North Africa, West Asia

The tentacles of autocratic regimes: the case of Egypt

The process of repression is outsourced to the citizenry who indirectly secure absolute power for the regime. It is a vicious cycle with the masses being both the victims as well as beneficiaries of repression. 

Maged Mandour
18 January 2018
El-Geziry Fayed/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Streets of Old Cairo. March 2016. El-Geziry Fayed/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Autocracies, to maintain their hold on power, rely on heavy doses of repression. Their power appears to be heavily centralized in the upper echelons of the social order, however, the reality is much more complex.

Autocracies mould their masses, who are both the victims of repression and its beneficiaries. Beneficiaries in the sense of “smaller” autocrats also repressing those below them in the social order. As such, repression is decentralised, creating fertile ground for ‘societal repression’, the main victims of which are those on the margins and the weaker segments of society such as minorities, women and the poor.

This repression is recreated at all levels of society as well as in a number of situations at schools, the work place, and even within families and homes. With a state policy that condones this form of repression, a society with extremely limited margins of freedom is created in both the public and the private spheres, with the burden lessening as one moves up the social ladder.

Inequality is accepted as a natural condition, as those on the social margins are dehumanized, repressed and violated. This is an essential method for the preservation and the propagation of an autocratic system. 

Autocracy in the classroom

When one looks at Egypt and the lineage of repression, which I have personally experienced, one can only see that repression penetrates all layers of society. A simple example is that of the school system, and the levels of violence children of the lower classes are exposed to.

In 2015 a child died due to injuries sustained from a beating by a schoolteacher. Another prominent case was in 2014, where the manager of an orphanage was sentenced to three years in prison after footage surfaced of him savagely beating orphans in his care.

This extreme violence against children is endemic in Egypt’s schools, specifically in lower class areas. It pre-dates the rise of the neo-military regime currently ruling the country.

The Minster of Education under Mubarak, Ahmed Zaki Badr, stated that banning corporal punishment in schools would leave teachers vulnerable. Thus, this violence against students is condoned by the state.

Interestingly, as a member of the middle class and the product of a private school system, I was spared the physical violence and repression in the classroom that the children of the poor experience.

The weight of repression increases on the poor and the vulnerable, which is interestingly also practiced by those who are suffering the most. One only needs to remember that the average Egyptian teacher is economically marginalized and underpaid, as protests exposed in 2015.

Thus, the autocracy was able to recreate a miniature dictatorship in the classroom, primarily directed against the lower classes with the aim of implanting obedience and discipline in the minds of the poor, who have no recourse of protection against these practices.

This is accompanied by the constant ideological indoctrination of the importance of obedience, the need for conformity, and the stifling of any forms of creative thought. For example, there is considerable emphasis on the memorisation of information rather than the development of analytical skills. Any deviation from the textbook is considered incorrect.

Autocracy on the streets

The classroom is not the only place where autocracy has recreated itself, it has also done so on the streets of the Cairo, mostly notably with homeless street children.

These children, who are estimated to be around 600,000 in the city of Cairo alone, are subjected to harrowing levels of sexual violence and abuse. They are not offered any form of legal protection nor social assistance.

The level of violence only came to public attention when the bodies of a number of street children appeared in 2006 and subsequently a gang of six individuals were arrested who were supposedly responsible for the murder, rape and torture of a number of children.

This case quickly quietened down with no notable response from the government nor a change in the public perception of street children.

The autocracy, once again, created the space for repression, where the most vulnerable in society are being preyed upon by the more powerful, decentralizing repression and violence to the periphery and violating the basic social contract of the Leviathan, as defined by Thomas Hobbes.

The lives of these children are not valued, not just by the government, but by more powerful segments in society. This manifested itself in the call made by an Egyptian writer, who called for the killing of these children as a solution to the problem.          

Autocracy and women

Another social group that has been subjected to widespread abuse and repression are women. From domestic violence, to sexual abuse and mob violence, especially during the period of the mass protests that rocked Egypt between 2011 and 2013.

A UN survey stated that 99.3 percent of its respondents said they were subjected to sexual harassment, either verbally or physically. In another survey, conducted in 2005, one third of women reported having been abused by their husbands, with seven percent claiming that they were beaten “often.”

This dire situation is complicated by state policies that offer no protection for women. On the contrary, they condone this form of violence by creating hurdles for the survivors of domestic and sexualised violence.

Based on eyewitness accounts, members of the security forces are very reluctant to take action when a woman reports a case of sexual harassment, and members of the public even attempt to dissuade her from reporting the incident.

As for domestic violence, Egyptian law places a number of obstacles for women who wish to report cases of abuse. This, combined with cumbersome divorce laws, women are more often than not forced to remain silent and in abusive relationships.

Women are a marginalized group that is an easy target for “societal repression” by men, who are also repressed by more powerful men, creating a reinforcing cycle of violence and repression.  

Autocracy is also recreated in the home. The man, who is repressed outside the home takes up the mantle of the autocrat within the family structure, dispensing violence and repression as he sees fit with little social or legal protection given to the woman or children.

Once again, the regime creates the space for the recreation of autocracy at the level of the family, with the male head of the house acting as the local autocrat. The brunt of this is being dealt to women from the poorer classes. Social norms provide a semblance of protection for middle and upper-class women, even though they are not immune from such abuses.

A plethora of autocracies

Based on the above it becomes clear that an autocratic regime does not simply have one autocrat, it has a multitude of dictators spread across all aspects of daily life.

The autocratic regime creates the conditions that allow for the abuse of power and outsources the process of repression to its citizenry. This repression ensures the stability of the regime, as it allows its victims to repress others even though they themselves are repressed. The end result is absolute power.

This also helps to create anti-democratic tendencies as mini-autocrats would not want to lose the power they have over their victims, who in the case of the existence of a democratic order would have both legal and social protections against such abuse.

This constant violence and repression allows for the brutalization and de-humanization of the citizenry, and creates the necessary social conditions for the social production of autocracy.

It negates the ideas of equality and freedom, and entrenches the notion of natural inequality as the basis of social order. Prime example being the superiority of men over women.

Without these social conditions the autocracy would not be able to survive. In order for one autocrat to rule, the tentacles of repression have to reach all echelons of society.

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