North Africa, West Asia

Pain and torture: state violence in Egypt

The root of state violence and torture is not poor police training, nor a political decision that can be reversed, it is the nature of the regime and the political order it has created.

Maged Mandour
5 January 2017
Arabic on the banner reads, "remove our shackles." Cairo. 3 May 2016.

Arabic on the banner reads, "remove our shackles." Cairo. 3 May 2016. Nariman El-Mofty/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.After the coup of 2013, the practice of torture in Egypt has taken a qualitative shift to the worse.

The use of torture and violence by the police is nothing new to Egypt; to the contrary, Mubarak was regularly condemned by various international human rights organizations for the use of torture and violence against political opponents and regular citizens who were unlucky enough to be arrested for petty crimes.

However, after the coup of 2013 and the inauguration of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, this practice has taken new forms. There has been a proliferation of sexual violence against detainees including children, as well as an alarming increase in forced disappearances and torture.

Some of the kidnapped reappear after a few months, others meet an unknown fate. The most prominent, and international example was the murder of Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge PhD student who was tortured to death and subjected to “animal like” violence for conducting research on the Egyptian labor movement. It is believed that the Egyptian security services were behind this heinous crime.

This rampant use of torture has proven to be a political liability for the regime when compared to the use of a more targeted form that would achieve similar results. For example, most of the victims of forced disappearances are unknown activists, even non-political private citizens, or children as young as 14, who just happen to attract the attention of the security apparatus. Others are arrested randomly as part of a general security sweep. Even a simple Facebook post could land you in the crossfires.

One only wonders what the security services hoped to achieve with the torture of Regeni, a registered research scholar whose death sparked a diplomatic crisis with one of the regime’s closest European allies.

What is the logic of torture in Egypt? What is the rationale used to sanction such activity?

Some might argue, correctly in part, that the use of random torture is an effective tool to spread terror among the populace, thus cowing them into submission. However, this logic does not really stand up to scrutiny.

Upon closer examination, one could argue that this logic is counter-productive. During a short burst of mass repression, the use of random arrests and torture could act as a deterrent against political opposition. However, if this becomes the modus operandi of the security state, it loses its effect for the simple reason that it equates political opponents and apolitical citizens, even supporters of the regime.

As such, the price of engaging in political opposition becomes equal to the price of non-participation, thus creating an incentive for participation since the likelihood of arrest and torture are relatively close.

Thus the random nature of this type of violence is counter-productive. Additionally, the increased brutality of torture methods, for example the use of sexual violence, will only act to alienate the citizenry, even those that would have been supporters of the regime.

Another argument is that torture is used to extract confessions and information about armed groups, which is then used by the security apparatus to disrupt their operations. However, the random nature of torture counters this argument as it is not reserved for those suspected of affiliation with terror groups. It is inflicted on the mass of the citizenry, some of which are later falsely accused on trumped up charges of belonging to terror organizations. This occurs on a regular basis, especially in cases of forced disappearances.

Thus, the use of random torture seems to be irrational even counter-productive. However, upon closer examination, there may be an explanation for this type of state violence.

The exercise of power

First, the use of political violence is the only feasible way for the regime to show and exercise power, due to the breakdown of hegemony within the Egyptian polity and the inability of the regime to build a clear and coherent ideological framework to exercise control.

As the regime becomes unable to exercise power over the minds of the citizenry, it moves to the use of violence over their bodies. Thus, the act of inflicting pain and the battered body of the torture victim become symbols of state power.

As such, the use of torture is not simply a rational act to get information or confessions, it is a political act, closely knit in the ritual of power. The failure of the regime to build its ideological hegemony, even though it attempted to revive some aspects of Nasserism, can be attributed to the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions as well as regime policies which are contradicting its discourse.

The most notable example is the transfer of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia; a move that will destroy the regime’s credibility as a nationalist regime that claims to safeguard national integrity and unity.                        

It is interesting to note that the worst excesses of torture have been inflicted on the least valuable prisoners, as opposed to the more prominent ones, such as those belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood or secular activists. These prominent figures were neither forced to recant any ideological beliefs, to sign confessions of treason, nor were they forced to confess any crimes.

For example, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent secular activist was beaten, however in Egyptian police ‘standards’, this was considered to be ‘light’ treatment.  One only needs to compare his case with that of Magdy Makeen, who was arrested following a minor traffic dispute with a police officer, only to die in custody due to horrific torture.  

This provides a stark contrast to other cases, most notably during the early years of the Islamic Republic in Iran, where prominent opposition figures, most notably from the left and the communist movement were forced to recant past beliefs and to confess to a myriad of crimes, including espionage and treason.

This stems from the ideological nature of the Islamic Republic, which hoped not only to suppress opposition, but also to prove its ideological superiority over those of other competing ideologies. This is very well argued in the study conducted by Ervand Abrahamian.

Compared to Egypt, torture was not used to solicit such confessions for the simple reason that, unlike the Islamic Republic, the Egyptian regime does not have a coherent ideology nor does it have an ideological opposition, as I have argued elsewhere, as such the value of these confessions becomes minimal.

Binding the coercive apparatuses of the state

The second rationale for the use of this type of torture is the binding of the coercive apparatuses of the state in a manner that ensures cohesion against the opposition.

This process occurs at the institutional as well as the individual levels. The routine use of state sanctioned violence, where the different coercive apparatuses of the state are involved – such as the police, military, and judiciary – act to ensure unity and cohesion, since any change in the regime would be followed by calls for prosecution and retribution.

The routine use of torture also acts to weed out any individual in these apparatuses who is not fully committed to the regime, ensuring the full loyalty of its members, which creates an intense sense of loyalty and solidarity at the individual as well as institutional level.

Thus, one can argue that the rampant use of torture in Egypt is closely tied to the nature of the regime in power and will not subside over the coming years. To the contrary, as the regime becomes less hegemonic, relying more on force, the use of torture is likely to increase as time passes.

The root of state violence and torture is not poor police training, nor a political decision that can be reversed, it is rather the nature of the regime and the political order that it has created. 

Based on this, it becomes clear that the use of torture will be part of the lives of Egyptians for years to come unless there is a fundamental political change that will create a truly hegemonic political order based on consent.

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