverage even to put things in order in Iraq’?”
Though Iraq’s instability may not affect this year’s election campaign in the United States, “it is going to affect the American interest in the region, and they should be very much concern about that,” al-Hashimi said. “The future of Iraq is grim.”…”



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The law in these parts

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

From a long piece by Eyal Press in the New York Review of Books Blog, How the Occupation Became Legal:

In 1979, a group of Palestinian farmers filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice, claiming their land was being illegally expropriated by Jewish settlers. The farmers were not Israeli citizens, and the settlers appeared to have acted with the state’s support; indeed, army helicopters had escorted them to the land—a hilltop near Nablus—bringing along generators and water tanks. The High Court of Justice nevertheless ordered the outpost dismantled. “The decision of the court… proved that ‘there was justice’ in Jerusalem and that Israel was indeed ruled by Law,” exulted one Israeli columnist.

But the frustration of the settlers did not last very long. As revealed in The Law in These Parts, an engrossing new Israeli documentary making its American debut at the Sundance Film Festival, just hours after the ruling was handed down, Ariel Sharon, a keen supporter of the settlement project who was then Israel’s Minister of Agriculture, organized a meeting to discuss how to circumvent it. Alexander Ramati, then a legal advisor to the West Bank military command, raised his hand to tell Sharon about an Ottoman concept known as “Mawat land.” The Ottomans, who had controlled Palestine until World War I, had used the term to designate land far enough from any neighboring village that a crowing rooster perched on its edge could not be heard. Under Ottoman law, if such land was not cultivated for three years it was “mawat”—dead —and reverted to the empire. “With or without your rooster, be at my office at 8:00 in the morning,” Sharon told Ramati, who was soon crisscrossing the West Bank in the cockpit of a helicopter, identifying tens of thousands of uninhabited acres that could be labeled “state land” and made available to settlers, notwithstanding the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on moving civilians into occupied territory. In the years that followed, a string of new settlements was built on this territory, eventually prompting another challenge before the Israeli High Court. This time, the Court denied the challenge, ruling that settlement construction was permissible while Israel served as the temporary custodian of the territory. This provided a legal basis for land expropriation that has since enabled hundreds of thousands of Israelis to relocate to the West Bank.

Read the rest, which is about a new Israeli documentary on the legal justifications for the settlements, The Law In These Parts.



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The regional diplomacy of Syria

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

Here’s a little mix of links under the theme “Diplomacy on Syria as a subset of, Iran-Saudi/UAE/Qatar, Sunni-Shia rivalries and the US-Saudi-Israel alliance”, a riff off Roula Khalaf’s good analysis piece in the FT, Riyadh plays its hand over Syria:

Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent Saudi commentator, sees Syria policy now as part of “the war against Iran”, one strand of a multifaceted battle that includes Saudi support for the European oil embargo and western financial restrictions on the Islamic republic. Amid growing confidence that the kingdom has escaped the winds of change sweeping through the region, he adds, the attitude in Riyadh is “let’s get the most” out of the situation.

Yet no one in Riyadh is under any illusion about the complexity of the crisis in Syria – a country with a delicate sectarian balance and a strategic position in both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni Arab states’ power struggle with Shia Iran. The conflict on the ground, moreover, has become increasingly militarised as defectors challenge Mr Assad’s security forces, and the government loses control of parts of the country.

Saudi Arabia has now given fresh ammunition to western allies at the UN Security Council to push back against Russia, which has so far blocked action. The Arab League is asking the Security Council to adopt a peace plan that calls on Mr Assad to give powers to a vice-president and form a national unity government.

The rest of the links:

[Thanks, PM]



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Controversial US Police Chief hired by Bahraini Interior Ministry

January 31st, 2012 Comments off

I missed this, but it turns out that in addition to a bevy of lobbying – much of it centered on English-language media management – before and after demonstrations peaked, Bahrain’s government was also quick to tap American expertise in containing public demonstrations following the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report:

… the former police chief of Philadelphia and Miami, John Timoney, has been recruited by Bahrain’s Interior Ministry to advise the Bahrainis on policing strategies, will come as no comfort to those in the opposition hoping that the next American intervention would be more constructive. They may be particularly sceptical considering his policing style was so notorious it came to be dubbed Timoney’s ‘Miami Model’ by Jeremy Scahill, a journalist who covered the chief’s heavy-handed policing of protests around the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit meeting in Miami in 2003. Timoney’s militarized crowd control strategy involved ‘the heavy use of concussion grenades, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges to disperse protesters.’

Timoney has a reputation as a turn-around police chief from his work in the US, but his handling of these demonstrations has made him controversial. Another controversial cop, John Yates of the UK, (who gained notoriety during the News of the World voicemail hacking scandal) is also working with the Interior Ministry now. Given the charges of torture presented against Bahraini police, I imagine everyone in these circles is keeping the case of Ian Henderson in mind, a former British colonial officer who led Bahrain’s secret police for 32 years and gained the sobriquet “Butcher of Bahrain” because of the security apparatus’s use of torture against dissidents during that time.

Security ties such as this are by no means uncommon in the region, though the focus is usually focused on counterterrorism rather than public demonstrations. The Monitor Group, a Massachusetts-based lobbying firm, helped Muatassim al-Qadhafi train and staff his proposed National Security Council before the Libya uprising curtailed its creation. The New York Times reported last May that Erik Prince, former Blackwater chief, was building up a mercenary army in the UAE on the Crown Prince’s dirham. Israel and the US often share counterterrorism techniques and trainings. The US has been involved in past Bahraini police trainings, as have trainers from the UK: “British police have helped to train their counterparts in Bahrain, Libya, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” The Independent reported. The Saudi National Guard, which was deployed in force to Bahrain last spring, also received UK training. Military and intelligence training for security forces is also common – Iraq, of course, is the most notable Middle Eastern example of such a (multinational) effort, but the US has also funded and trained Lebanese, Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, and West Bank Palestinian security forces.

Although Washington places great emphasis on the place of ethical conduct in these courses, ethics don’t mean much when the police in question are not held accountable to civil society and operate as a state within a state. WikiLeaks shows that the FBI had trained members of the notorious State Security Investigations in Egypt.

Elham Fakhro and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen note that while “recruiting John Yates and John Timoney to re-train Bahrain’s security services may play well in London and Washington,” it “leaves unresolved the structural exclusion of large numbers of Bahraini citizens from an organisation many perceive as exclusionary and deeply-partial.”

Blogger and Bahrain watcher Justin Gengler is a bit more forthright in his criticism:

Bahrain is covering all of its bases. If you are going to bring in a expert trainer in police brutality [Timoney] then you are definitely going to want someone [Yates] specialized in illegal wire-tapping and police surveillance as well, not to mention someone who recognizes the need to withhold a page or two (or 11,000) of evidence for reasons of political expediency.



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