The Arab 1989 revisited

The establishment and deepening of a democratic culture is a long-term project and is intergenerational. As divisions open up between the elites and the street as well as within the elites, the events of 2011 across the Middle East and North Africa represent a powerful first step in a larger process of transformation.
David Held Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
27 September 2011

In our previous article in openDemocracy, published on the day of Mubarak’s fall in February, we argued that the emerging Arab Spring overlapped with 1989 in important ways. We wrote that the uprisings sweeping across the Middle East portended a political transformation as significant as 1989 in Eastern Europe, and that economic stagnation and the failures of corrupt and repressive autocratic regimes intersected with a disenchanted youthful population wired together as never before. Yet we also identified a number of significant differences between developments in 1989 and 2011, in particular the lack of a common vision for the transformation of the Middle East. Assessing the situation seven months later, as the initial peaceful demonstrations in Tunis and Cairo have given way to a messy and uncertain pathway of transition, civil conflict in Libya, Yemen and Syria and a totalitarian crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, does our earlier argument hold, or is it in need of revision?

In this new article, we will review the course of the Arab Spring in three steps: 1) looking at the key country developments; 2) comparing and contrasting these developments and looking for common patterns and differences; 3) returning to the big themes of revolution and transformation. The course of events since the dramatic ousting of Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak from power in Tunisia and Egypt, and subsequently Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, suggest that we may be witnessing a transition of elites rather than a democratic revolution. Elsewhere, autocratic regimes are fighting hard for their survival and Saudi Arabia is spearheading a counter-revolutionary pushback in the Gulf States while attempting to manage the direction of change elsewhere. Moreover issues of social justice and the redistribution of wealth away from embedded networks of patronage and ‘crony capitalists’ remain largely untouched. Thus, as spring and summer turn to autumn, the progression of the Arab Spring appears very uneven and likely to produce highly differentiated outcomes, but should nevertheless be seen as a transformative first step in a long-term process of change.

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Although the trajectory (and outcome) of protest differs in each country, reflecting diverging regime-types and levels of resource endowment that condition how polities absorb the pressures for change, four broad categories emerge. These are: countries where largely non-violent transitions have already taken place (Tunisia and Egypt), others where persistent protests may yet lead to greater degrees of constitutional rule and political plurality (Jordan and Morocco), states marked by sustained violence as regimes fight for their survival (Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria), and the resource-rich countries of the Gulf that are leading an authoritarian counter-charge against the Arab Spring (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).

The defining feature of the remarkable ousting of longstanding autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt was the military’s refusal (for the most part) to open fire and crush the protestors. Faced with a choice of backing a beleaguered autocrat or attempting to violently repress the demonstrations, military elites eventually opted for the latter, giving the Presidents no option but to step down. In both countries, the former ruling parties (the RCD in Tunisia and the NDP in Egypt) have been dissolved, but the path toward constitutional and political reform has been controversial and strewn with obstacles. Initial controversy in Tunisia centred upon the timing of elections to a Constitutional Assembly, originally scheduled for 24 July but subsequently postponed until 23 October. Heated debates between the twelve main parties of the transition commission over the length of the move to democracy eventually resulted in agreement on 15 September for a one-year period for writing a constitution and holding parliamentary elections. Tunisia’s relatively small and well-educated population means it is perhaps the best-placed state affected by the Arab Spring to undertake a successful (and gradualist) shift to democratic rule.

There is greater pessimism about Egypt’s political transition, where the military leadership under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi have been attempting to discredit the pro-democracy movement by accusing them of accepting foreign donations, following a ‘foreign agenda,’ and delaying a return to normalcy following the February revolution. Outbursts of great violence have further marred a fraught and fractious move into the post-Mubarak era. On 29 June, more than 1000 demonstrators in Tahrir Square were injured in clashes with police while, on 9 September, a further 1000-plus protestors were injured while attempting to besiege and storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The two episodes highlighted, firstly, public anger at the grip of the ruling military council on the speed and direction of reform, and secondly, the potential unravelling of the geopolitical settlement bequeathed by the Mubarak regime to a restless population.

On the first point, governing power passed to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in February, and it suspended the Constitution, dissolved parliament, and announced a six-month period of military rule until elections could be organised. On 19 March a constitutional referendum gained 77% approval for a package of reforms and democratic safeguards. They included presidential term-limits, judicial supervision of the electoral process, and restrictions on the ability of the president to declare emergency rule. However, the reforms were criticised by substantial elements of the political and popular opposition as neither going far nor fast enough toward ending military rule. Parliamentary elections originally slated for September were postponed until 21 November, and SCAF angered activists by barring international monitors from the vote. Democracy campaigners express concern for the vulnerability of the democratic process and point out that the real revolution – covering issues of social justice and redistribution of wealth -  will require stripping away the ‘crony capitalists’ and vested interests that mostly survived the ousting of the old regime.

The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel represented the cornerstone of regional geopolitics since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978. Successive Egyptian presidents (Sadat and Mubarak) cooperated with Israeli security demands, in part through the controversial sealing of Egypt’s border with Gaza. This alienated much Egyptian opinion which regarded the Mubarak regime as complicit in the blockade of Gaza and the suffering of the Palestinian people. Following the removal of the Mubarak ‘safety valve’, tensions flared with a series of attacks on the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula. They escalated further on 18 August, when gunmen from Sinai infiltrated southern Israel and killed eight Israeli soldiers, leading to reprisals that killed six Palestinians allegedly linked to the attack and three Egyptian security officers. In the aftermath of the 9 September demonstrations, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture banned Al Jazeera from broadcasting and stopped new satellite television permits. Officially justified as combating ‘media unruliness,’ the moves reflected SCAF concern at the damaging perception of the image of Egyptian police resorting to violence to protect Israeli interests from Egyptian demonstrators.

A second category of states inhabit a ‘halfway house’ whereby persistent levels of protests have neither ended nor escalated into civil uprisings. In Jordan, almost weekly protests have occurred in Amman and other major cities that occasionally have led to small-scale confrontations with the security services. King Abdullah reacted by dismissing the government on 1 February, and its successor rapidly unveiled a package of measures that included salary increases for civil servants and the military, and reductions in the price of food, fuel and staple goods. This notwithstanding, protestors continued to call for greater political freedoms and accelerated moves toward a constitutional monarchy. Moreover, Jordan’s request to join the Gulf Cooperation Council in May suggests a desire to strengthen the monarchical bulwark against the participatory demands of the Arab Spring.

The successful deflection of discontent in Jordan (at least for the time being) contrasted with an accelerating pace of protest in Morocco. Tens of thousands of demonstrators expressed dissatisfaction with King Mohammed’s 9 March promise of comprehensive constitutional reform. Instead, they called for greater political changes, including legislative elections, an independent judiciary, and an end to corruption. Troublingly, the security services adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward pro-democracy and pro-reform demonstrations, with escalating street clashes and rising police violence in May and June. These peaked with demonstrations of more than 60,000 people in Rabat and Casablanca on 5 June against police brutality. The King responded by speeding up constitutional reforms that were approved by a hastily-arranged referendum on 1 July, giving the prime minister and parliament more executive authority and calling for parliamentary elections in November 2011 instead of September 2012.

These measures seemed to avert a tipping-point whereby the demonstrations adopted a momentum and trajectory of their own. There is nevertheless a danger that stop-gap or partial measures leave unresolved the basic divergence of expectations between authoritarian regimes bent on limiting concessions and opposition movements advocating deep and meaningful shifts in the source and distribution of power. Tellingly, the reforms implemented by the King fell short of the protestors’ demands in March, and illustrated the gulf between top-down and bottom-up visions of reform. In both Jordan and Morocco, it remains to be seen whether (and how) these differing viewpoints can be reconciled into a consensual settlement for political reform.

In the third category of cases this threshold has already been crossed. Opposition in Libya rapidly escalated into a nationwide uprising against Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. The regime’s brutal response demonstrated one of the lessons absorbed by dictators from the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings – that mercenary military personnel have fewer qualms about shooting at civilian demonstrators (this also was a feature of the Bahrain Defence Force’s crushing of protests). Gaddafi’s past record as an international pariah, and the concern that government forces might commit appalling massacres in rebel-held areas to regain control, led to the mobilisation of an international coalition to provide humanitarian protection to the rebels. NATO-led air strikes began on 19 March while a National Transitional Council (NTC) formed in Benghazi to provide a political voice to the rebels. Although the 17-member NATO coalition encountered stubborn resistance that lasted longer than anticipated, the regime finally imploded on 20-22 August, leaving pro-Gaddafi forces dug-in but isolated in one or two remaining towns.

External military intervention of a very different sort also occurred in Bahrain. Initial pro-democracy demonstrations brought together Sunni and Shiite protestors demanding political reform and an end to social and economic inequalities. This burgeoning social movement panicked the ruling Al-Khalifa family whose grip depended on the sectarian politics of divide-and-rule. Faced with the possible downfall of a ruling family, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened militarily to save the Al-Khalifa from their own population on 14 March. This was followed by a brutal crackdown as the Bahraini regime mercilessly closed down all avenues of dissent, going so far as to arrest doctors and lawyers for treating or representing detainees. Although the state of emergency rule was lifted on 1 June, an inconclusive National Dialogue and flawed Independent Commission of Inquiry merely widened the divisions within a society polarised between an enraged opposition and implacably repressive government.

Saudi nervousness over the instability in Bahrain stemmed partly from its determination to prevent a fellow ruling family from falling, but also because of the unfolding crisis on its southern border with Yemen. There, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the great survivor of Middle East politics, suffered a steady loss of support from the military and tribal pillars that underpinned his 33-year rule. Despite recurring hints that he would step down, Saleh clung to power even as his base of support narrowed to little more than the presidential palace in Sana’a. Key allies, such as General Ali Mohsin Al-Ahmar and the powerful Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations, abandoned Saleh, while Saudi and US support ebbed away. Street fighting for Sana’a and other cities in late-May was followed by the attack on the presidential palace on 3 June that caused Saleh’s medical evacuation to Saudi Arabia. His son Ahmed Ali remained in the palace in Sana’a backed by the Special Security Forces and National Security Bureau controlled by cousins Yahya and Ammar, while the fragile opposition bloc fragments. Flashpoints of violence, such as the sniper attacks by forces loyal to Yahya Saleh on protestors in Sana’a on 18 September which killed 26 people and injured more than 300, continue, as the flailing regime clings to power. Saleh's surprise return to Yemen on September 23 is unlikely to alter the balance of forces, with further protest and violence inevitable.

The final example of violent confrontation is Syria, where the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad has bloodily suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations but failed to extinguish them altogether. This has given way to a stalemate whereby neither the state security forces nor the opposition can muster sufficient strength to settle the issue. As is the case in Libya and Yemen, the Syrian security forces have shown a willingness to inflict mass killing to put down demonstrators. This has stimulated memories of the 1982 massacre of up to 20,000 people in Hama ordered by Assad’s father, as the cities of Baniyas, Homs and Dera’a have been besieged by government forces. The overwhelming violence used against demands for political reforms and civil rights isolated Syria within the regional and international community. It led the US to impose sanctions on Assad and senior Syrian officials in May, while in August Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah forcefully called for regime change. The powerful Saudi-owned pan-Arab media outlets have vehemently opposed Assad’s crackdown, particularly following the ‘Ramadan Massacre’ on 31 July.

Quite distinct from the three categories above is the condition of the resource-rich Gulf States. While not immune from pressures for political reform, oil and gas reserves have shielded the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait from the Arab Spring. Officials have largely sought to pre-empt any unrest by lavishing their citizens with cash handouts and economic inducements. A case in point is Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a massive $130 billion welfare package unveiled in two decrees in February and March, involving the creation of 60,000 new jobs in the (already-bloated) Ministry of Interior, the setting of a minimum wage in the public sector, a one-off bonus for civil servants, and the construction of 500,000 new houses for disadvantaged Saudi youth. These measures may dampen calls for change, but are not fiscally sustainable, and they directly undermine strategies of economic diversification and productivity enhancement. They also put off the day of reckoning when even these states will have to implement sensitive political and painful economic reforms.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE also emerged as the leaders of a counter-revolutionary resistance group against change. They clamped down hard on domestic dissent, arrested prominent activists and closed down what political space and civil society existed. This has damaged the reputation of the UAE in particular, owing to its high-profile global ‘branding’ partnerships with leading western cultural and educational institutions. Meanwhile they spearheaded the mooted expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council to include Jordan and Morocco, reinforcing sceptics’ views of the organisation as a club of (Sunni Arab) monarchs battling against the tide of history, and leading one former US official to remark that GCC stood for the Global Counterrevolution Club.

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 What patterns of commonality or difference explain the various trajectories and outcomes of protest described above? Across the region, a number of underlying dynamics of discontent lay behind the outbreak and rapid spread of the Arab Spring. These included the intersection of a better-educated youth population with highly-developed social networking skills and widely shared perceptions that authoritarian governments simply could not address deep-rooted social and economic stagnation. Eroding regime legitimacy among the young – for whom older post-colonial discourse meant little in the face of daily struggle to find employment and make ends meet - facilitated the fusion of political and economic discontent. A profound intergenerational gap opened up between the youth and the gerontocracies unable to comprehend the nature and scale of contemporary challenges in a networked world connecting people and ideas as never before. Above all, the revolutionary mobilisation occurred around universal concepts of personal and political freedom, justice, dignity and self-respect, rather than around Arabism or Islamism.

A qualitative difference between the Arab Spring and previous bouts of political unrest was its largely leaderless nature. This reflected the power and utilisation of social networking and other online and communicative technologies. Sites and drivers of protest moved decisively beyond the careful parameters of official opposition constructed by ruling elites to maintain a veneer of participatory pluralism. Its ‘headless’ character was critical both to the mass  mobilisation around the universal values of freedom, justice, dignity and human rights in Tunisia and Egypt, and to the emergence of large-scale opposition in the face of intense regime suppression in Libya and Syria. Aside from demolishing simplistic western stereotypes reducing political appeal to a binary choice between concepts of Arabism and Islamism, the indigenous, bottom-up nature of the protests gave them powerful local legitimacy.

Another game-changing legacy of the Arab Spring is its shattering of the legitimacy of authoritarian rule. The latter has been the mantra of almost every post-colonial regime in the Middle East and North Africa and looks set to endure for the foreseeable future in Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf States. However, its popular rejection (and support for alternatives) in Middle East countries means that one-party rule based on brute force alone is no longer sustainable, even if embattled regimes are prepared to fight for its survival in the short-run. Instead, successor (or reformed) governments will need to construct new sources of legitimacy based on the principles of consent rather than coercion. This will be particularly important as they grapple with the potentially-disruptive challenges of institutional restructuring and confront the enormous economic and demographic problems at hand. It will not be easy to address the immense socio-economic challenges of rampant unemployment, corruption, and perceived economic marginalisation. Successor regimes will be vulnerable to the heightened expectations of a public eager for betterment, and to the inevitable disappointment and disillusionment should material circumstances fail to significantly or rapidly improve.

In the countries that have undergone a change of leadership, two major divisions have emerged. The first is divisions between the elites and the street. This is most evident in Yemen. Former allies of Saleh only abandoned him after the momentum created by the massive demonstrations in February and March. The highest-profile defector, Ali Mohsen, had previously been feared even more than Saleh himself in his capacity as Yemen’s top-ranking military commander. Although Yemen’s political factions coalesced into the Joint Meeting Parties coalition, they coexisted uneasily alongside the demonstrators, who accused the parties of attempting to seize control and shape the protests in their interest. The same bifurcation between the demonstrators and the elites – many still embedded in the ousted regime’s networks of power and patronage – underlies the tensions between SCAF and the Tahrir protestors outlined in the previous section. In the run-up to the November election, a succession of planned large-scale labour strikes will test the potency and depth of the gap between the people and the (new) regime.

The second division is that within the elites as they grapple over the succession. This is also evident in the intra-elite machinations in Yemen but it is most pronounced in Libya. Tensions simmered between members of the NTC who had served in senior positions within Gaddafi’s Libya (including its chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, and military head, Abdul Fatah Younis) and longstanding opponents of any engagement with the regime, between rival rebel brigades in Benghazi, Misrata and the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya, and between the NTC and an influential Islamist faction headed by Abdul Hakim Belhaj. Younis’ assassination on 28 July and Belhaj’s call (as military commander in Tripoli) for Jibril’s resignation in early September visibly articulated the fissures in the rebel movement, threatening its cohesion and suggesting that the battle for control in post-Gaddafi Libya may only be just beginning. Difficulties in forming a post-revolutionary cabinet incorporating NTC and Islamist figures are a portent of the splits that lie ahead.

Both instances listed above illustrate some of the challenges and obstacles to democratic transition.  The largely leaderless nature of the initial demonstrations insulated them from party weaknesses and constraints in the struggle to oust their leaders. However, this initial strength will likely become a liability if it prohibits the formation of political parties or organisations that can counter and dilute the influence of the powerful vested interests bent on maintaining the status quo. The fact that the transformative change originated outside the formal political organisations means demonstrators and activists risk playing a reduced and more confused role compared to previous examples of democratic transition. Hence, the leaderless weapon that proved so effective in overcoming the authoritarian legacy of segmented societies may become the Achilles Heel in the attempts to embed and take further the initial gains.

Set against this backdrop, new authoritarian networks are mobilising and collaborating in a bid to contain the revolutionary fervour and shape it in acceptable directions. This in part reflects the fact that it is easier to rally around a common theme of opposition to a dictatorial leader than to articulate an alternative vision that appeals to all ideological strands and participants. Complex – and divisive – core issues concerning political orientation, approaches to development, minority rights and, not least, the balance between state and religion, were temporarily put aside in the mass gatherings in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Change Square in Sana’a, and the Pearl Roundabout in Manama. The question of what next – the ‘day after’ conundrum – has illustrated the durability of authoritarian legacies in the face of contested identity and religious and ideological fragmentation.  Indeed, the successful example of a regime blunting and destroying a putative revolution (in Bahrain,) saw the Al-Khalifa adopt selectively violent and highly sectarian tactics that divided the opposition, exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions, and made horizontal mobilisation virtually impossible.

On a region-wide basis, a form of counter-revolutionary pushback has been projected by Saudi Arabia. Saudi policy has been more nuanced that a simple opposition to any form of change, evidenced by official (if belated) support for a change of leadership in Yemen, Libya and Syria. Instead, policy-makers in the Kingdom have sought to channel the contours of unrest in ways that support their regional interests. This has been especially the case in their southern neighbour, Yemen, but elsewhere, pronouncements that Gaddafi and Assad had forfeited their ruling legitimacy by resorting to mass violence represented an attempt to distance the Kingdom from the tyrannical maintenance of power through coercion alone. Such pronouncements also divert regional and international attention from Saudi Arabia’s military intervention to crush the uprising in Bahrain, and provision of multi-billion dollar economic incentives to Egypt, Jordan and Oman.

The high-profile role of Qatar and (to a lesser extent) the UAE in enabling the Libyan rebels to topple Gaddafi constituted a further example of the Gulf States attempting to channel revolutionary fervour in their interest. Their activist Libya policy provided them a welcome breathing space from the pressures generated by the Arab Spring that had been erupting uncomfortably close to home. It allowed the GCC states to position themselves against a repressive regime and make a high-profile stand against tyranny. Qatar, especially, aligned its support for the protection of human rights and democratic expression with the (western-led) international community. With the UAE having intervened in Bahrain in support of authoritarian rule, and in Libya in support of opposition to authoritarian rule, it underscored how the same concept of intervention can mean very different things in different contexts.

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The course of events since February indicates elements of consensus and division in three constituencies – within the countries affected directly by the Arab Spring, within the west, and within the international community as a whole. It is still far from clear, and also too early to tell, if the Arab revolution will transition toward democratisation and the consolidation of its institutions and values. Significant obstacles remain unresolved in states weakened by the legacies of authoritarian rule, lacking autonomous civil society organisations and freely independent political parties, and unsure of the relationship between the citizen and the state inherent in concepts of citizenship.

Reading the situation in terms of a narrowly procedural definition of democracy provides a misleadingly optimistic snapshot. In September alone, three of the most autocratic Gulf States are holding elections, to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia, to a toothless Federal National Council (lacking legislative power and featuring a limited and hand-picked electorate by the rulers) in the UAE, and in parliamentary by-elections to replace the opposition MPs who resigned in protest at the crackdown in Bahrain. But these elections do not mean that the Gulf is democratic, nor do they signify that the ruling families are prepared to cede or redistribute any meaningful power and decision-making authority. The elections in Tunisia and Egypt later in the autumn will provide a more legitimate test of the strength of participatory mechanisms and direction of public opinion in the post-revolutionary moment.

Democratic transition is about much more than the mere conduct of elections, important though these are. They are about internalising and embedding concepts of social justice, inclusion and cohesion as a starting-point for reformulating the relationship between the state and its citizens. The development of a substantive democratic culture and the maturation of the political system will inevitably be a long process, as it has been elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Multiple transitions need to occur on political, economic and social levels. The broad swathes of Arab societies that came out in support for the ending of authoritarian rule will need to maintain their commitment to reform in the face of lingering political violence by regime and non-state actors alike. The evidence from the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 illustrates how revolutionary activists can become co-opted into the networks of elite-controlled political and economic power they sought to overthrow.

This brings us to the crux of the issue – is the Arab Spring shaping up to be a true revolutionary moment or merely a change of elites that simply reproduces the inherited structures of power? Beyond the removal of the person of the dictator and his immediately family (most notably his sons), can the broader regime of ‘crony capitalists’ and networks of patronage be removed? Is the military a part of the ‘old regime’ and can it be trusted to oversee the move toward democracy, as, for example, in Egypt? Can a counter-elite emerge to challenge the existing elite, as has happened (democratically and without a revolution) in Turkey after 2002? How will the successor regimes cope with the massive socio-economic challenges, such as unemployment and economic exclusion, and with the inevitable disillusionment when people’s material situation fails to improve overnight? And will the international community support all countries in transition, rather than cherry-picking support where it is in their interests (such as Libya) and condoning state-repression where it is not (such as Bahrain)?

These issues will only become clearer in the longue duree. What has happened so far in the Arab Spring should be read cautiously but should not be analysed too negatively, notwithstanding the challenges listed above. For the establishment and deepening of a democratic culture is a long-term project and is intergenerational. The events of 2011 across the Middle East and North Africa represent a powerful first step. The fall of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and possibly Yemen and Syria is a key element of a larger process of transformation.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? A definitive guide will only become apparent in the years to come, and it is the case that what began as a popular revolution in January and February now looks increasingly like a case of elite transition. However, the genie has been let out of the bottle, and the transformative impact of new media and methods of communication is enabling citizens across the Arab world to reclaim the public sphere and shape public discourse around notions of accountability, justice, and freedom. These are powerful forces that have decisively shattered the barriers of fear that propped up tired and elderly autocrats for years and decades. Here, the participatory pressures and demands for political and economic freedom and reform are essential building blocks in the enabling environment that will sustain any eventual democratic transition. The galvanising effect of the outpouring of popular power and fury with the status quo means there is at least no going back to what went before; the exact nature of the structures that replace it remains to be seen.

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