North Africa, West Asia

On the spectacle of violence

Maged Mandour

Violence and repression are becoming more severe, and are symptomatic of the failure of Arab leaders to build a hegemonic vision they can use to control the citizenry. 

Maged Mandour
2 May 2016

AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.Since the eruption of the Arab revolt, the Arab world has been gripped with unprecedented levels of violence.

With 320,000 dead in Syria as well as the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the massacres in Cairo, the Arab world has been witnessing a period of intense barbaric violence that has mainly been perpetuated by state or quasi-state actors. The spectacular nature of this violence demands attention.

In certain cases, it seems that violence is perpetuated for its own sake, not serving a higher political goal. Violence in the Arab world has turned into a spectacle, almost a show between those who inflict the violence and those who witness it.

For example, in 2011 in Syria a 13-year old boy by the name of Hamaz El Khatib was tortured to death. The torture was extremely gruesome. It included cigarette burns, electrocution and mutilated genitals. This led to an increase in protests in the city of Daraa, exposing the political folly of such an action and turning the boy into a symbol for early civil resistance. The regime, however, continued to use spectacular methods of torture and violence, including barrel bombs, which led to the death of thousands of people.

In Egypt, after the massacre of almost 1000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in broad daylight, the regime embarked on a campaign of terror of which the latest victim was the Italian PhD scholar Giulio Regeni. The mutilated body of Regeni was found in the desert carrying marks that indicate that he had been tortured for a week, for 10 to 14 hours per day.

Arguably, the most theatrical forms of violence are perpetuated by ISIS. They have conducted a number of public beheadings and crucifixions, not to mention other acts of cruelty such as sexual slavery and mass executions.

Violence under autocracy is part of daily life in the region, as torture and violence continue to be perpetuated on a large segment of the citizenry. One only needs to remember Khaled Saeed, who in 2010 was brutally beaten to death by two petty security officials in the middleclass area of Cleopatra, in Alexandria, Egypt.

However, the locus of state violence has moved away from the goal of regulating society towards extracting ‘revenge’ on the body of those in opposition in a display of the wrath of the sovereign. Previously there was a consistent logic of repression, where the citizenry was aware of the red lines it could not cross and the repercussions that would ensue if it did.

During the Mubarak era in Egypt, for example, opposition movements were accepted as long as they operated within these clearly defined red lines, the most important of which was not to attack the head of the state. This allowed many opposition movements to survive under the gaze of the state, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, which acted as a domesticated opposition, abiding by the rules of the game and avoiding direct confrontation.

For example, as long as the Muslim Brotherhood did not attack the regime directly, they were allowed to participate in parliamentary elections and make massive inroads into civil society. Additionally, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, even though the organisation was "officially" banned, seemed safe from arrest; another sign of the implicit understanding between the state and the Brotherhood and the limits of repression. However, if red lines were crossed, repression was quick to follow. In the case of Al-Azhar students demonstrating in "militia-style" outfits in 2006, for example, the regime was quick to arrest them and put them on military trial. They received hefty prison sentences.

This was also evident in Syria even though the Baath regime was a lot less tolerant to the opposition. The clearest example was that of the Damascus Spring in 2000. After the death of Hafez El Assad a number of Syrian intellectuals called for regime reform and the establishment of a multi-party system. The movement was tolerated until 2001, then it was crushed by the regime and all its members arrested.

However, state violence is rampant now, operating on a random basis and the citizenry are no longer aware of the red lines.

via GIPHY. Random arrest of passerby in Egypt.

Repression has exceeded its regulatory function and is driven by a desire for the display of power. It now includes apolitical individuals innocent in the eyes of the regime or even regime supporters. For example Fatima Naout, an Egyptian intellectual who supports Sisi, was sentenced to three years for contempt of religion.

Thus, the old logic of repression that aimed at changing the opinions of the citizenry through the creation of a clear and direct connection between the act and punishment has all but dissolved. Now punishment has moved to focus on the display of power – on the body of the condemned.

This method of bodily violence is also clear in the case of Syria. Both the regime and ISIS have embarked on this technique of repression. This is made clear by the methods of warfare employed, which involve the use of indiscriminate heavy weaponry in opposition areas, the most brutal of which is the barrel bomb.

This deliberate targeting of civilians displays a pattern; no offence against the regime need be established, merely residing in an opposition-held area is enough to be targeted and made an example of. One can assume that in many of these areas, locals have ambivalent feelings about the opposition, especially if they reside in ISIS held territories. However, this is not taken into account by the Syrian regime. It follows a logic of 'guilt by association', where everybody is targeted by the most brutal weapons of war.

Another example is the systematic use of torture until death against thousands of Syrians; an additional display of state power on the bodies of citizens.

Based on this, it is highly likely that the regime has murdered, tortured and imprisoned many of its own supporters, since its primary aim is not to regulate society, but rather display its power and take 'revenge' on the bodies of the citizenry who may not have even posed a threat.

ISIS uses this method of spectacular violence extensively with similar aims to those of Arab autocrats. From public beheading to crucifixion and sex slavery, ISIS is copying the methods of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes as it claims the title of “sovereign” in the areas it controls. It uses similar primitive means not only to build fear in the hearts of the citizenry, but as a method of establishing and displaying power.

ISIS has relied on this form extreme violence from the start seeing that it failed to create a mass support base beyond its core followers. Thus, a strategy of shock and awe became necessary to ensure political control. The use of public torture to punish minor social infractions, for example, is not only used to plant fear, but also to display their power as sovereign in the areas they control.

This increase in the use of extreme violence can be attributed to the failure of the different wielders of power to spread ideological hegemony, where their power would be manifest on the minds rather than bodies of their subjects. Instead we see non-hegemonic order based on force rather than consent.

This is clarified in the below quote by Joseph Marie Servan de Gerbey, a French revolutionary general:

“A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas. It is at the stable point of reason that he secures the end of the chain; this link is all the stronger in that we do not know of how it is made and we believe it to be our own work. Despair and time eat away the bonds of iron and steel, but they are powerless against the habitual union of ideas, they can only tighten it still more, and on the soft fibres of the brain is founded the unshakable base of the soundest of empires.”

The use of extreme violence by different actors in the Arab world is due to their failures to create these durable bonds of servitude, namely the power to dominate the mind of the citizenry. As such, the only way for the sovereign, or in some cases the ‘would be’ sovereign, to establish power is through violence on the body of his subjects. Thus, repression becomes more severe with the goal of displaying power rather than directing social behavior.

This pattern of repression is a symptom of the nature of Arab political order, where the different political actors have failed to build a hegemonic vision they can use to control the citizenry. As the chains of the mind dissolve, the chains of steel replace them as the only possible way to subdue the citizenry. But as time passes, these chains are bound to dissolve as well, breaking the power of the despots once and for all.

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