North Africa, West Asia

Pain, torture and alienation

Due to Egypt’s dire political and economic situation, pain and alienation are bound to be a feature of the lives of many for years to come.

Maged Mandour
20 September 2017
AA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

July 26, 2013. Anti-coup demonstrators at Rabaa Al-Adaweya square. AA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Human Rights Watch recently published a report exposing the use of “systematic torture” by Egyptian security forces. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of sexual violence, electric shocks and stress positions. Sadly, the report confirms what is already common knowledge amongst the vast majority of Egyptians.

What is novel in this report is that it affirms the use of torture as a matter of deliberate state policy, and that these wide spread abuses by security forces are condoned by President Sisi. Soon after the report was published, Human Rights Watch joined the list of websites blocked in Egypt, which now exceed 400 sites. 

Prisons in Egypt now host an estimated 60,000 political prisoners. It appears the regime plans to maintain or increase this number, as thirteen new prisons are currently being constructed to host what the NY Times dubbed “Generation Jail”.

It is not only the number of the political prisoners that is worth attention, but also the harsh conditions in which they are kept. The most notable example is the notorious “Scorpion Prison”, where a number of harrowing abuses have been recorded by HRW. Moreover, the phenomena of enforced disappearances, accompanied by torture and sham trials, seem to be picking up pace rather than receding, with hundreds of documented cases.  

There are reasons for the regime to have chosen such horrendous practices in such a wide spread fashion, obvious ones are the use of fear and intimidation as tools for political control. However, there are deeper motives in place that can be ascertained by profiling those targeted.

In many cases the victims appear to be regular citizens with no obvious political affiliations, not posing a threat to the regime. The question that arises is why the regime follows such a costly, deliberate policy, exposing itself to international as well as domestic criticism.

an increase in the use of torture and state violence as the crisis of the regime deepens

In order to gain deeper insight, a more holistic investigation into the use of state violence, rather than the infliction of physical pain on the body of the victim, is needed.

The torturer plays a crucial role; his actions have an extreme effect on victims as well as society at large. These acts are a manifestation of the power of the state; pain is inflicted on whoever it chooses and in the manner it chooses. There are no legal or moral protections for the citizen from the powerful elites and security apparatus.

Under these conditions, it is only normal for a sense of helplessness as well as social alienation to develop amongst all levels of society. This sense of alienation is crucial for the stability the regime so strongly craves as it creates apathy amongst its citizenry.

This need to display power, in this case on the body of its victims, has increased as the social base of the ruling elites decomposes. Thus, one can predict an increase in the use of torture and state violence as the crisis of the regime deepens.

The use of torture and political violence is not only to instill fear, stamp out dissent or to solicit information, it is a tool for social control and the creation of the necessary conditions for the propagation of dictatorship and autocracy.

In the words of George Orwell from his great novel “1984”:

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

The creation of these social conditions is crucial for the survival of the dictatorship, and state violence and torture are the tools used.

These social conditions are not limited to the victims of violence, but also to those that inflict it, and in the wider societal sense, those who support it, creating two irreconcilable halves of “us” and “them”.

This trend manifested itself before the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa and El-Nahda squares, after the coup of 2013, when Sisi called for mass protests to show popular support for his war on “terrorism.”

This did not only polarize the political system, but also created a sense of alienation between the supporters of the military, anchored in the urban middle class, and a large mass of the population that has clear Islamist sympathies or leanings.

As the level of torture and state violence continues to rise and the supporters of the regime continue their justification or outright support for these practices, their sense of alienation will only increase as they throw their lot with a regime that some of its most ardent supporters admit, is deeply flawed.

Violence is being used to create a sense of alienation between different social groups as the regime cements its support base, posing as their only salvation from a hostile society filled with dark forces.

This sense of alienation is the base by which the regime is able to anchor itself. Ironically, the violence that has created this sense of alienation is perceived as the only protector against social abyss.  

The security apparatus

Members of the security apparatus suffered a massive humiliation in 2011 with the mass protests that erupted and resulted in a large number of police stations burnt to the ground.

For them, the use of torture does not only act to create cohesion between the different members of the security apparatus, as they all participate in these crimes, it also acts to re-impose their primacy and social prestige among the populace at large, serving as reminder of their power and ability to flout the law.

This creates a barrier and alienates them from the rest of society, as they form a caste based on the practice of horrendous levels of violence. Torture is used to create a new sense of reality for them, separating them from society and ensuring their loyalty to the regime.

As such, the use of violence is an integral component of the regime’s policy, not only for achieving political stability or crushing dissent, but creating the social conditions necessary for its survival.

Due to Egypt’s dire political as well as economic situation, pain and alienation are bound to be a feature of the lives of many for years to come.                                      

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