|by Elham M Manea
This paper was presented to the
International Colloquium on Islam and Social Change at the University of Lausanne on 10-11
October 1996. It was later translated into French and published as "La
tribu et l'Etat au Yémen" in Mondher Kilani (ed): Islam et
changement social, pp 205-218. Lausanne: Editions Payot.
2. Historical background of the tribal role in Yemen
3. The tribes in North and South Yemen before unification
4. The tribe and the state in unified Yemen
5. Conclusion: Contemporary implication of tribe-state
The Republic of Yemen,
founded in May 1990, represents the only democratic country on the Arabian Peninsula. It
is still facing serious political, social, and economic challenges. Because the primary
social unit of the Yemen's social structure is the tribe, scholars exploring Yemeni
politics have often assumed that tribalism plays a negative role in the political life,
thus exacerbating the problems the country faces. This essay is an attempt to explore the
relationship between the state and the tribe in Yemen and to assess the constraints, if
any, that the tribal structure puts on the country's political process. By doing so, I
will first touch on primary issues pertaining to the historical background of Yemen and
its tribal structure. I will then go on to describe the relationship between the tribes
and the state before and after the unification, and conclude with some implications of the
state-tribe relations on statehood and nation-building. The paper, nonetheless, does not
claim to have any theoretical connotation. It is an attempt to understand the reality of
the state-tribe relations in Yemen during different periods.
of the tribal role in Yemen
social unit of Yemen and, more generally, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula is the
tribe. The Qahtan tribal confederation - believed to be the descendants from Qahtan, one
of Noah's sons - are common in the south of the Peninsula, especially in Yemen and parts
of Oman.1 Their life style is different from their nomadic counterparts in
the northern parts of the Arabian peninsula. They are peasants who settled and established
themselves in certain areas - a feature that allowed them to create the ancient
agricultural civilization of South Arabia.In fact, the tribes in ancient Yemen constituted the structural
foundation of the state, at the time in the form of kingdoms. These kingdoms, such as
Ma'ien, Shiebah, and Himiar, were not only named after certain tribes. Some historians
have even asserted that in certain cases the leaders of particularly powerful tribes were
able to unify the tribes into a confederation and could become kings themselves. Over time
a functional separation between the ruling monarchy and the tribal institution was
nonetheless evident. For example, the kingdom of Ma'ien which dates back to the 14th
century BC, was founded based on a tribal and monarchical alliance. Accordingly, the
country was ruled by two establishments: the king or the queen and a tribal council
composed of the tribal confederation. However, the king or the queen had limited power and
was required to consult the council in state's affairs, taxation, land ownership, and
agricultural regulations. The tribe in this framework was a positive factor that enabled
its members to settle in designated areas, organize economic activities, and while at the
same time further the ability of the state to control a particular area and extract
The collapse of this ancient state
characterized the beginning of the tribal independence of the state. It also designated
the difference between the role of the tribe in the Southern part of Yemen and its
counterpart in the North. The most dominant tribes in the South belong to the Himiar and
Madhhij confederations. The presence of fertile lands in this area encouraged the
inhabitants to maintain their economic activities and to work as farmers, at the time of
the central state's disintegration. Agriculture helped to dissolve to a certain degree the
tribal roots of these groups and led to the creation of semi-feudal separate entities in
the region. In the mountainous and less fertile lands of the North, by contrast, the
Hashid and Bakil confederations are most prevailing. The diminishing role of the state
deprived these territories from the economic resource base, given that because of the
relative infertility of the land agriculture was not an available option. War,
consequently, was the new tool to extract resources for the residents of these areas. In
doing so they resorted to their tribal origins for protection. As a result, the role of
the tribal institutions was accentuated and they gained strong hold in the social
structure of the northern part of Yemen.3
The resulting tribal divisions in these
areas, and the weakness of the central state, facilitated the interference of foreign
powers and the country was divided along tribal lines. Even when Yemen was integrated in
the Islamic state starting around 615-619 AC, its remoteness and mountainous topography
provided subsequently a refuge for deviant Islamic sects and the north continued to be
shaped by constant instability and war.4
The Southern part of Yemen, during the
same period, was divided into small political entities ruled by Sultans, Sheiks, and
Princes. These rulers were actually heads of tribal confederations. However, the
semi-feudal character of the region and the balance of power between these entities
effectively weakened the individual power of the tribes and were, thus, more prone to
accept the hegemony of their leaders.5
It was against this background of political fragmentation
that the country by the mid-19th century was divided between the Ottoman empire in the
North and Great Britain in the South.
Tribes in North and South Yemen before Unification
periods of Yemen's contemporary political history may highlight the relationship between
the state and the tribes in the North of Yemen: the period before and after the 1962
watershed. The character of this relationship ranged from the state's confrontation with
the tribes to incorporation. As further discussed below, during the Mutawakiliat rule, the
state was, generally speaking, strong enough to control the tribes. Its methods in dealing
with the tribes, however, were insufficient to effectively integrate the tribes into the
political system. Only the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962 marked the
beginning of the state's embodiment of the tribes, but tribal influence enhanced political
instability of the system.
First, the Mutawakiliat Kingdom 1911-1962
The move towards independence in North
Yemen took place during the early twentieth century. Imam Yahia - a Zaydist - was able to
temporarily unify the divided tribes and took military action against the Ottoman rulers.
As a result, the Ottoman government in 1911 was forced to sign a treaty acknowledging his
sovereignty in the area. In 1918, Imam Yahia declared the creation of the Mutawakliat
kingdom - a theocratic state - but basic tribal divisions and resistance to the central
government persisted.6 Consequently, in dealing with the tribes, Imam Yahia and his successor Ahmed,
between 1918 and 1962, tried to implement a carrot and stick approach. They resorted to
this method because they needed the tribes to fight rivals to their personal power, but
they were also determined to keep the tribes weak enough so they could not become a threat
to the Imamate authority. In order to ensure the tribes' compliance, the Imams applied two
techniques, the first being the Hostage System: the Imam held the sons and brothers of
tribal leaders (Sheiks) as hostages in the capital Sana'a. If a tribe attempted to oppose
the Imam's authority, its members, held as hostages, were killed. The second technique
followed the old principle "divide and rule". The Imam undertook deliberate
efforts to create constant conflicts and wars between the tribes and played one off
against the other. The carrot was offered in the form of monthly financial stipends paid
to the Sheiks of the Hashid and Bakil confederations. In addition, tribesmen were
recruited as soldiers and were then relocated to the agricultural areas whose inhabitants
were forced to provide them with free food and shelter. Finally, as a reward for
supporting the Imam against a rival, he would allow also the supporting tribes to enter
the insurgent city for three days to loot and plunder. Such was the case in Sana'a in 1948
after an attempt by Yemeni reformers to overthrow Imam Yihia.7
Needless to say, the situation during this period was far
from stable. However, one can conclude that though the tribes were used as a means to
political ends, there were tangible boundaries that separated the institution of the state
and that of the tribes. They continued to be independent entities led by their Sheiks.
They may have joined forces with the central government, if deemed opportune or necessary,
but the fact remains that they owed their loyalties to their tribes. The state was merely
a source of economic earnings.
Second, the Yemen Arab Republic 1962-1990
In 1962, mainly because of the kingdom's
extreme isolationist policy and encouraged by Nasser in Egypt, a military coup overthrew
the Imamate regime and the Yemen Arab Republic was established. The newly born state was
by all definitions weak and remained unstable. It was surrounded by hostile neighbors who
did not appreciate its republican character, and it was torn by the ensuing breakdown of a
bloody civil war between royalists, supported by Saudi Arabia, and the republicans, aided
by Egypt. Eventually, the war ended in the late 1960s the republicans being victorious.
The major outcome of the war, however, was that the previous separation between the state
and the tribal institution no longer existed. In fact, the state became virtually an
embodiment of the tribes. During the civil war, some tribes aligned with the royalists
against the republicans while others supported the republicans against the royalists.
Again, the war was seen primarily as an opportunity for financial gains. Both Egypt and
Saudi Arabia, who had a strong political stake in this war, were more than willing to pay
the tribes, in money and weapons, to secure their support. As a result, the war continued
for years because the tribes readily switched sides for profit.8 By the
end of the war, the tribes, having large sums of money and weapons, emerged as an
economically independent social force, powerful enough to actively influence the political
Accordingly, although the central
government tried to penetrate society and to break the resistance of the tribes, it was
the tribes and their leaders who effectively penetrated the state and were overwhelmingly
represented in the bureaucracy, its army, legislative and executive bodies, and the
political system as a whole. For example, Ibrahim Al Hamdi, president of the former Yemen
Arab Republic between 1974-1977, was the first political leader who attempted to create a
modern state in Yemen. To do so, he tried to break tribal power and instill state's
sovereignty. Al Hamdi paid his efforts with his life9 and his successors never tried to follow his
lead. Thus, as Abu Ghanim contends, "the attempt to control the tribal society
through modern bureaucracy (...) led to the consolidation of tribal influence though in
modern forms."10 This situation had repercussions to the detriment of the
country's political system.
One the one hand, as mentioned before, the
influential tribes resisted any attempt to create a strong state. On the other hand,
tribal role in the political system facilitated external interference in Yemen's political
affairs. North Yemen for the last twenty years was considered by some observers a mere
satellite state of Saudi Arabia. As the most populated country on the Arabian Peninsula
and because of its strategic location at Saudi Arabia's backdoor, North Yemen was said to
play a significant role with regard to the security of the Saudi and the Gulf states'
regimes more generally. In fact, while the republican structure of its political system
was perceived a potential challenge to the conservative nature of the monarchical systems
in Riyadh and other Peninsula states, it was, at the same time, a welcome buffer to the
Marxist regime in South Yemen. The Saudis, therefore, pursued a two-dimensional policy
vis-à-vis North Yemen. On the one hand, they wanted it to be strong enough to prevent a
spread of the Marxist ideology dominant in the South. On the other hand, however, they
were utterly afraid of a strong enough neighbor to chart its own foreign policy, and thus
potentially posing a threat to Saudi Arabia. In order to achieve both goals, the Saudis
sought to make North Yemen financially dependent on Riyadh. Starting from 1971, Saudi
Arabia began what have become the two pillars of Riyadh's financial assistance to North
Yemen: The first one being an annual budgetary aid to help out the central government to
pay its functionaries and armed forces personnel; the second and more important one
consisting of side payments to the influential tribes in the country, thereby encouraging
their autonomy from the state. Hence, by virtue of their financial (and political) support
to influential individuals and tribal groups, the Saudis were able to both affect the
character of the republican government that emerged after the civil war in the 1960s and
to penetrate the decision making process in the country.11
Perhaps the most revealing element in the
tribe-state relations is that the tribes never hesitated to accept Saudi side payments.
They had a strong conviction that they were 'free' in their decisions and alliances. They
might support the Yemeni state or they might choose to have intimate relations with the
Saudis. In any case, there were no pre-determined preferences because the sense of
political obligation or allegiance to the state was not fully developed.12
3.2 South Yemen
Starting from 1839, the British colonized
the South of Yemen. Under the British rule, the role of the tribes in the political system
was different compared to that in the North. Mainly among left wing scholars exploring the
political history of the pre independent South, there was a tendency to merge the concepts
of feudalism and tribalism in a unified unit of analysis and to criticize the tribal
structure of the society claiming that it was the main source of the South's problems.13
In reality, however, this perception is
farfetched. According to Paul K. Dresch "ethnographically that is simply wrong. Those
areas that are, or were, in any way feudal are not very tribal. The tribal areas are not
feudal. What sense the equation made derived solely from the modernist assumption that
both are 'backward'."14 A clarification the tribal role in the South in my
opinion requires the differentiation between (a) Aden and the Hinterland and (b) the
social structure and the political structure of the Hinterland.
In fact, the presence of the British in
the region not only marked the formal separation of the South from the North but also the
division of the South itself into two entities: Aden - a port town and because of its
strategic position vital to the British interests - and the Hinterland which was mainly
seized by the British to create a buffer zone protecting Aden. The British focused their
attention on Aden and undertook considerable efforts to modernize the city. Physical
infrastructure and social services were provided and small industries started to emerge.
The hinterland, on the other hand, was largely ignored and its internal affairs were left
to the local rulers.15
Accordingly, in Aden the tribal role was
virtually non existent. Education, the media, and commerce facilitated the emergence of an
influential and substantial middle class. It was this segment of the society which
provided the seeds for the development of political parties and labor unions, and later
lead the opposition movement against the British occupation. The tribal role in the
Hinterland, by contrast, was more apparent, in that the social structure was based on the
tribal unit. However, the various tribes did not exercise political influence as in the
North. In fact, the Hinterland was itself divided into several Emirates and Sultanates
each of which were ruled by a Sultan or an Emir. These rulers practically owned their
region. They were feudal landlords who possessed between 70% to 80% of the fertile lands
of their territory. The inhabitants of these areas were either working as farmers for the
landlords and their families or they were owning their individual small farms. And both
were subject to the often brutal command of the ruling families. It was those Landlords
who had most of the political power which derived mainly from their feudal economic basis.16
Strong tribes did exist in certain areas
such as in Hadramawt, though their strength was enhanced considerably due to the British
policy of signing treaties with the tribal Sheiks to secure its control in the area. Thus,
"the tribes (...), in return for protection against outside attack and regular
subsidies, undertook to refrain from correspondence with foreign powers to whom they were
not to cede any territory without approval."17 In any
case, the point is that tribalism was not a significant political factor in the South nor
was the political instability in the Hinterland caused by tribalism. The wars that often
occurred between one Sultanate/Emirate and another were primarily due to the political
ambition of the rulers and their desire to expand their territory.
Yet, this perception was hardly accepted
by the Yemeni authorities after South Yemen declared independence from Britain in 1967.
Because of several factors beyond the scope of this paper, the People's Democratic
Republic of Yemen adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology, with the support of Moscow, and was
thus the only communist regime in the entire Arab World. In line with the state's
ideology, tribalism was severely condemned and was perceived as synonymous to feudalism.
As a result, "village headmen, who owned no more than anyone else, were murdered by
the state as 'feudal landlords', and in later years a person was likely to be
'disappeared' for tribalism as for other sins."18
Paradoxically, although the regime
continued to denounce tribalism in its propaganda, the political crises that often
occurred were worsened by Manatikiah, which can be described as the individual's strong
emotional bond to his birthplace (i.e. a person is more likely to be identified as coming
from Abyan or Hadramawt than by his tribal origins). The socialist regime was based on a
one party system which firmly controlled the state's affairs, but, nonetheless, the
contemporary political history of South Yemen is characterized by a whole series of
disputes among the socialist elite. Although these ideologically-founded power struggles
were the main source of sometimes armed conflicts,19 the
feuding fractions ultimately split over their home origins, thereby triggering civil wars.
This mechanism became clearly apparent in the 1986 'events' in Aden which resulted in an
estimated 13,000 civilian casualties.
As we have seen, the state in the former North and South
could not have been more different. In the South the state was ideologically oriented,
controlled by one party, and can be described as a strong state (regardless of the nature
of the methods it used to enforce its policies). Its strength was evident in its ability
to (a) disarm the tribesmen in rural areas as well as cities; (b) regulate social behavior
through strict laws and their enforcement and; (c) effectively extract resources from the
state's periphery though it was hardly able to use them competently. However, the state
was at the same time barely able to adequately penetrate the society. For although it did
regulate social behavior, it was unable to change the system of ideas and beliefs that was
underlying it. It is understandable, therefore, why whenever a conflict erupted, the
parties involved readily summoned their traditional ties of geographical origins.
In the North of Yemen, by contrast, the state's
capabilities were far more limited. The state was hardly able to maintain social control
nor to regulate or penetrate the society, let alone extracting resources from the
Tribe and the State in Unified Yemen
the stark contrast between the two political entities, president Ali Abdualh Salih of the
North and Ali Salim Al Baid of the South in 1990 moved for a quick agreement on
unification. Their hurry was: (a) a reaction to the economic crisis facing South of Yemen
after the collapse of the Soviet Union; (b) an attempt to avoid Ryiadh's efforts to
prevent Yemeni unification and (c) a way to encounter the internal opposition to the new
state led by hard-line communists in the South and religious and tribal groups backed by
Saudi in the North.20 The Country
adopted pluralism and the two major parties, the People General Congress (PGC) - a mass
organization established by Ali Salih in the early 1980s - and the Socialist party of the
south shared the power equally during a transitional period.21
However, after a short period of congenial
alliance, the relationship between the two parties started to deteriorate. The tension was
caused by the economic crisis as a result of the Yemeni stance in the Gulf War, the
clashes of the strong personalities of the president and the vice president, the
difficulties of integrating two different systems, and the unfavorable outcome of the free
parliamentary elections of 1993 for the Socialist Party. Consequently, a civil war erupted
in 1994 and Al Baid and some members of the Socialist party declared independence with the
backing of Saudi Arabia. The war ended in July of the same year with the preservation of
4.2 The Tribe-State Relations in
the Unified Yemen
How did these developments on the
political front affect the tribe-state relations? Mainly because of the surfacing tensions
between the two major parties and the rising conflict between the president and the vice
president, a breakdown of law and order was evident starting from 1991. Assassinations of
and bomb attacks aimed at members of the Socialist party, and later of the GPC, became
common as well as riots and union strikes in the streets of the major cities.23
Uncertainty clouded the atmosphere during that period in spite of the thriving democratic
practice in the media and politics. Against this background, a revival of tribal identity
combined with a "self preservation" tendency took place.
In the southern parts, tribes who were
subdued previously, started to meet again prompting the Socialist party to warn of
're-tribalization'. However, quite contrary to this claim, the underlying motive was
limited "to mediate the disputes of others and, as with the northern tribes (though
in a different setting), to preserve themselves from dangers produced by non-tribal
politics."24 There was a growing belief among Southern as well as Northern tribes alike that
the state was setting one tribe against another.25 Although this can hardly be true given the chaotic political situation in the
center, this conviction facilitated the organizing of formal tribal conferences between
1990 and 1994. The objective was to set their differences aside, and more importantly, to
emphasize the tribal identity of Yemen. "Yemen is the Tribes and the Tribes are
Yemen"26 said the slogan of one conference.
Though some may consider such statement as mere rhetoric,
in my opinion it reveals much about the question of tribalism in contemporary Yemen.
Tribesmen, and Yemeni people in general, rarely question their national identity. Being a
Yemeni is strongly entrenched in their perception of themselves. It is, perhaps, a result
of the long history of the country where its people were invariably identified as
'Yemenis', and the constant attempts of foreign powers to invade Yemen which further
solidified the belief of 'us' against 'them'. However, Yemenis find it difficult,
especially in tribal and remote areas, to accept the concept of a Sovereign State. For
them, there is no connection between their national identity and a state that claims to
represent that identity. These are two separate issues. As far as they are concerned, the
state is a mere synonym of the political elite who holds the power in Yemen to the
detriment of the country. The tribes' deeply rooted mistrust of the state's intentions and
actions received little attention of the government.
That did not mean, however, that the
tribal factor was not used in the political conflict in the center. Both the Socialist
Party and the People General Congress attempted to strengthen their position at the cost
of the other. Tribalism, from the stand point of the political elite, was a card used to
gain political leverage. The Socialist Party, for example, playing on the historical
rivalry between the Hashid and Bakil Confederation seemed to gain the support of the
Bakil's tribe. But in reality, the tribes trusted neither side. This was particularly
evident during the 1994 war where the tribes simply ignored the fighting. There was no
tribal role in the war, as Paul K. Dresch rightly asserted,27 although
the feuding parties issued several statements claiming tribal support.
This fact brings to our attention a new
dimension in the tribe-state relations. The previous situation of the state's embodiment
of tribalism, being the case in the former North, has changed more recently. The tribes,
as an institution, have only limited influence in the political decision-making process in
Yemen today, although tribal representation in the state's organizations and the political
landscape after the end of the war is still evident. In fact, the Speaker of the Yemeni
parliament is Sheik Abdullah Al Ahmer, the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, and at
the same time leader of the Islah Party - an Islamic oriented party and the partner of the
GPC in the first coalition government after the civil war of 1994. The country's
president, Ali Abdullah Salih, also belongs to the Hashid tribe; and the brothers of the
president, of the same tribal origin, control the army and the security apparatus.
Finally, the Bath Party is headed by Sheik Sinan Abu Lahum of the Bakil the tribe.
Obviously, the tribe is represented in the state's apparatus. However, this seeming
contradiction is resolved once we realize that we are facing a situation of 'strong men'
control in Yemen. Using the words of Dresch " a small class emerged (some of tribal
background, some not) whose interests became distinct from those of their immediate
neighbors. The distinction between those in power (the state, roughly speaking) and
society at large arose within a previously quite integrated setting."28 Accordingly, a
strong sense of alienation of the tribesmen from their tribal leaders is apparent. For
example, starting from 1990, Sheik Abdullah Al Ahmer was the target of mounting resentment
within Hashid, where he was blamed for "his men's misfortunes."29 Regardless of whether this is true or not,
the point is that influential tribal leaders no longer represent their tribes. This does
not indicate the termination of patronage relations. The tradition is still apparent in
Yemeni politics, but power and political influence is exercised by few strongmen only.
Conclusion: Contemporary Implication of Tribe-State Relations
As this essay has
tried to show, the general assumption that a tribal based society is synonymous with
political instability can only be confirmed for part of Yemen's more recent past and even
then the picture is actually more complex. During the ancient period, the tribal base of
the society was in fact a positive factor that enhanced the state's ability to control its
territory. A possible explanation of this situation is that the tribal institution was
integrated in the structural body of the state. The Yemeni kingdoms accepted the tribal
nature of the social structure and devised a method of control that accommodated
tribalism. However, after the collapse of the central state, the consolidation of the
tribal role as a source of political instability evolved mainly due to economic reasons.
As mentioned before, the presence and absence of fertile lands respectively was the
determinant for a strong tribal influence in the North and for a comparatively weak one in
If we move to the
situation in contemporary Yemen, the tribe-state relations is characterized by two
elements: a tribal perception that separates national identity from the concept of a
sovereign state; and an alienation of tribesmen from their tribal leaders who exercise
political power in the center. Both elements reflect a situation where the tribes and the
state are disengaged and function in separate spheres: the state in the center and the
tribes in the periphery. This situation emphasizes the core of Yemen's political dilemma.
Unlike what many might think, the critical task facing Yemen is not nation-building. By
accepting Walker Connor's definition of a nation as "a psychological bond that joins
a people and differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all
other people in a most vital way"30, Yemen stands as an example of a nation. Yemeni people,
including tribesmen, have hardly any doubt about their national identity. However, when
tribesmen state proudly that they are Yemenis, the question that follows is which Yemen
are they talking about? What seems clear is that they are not referring to the state. In
my opinion, this perception pertains to the very heart of the problems that the country
faces on the political front: state-building. In fact, by all the differences of the
former Y.A.R and P.D.R.Y, neither was able to integrate the tribes in the political system
in a manner that generates their acceptance of a sovereign state. Hence, state-building
would be the way to solve this problem. It would require the creation of a strong state,
meaning the building of strong institutions and the ability to enforce law and order. At
the same time, it would also demand persistent efforts from the state to create bridges of
trust that can dissolve the widespread tribal animosity towards the state, thereby
connecting the tribesmen to the center. No doubt that to succeed in this is an
extraordinary challenge, but only if it is attained, a nation-state of Yemen will be born.
© Copyright Elham
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11 Gause, Gregory F., Saudi-Yemeni
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13 See for example Al Massry, Ahmed; Attiah, op,
cit., p. 15-16;
14 Dresch, Paul K., op, cit., p. 37.
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17 The Middle East and North Africa, op,
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18 Dresch, Paul K., op, cit., p. 37.
19 Al Sarraf, Ali, South Yemen: From
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21 For more information see Manea, Elham,
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22 For more information see Wyllie,
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23 The Middle East and North Africa, op,
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24 Dresch, Paul K., op, cit., pp. 37-38.
25 Ibid., 45.
26 Quoted in, Dresch, Paul K, Ibid., p.
27 Ibid., p. 33; p. 36.
28 Ibid., p. 38.
29 Ibid., p. 40.
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